A Note From Noah

This past Monday, our teaching staff spent the day in a peculiar fashion: downtown, and without children. It was a rich day of learning and growth for our whole staff. I know how much of a burden the day places on our families, re-arranging coverage and schedules to allow our teachers to have this opportunity. I wanted to share with you some reflections on the day.

Our day started in Battery Park, sharing personal reactions to the four “framing concepts” for our day together: immigration, Jewish identity, social justice, and America.

Our staff shared their own immigration stories, which included memories or family stories of boats, planes, being born on Ellis Island, forged documents, Castro and Cuba, and entering a new country with no English. Turning to Jewish identity, we heard our staff’s childhood memories of being made to be ashamed at being Jewish, being asked where the scars are from when your horns were removed, being called cheap, and prior students being shocked to realize their teacher was Jewish. Moving on to social justice, one of our teachers remarked, “What we see in the classroom is a microscopic version of what we see in America right now – what is fair, who decides what is fair, empathy and kindness and where it is lacking.” Our teachers spoke about being tolerant to different ideas, and using education and knowledge to purse social justice. Ending with America, our teachers discussed how many are so appalled at what they hear in our country so they stop listening – but that what we need to do is keep listening and try to understand how different people think and what different people are afraid of.

After this framing conversation, we split into three groups for a guided tour of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The tour was called “Love Thy Neighbor” and focused on the Holocaust through an immigration lens. Certain moments were particularly poignant for us as contemporary educators. We watched video testimony from German Jews that, “A Jew was not allowed to teach; a Jew was not allowed to learn.” We saw a copy of Mariane Rosenbaum’s 1938 report card; the first three quarters were initialed by her father, yet the last quarter was initialed by her mother – Kristallnacht had claimed her father. We heard about “the importance of warning signs” as pre-war Germany “nurtured a climate of fear in which dissent equaled loyalty.” Our teachers spoke about the importance of dissent in our classrooms and also among our staff. We saw a propaganda poster for a pro-Nazi rally held right here in Madison Square Garden in 1939, attended by 20,000 people; we remarked how just the night before many of us watched the Grammys held at MSG.  Moving to the top floor of the museum to conclude the tour, the tone changes to hope and legacy. We heard Bob Dylan sing Times They Are A Changing, we saw the Statue of Liberty framed through the window of the museum, and we saw the legacy of Jews working towards social justice. This was displayed through images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma with Dr King, and images of Save Darfur rallies, accompanied by text explaining that the Jewish response to Darfur “took a leading role in funding relief programs in camps.” Out of the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews emerged as always, fighting for justice

Taking those experiences with us, we then moved to the Tenement Museum, where we were fortunate to view a brand new exhibit called “Under One Roof”, which just opened last month. Split in two guided tour groups, we heard about “racially-based exclusion policies” and immigration quotas. The tour walked us through the curated apartments of three generations of immigrants to the same building: the Jewish Epsteins in the 1950s (Holocaust survivors); the Puerto Rican Saez-Velez family in the 1960s; and the Chinese Wong family in the 1970s. We heard about the “bridges of experience” between these immigrant families in NYC, and how the children in each family described “the strength of our mother.” In Bella Epstein’s childhood room, we saw how her childhood was expressed in material culture, not unlike our own children’s bedrooms: crayons and scissors on her desk, Snow White and other fairy tales on her bookshelf, a doll on her bed, a map of the country on the wall. Bella confronted her experiences of anti-Semitism and xenophobia by embracing her American identity and learning new pop songs. Her home had Shabbat candlesticks in the kitchen right next to a JNF tzedakah box, reminding me visually of my own childhood. All of the children we learned about attended PS 42, the local public school. We heard about “education lifting barriers but also reminding us of them”. The exhibit concludes with a picture taken recently of the living members of all three families, on the sidewalk in front of their former apartment building (now the museum). It was a remarkable image loaded with the power of history and imploring us to learn from that history.

We wrapped our day, standing on the cold sidewalk, asking our teachers to see their classrooms and their students as “history-in-the-making.” We spoke about how every interaction we have in our community builds what will become our own history. We ended our day with a question: What do you want your history to be? What stories will history tell of your classroom, your teaching practice, your students?

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

We are not after the right answer, the accurate response, or the correct formulation.

Surprising?

We are after intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and a growth mindset.

You may hear our classroom teachers respond to children’s statements – accurate as well as inaccurate – with neutral statements such as, “I’m so interested in that – can you tell me more?”, or, “I wonder why you think that”, or even, quite simply, “Hmm…”

Why is that? Why do we shy away from confirming a child’s answer or idea as correct or incorrect? Why don’t we jump and simply say “Yes” or “Not quite”?

We believe that confirming either way will lead to what Peter Johnston refers to as “premature cognitive commitment” which “locks people into a particular version of information or reality.” We arrive at these premature commitments “when the context suggests that it is not necessary to reexamine the information, such as when an authority presents it.” And that’s just it – we want our children to always be examining, and re-examining, the information and the world in front of them.

Earlier this week I asked a parent in the school how her elementary-aged son is doing. She marveled at a recent remark of his – while playing a game with 31 playing pieces, the question was asked, “Why are there 31 pieces?”, and the boy replied, “It’s an odd number, so if two people are playing it can’t be a tie.” The mother built on his response and said, “And it’s not a multiple of three, so if three people were playing it couldn’t be a tie either.” The boy, with the flexible mind of a child, responded, “No mom, it could be 11-11-9.” As adults with fixed commitments to facts, we often forget to re-examine!

When we move away from seeing adults as omniscient-authorities, children show us the value of re-examining information and reality in order to come to multiple conclusions. In Classroom 3 last year, I was privileged to listen in on the following conversation (some of you heard this on your Admissions Tour last winter):

Teacher: Today is the first day of Fall
Student 1: I know what happens in Fall! The leaves fall down and then turn colors.
Student 2: I know what happens in Fall! The leaves turn color and then fall down.
Student 3: (holding up a finger to rebut the previous statements) I’m not sure yet, cause it’s just the first day. I’ll come back tomorrow and tell you.

It is this skepticism that fuels our intellectual curiosity, the proclivity to never settle for an answer until we’ve turned the question upside down and inside out. Only then do we feel that we can prove to ourselves the veracity of our own statement. Think of this as a journalist triple-checking her sources rather than settling for a rumor. Why should I believe this is true? What else might be at play here? How else can we consider the information in front of us?

The hard part as parents is that we are so PROUD of our children and burst with pleasure when they show us their new-found knowledge, which happens at a breath-taking pace during these nursery years. And we should be proud – but we should also be careful to praise their effort and their thinking, instead of, or not only, their accuracy.

The other day, Jonah came home from school and shared, “Dad, I know that five plus five is ten.” I had never heard him say something like this before! And since Jonah is stuck with an educator as a dad, I shot back, “What does that mean?” He was taken aback and stumbled of course, but it led to a rich conversation about numbers, taking out some blocks and moving them around in different piles, exploring what his statement meant – but not the accuracy of it.

There are some great resources for this:

--This sheet from the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning lists great, clear questions to be asking your children that encourage them to be critical thinkers, focusing on their thought process and not their answers.

--This blog post on Edutopia has five fantastic, easy-to-remember questions to ask your child. These are all questions that your children hear from their JCC teachers on a daily basis.

--“The Virtues of Not Knowing”: I’ve excerpted four very rich pages from Eleanor Duckworth’s book, which examine the values of surprise, puzzlement, and struggle, in contrast to the “right” answer. (Buy this book and read it! She is a disciple of Jean Piaget and has taught at Harvard Graduate School of Education for decades. This book is a phenomenal exploration of how minds generate knowledge, and has been truly instrumental to my own development as an educator)

--Growth mindset: Carol Dweck introduced the phrase “growth mindset” to refer to the notion that intellect and smarts are earned, not given – that our minds can “grow” if we see intelligence as dynamic rather than fixed.  Check out a good video by Dweck here, her book here, and Peter Johnston’s excellent two-page summary here. The book covers diverse contexts such as parenting, business, and relationships; Johnston’s summary is an excellent, super-succinct reference guide and deals with classroom settings.

--I would also guide you towards two previous Notes I’ve written around this topic: Respecting Divergent Thinking, and We Are Not Interested In The Right Answer.

I would love to hear your feedback on this topic. How do you work through question-and-answer sessions with your child? Where do you see the value of a correct answer, and the process that got your child there? Are you uncomfortable not showing your child where they are inaccurate? What do you do to encourage your child to think critically?

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

Please join us Thursday, February 15th, 6:00-7:00PM for an evening of learning together with your teachers and fellow parents. I hope to see you there; please RSVP here.
 
That evening, you are invited to think and learn with your teachers as they share with you their year-long study, through our “Peer Learning Cycle,” which has revolved around the question, What does social justice look like through the eyes and voices of young children? Our intention with this question is to learn from the children how social justice is felt in their world, in their peer culture – how child-notions of social justice reverberate through their play, thoughts, and conversations.
 
Very often, we adults remain mired in the omniscient role we create for ourselves, and see scenarios such as conflict and inequality as teachable moments for our children – who we of course so desperately want to grow up to be fair and kind, generous and compassionate. We think deeply about just the right way to talk to our children about homelessness; we make sure they share their toys because it is the right thing to do; we remind them to be grateful for what they have and tell them how happy it will make other children if we donate toys and books to those who need them.
 
Yet, in that role (which is all well and good!), we all too often forget to pause and listen to our children, to learn from them what they already know and think about these topics. Pausing and listening, learning from your children, is what the Peer Learning Cycle has asked our teachers to do this year. On February 15th, they will be sharing with you the context of their conversations this year, and invite you to join those conversations. The evening will not be a polished, shiny presentation with ready-made answers and take-homeable strategies. The evening is designed for you to engage in thinking about this topic with us, and to make transparent our own exploration of your children’s perspective on notions such as fairness, equity, and justice. We do not have answers, we simply have thoughts; we would like to share them with you and ask that you come ready to share your thoughts as well.
 
We are, to be honest, a bit nervous about this. This is a new format of evening for us, asking you to join our conversation rather than present to you our work. Likewise, as trained teachers, it is always a funny feeling to not be exploring how to teach children but rather be studying how to learn from them. To that end, I wanted to share a few quotes from our teachers to get you in our mindset:
 
This pushes us to have different perspectives on our children, it really makes us think deeply.
 
It asks a lot of parents to think like this – think critically about the children – it’s not a typical way for parents to think about their children.
 
We’re trained to be product-based but this there is nothing to “show” – there’s no final product.
 
I hope to see you here on February 15th to join the conversation, think critically, and find different perspectives on your children.  Please make sure to RSVP here. (Our teachers have been doing this work in pods of two teaching teams; your conversation on 15th will be with your classroom teachers and their “pod-mates” along with parents from that class as well. The pods are Rooms 1 & 8, 2 & 3; 4 & 6; 5 & 7)
 
Additionally, we will be spending Monday, January 29th together as a staff, for our professional development day, further stimulating our thoughts on social justice, by examining the intersection of Jewish identity, immigration experience, and American culture.
 
Our staff will begin the day at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, exploring the Jewish immigration experience surrounding the Holocaust; we will then spend the second half of the day at the Tenement Museum’s new exhibit, Under One Roof, examining three successive generations of immigrants to the same neighborhood (Jewish, Puerto Rican, Chinese). These experiences will impact our own understanding of social justice, our pedagogy around this topic, and our interpretation of your children’s voices on social justice.
 
With Martin Luther King, Jr., Day approaching on Monday, you are also invited to come by the JCC for a plethora of opportunities to get involved in tikkun olam projects and activist work, as we all strive to make the world a more just and fair place.  Please look here to see what will be happening at JCC Manhattan over the next few days as it relates to social justice.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Noah
 
--

School notices:
 
Emergence Alert System and Out of Town contacts: As a follow-up to our Parents Association meeting last night regarding emergency planning for your family, we want to remind you to enroll in our school text alert system. This system will only be used in cases of emergency, such as evacuation. To enroll, please click here. It was also suggested by the consultants last night that each child has an out-of-town emergence contact listed on their authorized pick-up list. To add additional contacts, please update your child's SchoolDoc account or reach out to Linda. Please know that your child's safety is, as always, our very first priority. If you have any feedback or questions on the system, please do not hesitate to reach out to Tara.
 
Monday, January 15th: School closed for MLK Day
 
Living Legacy: Harlem School of the Arts: Join the resident ensemble of Harlem School of the Arts' theater department for an exploration of dance, drumming, storytelling, and song with a West African aesthetic. This performance piece features many elements of performance as it traces the cultural and creative history of the African American experience, dating from the Middle Passage to contemporary times. This program contains intense content and is appropriate for families with children ages 5 and up.  

Limited space available. First-come first-served along with all of our R&R Saturday afternoon programming! Sat, Jan 13, 3-4 pm, Free! For more info, click here

A Note From Noah

Baby Play!

We are excited to share that we will be debuting Baby Play!, a new initiative, for the second half of this school year. We surveyed the parent body about this idea last month and hear back overwhelmingly positive response.  Based on your responses, here is what the program will be:

Baby Play! is for any children 0-18 months with older siblings who are current or former JCC nursery students. This is not a drop off program; one (or more) adult is needed for each child. RSVP will be encouraged but not required; there is no fee for the program.

Baby Play! will take place on one Friday a month, and will occur twice each day. The “morning session” will be 9:00am-9:45am, and the “afternoon session” will be 12:30pm-1:00pm. Dates for Baby Play! are:

January 19, February 16, March 16, April 20, May 25

Initially, babies of any age are welcome at either the morning or afternoon session. After the first few sessions, depending on the age of the babies who attend, we may shift towards having smaller age bands for each session (0-9mo and 10-18mo).

Baby Play! will give babies a chance to explore fun, messy, funky materials – what we call in Reggio schools “provocations”. We will have the babies playing with clay, paint, fabrics, sticks, and other materials they may not often come in contact with.

Shari, Sari, and myself will staff each session. Beyond having babies explore the materials, our goals as staff are to deepen our relationships with parents and caregivers, and also model how we as JCC staff interact with babies and materials.

Please mark your calendar with these dates, and RSVP here for January 19.

Shabbat shalom and have a happy New Year,
Noah

--

Snow gear – as the weather turns even colder, please make sure to leave appropriate cold weather and snow clothing in your child’s cubby. Our classrooms use the roof nearly every day even throughout the winter. Each child should at a minimum have a hat and gloves every day; on snowy days please also leave boots and snow pants so that your child can enjoy the snow on our roof.

Paul’s music – is now streaming! For those long trips and stretches at home over break, Paul is sharing his “Live From The Common Space” album via soundcloud. You can stream the album here for all your nursery school favorites.

A Note From Noah

Continuing from last week, this Note explores the notion of adult imperialism, or how adults extend control into children’s lives: Why does this happen? How does it happen? What happens when children resist?

My use of “imperialism” in this sense comes from scholars of the cultural and historical nature of child development, who propose that the “imperial practices of adults” are foisted upon “the native practices of children” (excerpted chapter with these phrases here; whole book here).

“Imperialism” and “native practices” suggests an indigenous, tribal nature to childhood, displayed as a foreign culture to us adults. You see this readily in your child’s play patterns – three year olds talking rapid-fire and breathlessly about superheroes, four year olds immersed in imaginative, dramatic play, five year olds so concerned about the rules of a made-up game that they barely leave time to play the actual game. You also see it in the non-adult habits our children have: eating mac and cheese with their fingers, picking their nose, carrying a lovey, babbling in their own language, and on and on.

Adults have turned both of these native practices – creative peer play as well as non-adult habits –into areas of regulation and control. In progressive, child-centered settings like our nursery school, we strive to provide ample time for free, imaginative, peer play.  Yet the fact that free play is one part of the child’s schedule reminds us of how stringently we regulate the child’s day, indeed, their entire life. And we all, as teachers and parents, see the non-adult habits of children as in need of intervention and correction (“Use a fork”, “Here’s a tissue”, “Leave your lovey in your cubby”, “Use your words so I can understand you”).

The regulation of childhood in this fashion began about a century ago, when Western scholars and scientists first started to rigorously study children (this was termed, succinctly, the “child study movement” and flourished at the turn of the 20th century). This began by simple observation of children in infancy, and soon proceeded to psychological and developmental testing of children. Those observations and tests led to the creation of “norms” for child development, which in turn led to the “invention” of the child-as-we-know-it, which rests on three foundational premises (highlighted in this wonderfully intriguing chapter):  “Child psychologists have invented different children”; “different human cultures have invented different children”; “child psychology, like the child, is a cultural invention.” In short order, those invented psychological and developmental norms had direct impact on the design of the social (human interactions) and physical (schools, homes, playgrounds) environments which children inhabit.

Continuing their thoughts on imperialism, the authors linked above wrote further, “an important aspect of the imperial practices of adults is that they create institutions to back up their narratives, which in turn implicates the physical and social environments of childhood.” We believe children need correction, so we create institutions to correct them – subliminally denying the opportunity for the child to say, show, or express competencies which deny or reject adult imperialism. Erica Burman (in an appropriately titled book, “Deconstructing Developmental Psychology”) furthers this argument when she writes, “the production and regulation of children extended beyond testing environments to the settings by which children were cared for and instructed.” The testing environments of the early childhood study movement wound up, intentionally or not, creating regulated environments that soon encompassed nearly all aspects of early childhood.

Adults came to control, rather than observe, the native practices of children.

However – and this is the exciting part as an educator – children are, as it turns out, not easily submissive! Children devise ingenious methods of resistance, persistently rejecting our perceived power over them.

The subjugation of indigenous practices to imperial powers is never neat and simple – yet we try to make it so by denying even children the right to resist. We gloss over their capacity to reject our adult-culture and instead assume they are tired, hungry, cranky – or all three. Rarely do we actually pause and recognize in our child, “Oh, wow – you really want to do this differently than I do. I’d love to learn about your way of doing this.”

This is so ubiquitous that we may even have a hard time recognizing it. This happens when we dress our children in the morning, when we ask them to eat their dinner, when we hoist them into strollers over their protestation to walk, when we give them two forced choices yet they have a different idea, when they use an object in a peculiar, novel way, indeed, just about anytime they disagree with your intention in an interaction. We deny children the opportunity to express new, divergent, non-adult ideas, and instead seek to conform them to our adult-practice – we far too-often see their resistance as disobedience rather than an expression of “native practices”.

In my work with the 2.5 year old child for my dissertation research, one afternoon we were playing together in her living room. She asked me to move a bit away, so we could “play catch”. She gave me a ball, and I figured we were set – I know how to play catch – or so I thought. She proceeded to get another ball for herself, and instructed me to throw mine towards her at the same time as she threw hers towards me. Rather than catch her ball (my adult-practice), she instructed me to instead chase after my own as she did the same. Once we reclaimed our balls, we started all over again.

These small, seemingly mundane moments are good opportunities for parents to explore the reaches of imperialism, because they are “low stakes” – they are not about getting somewhere on time or taking physical care of our bodies. As a parent, I very likely would have told the child, “When we play catch, I throw and you catch; then you throw and I catch” – emphasizing both “catch” as a vocabulary word and “catch” as a set of codified rules of behavior. Instead, as a researcher, I said, “I’d love to learn about catch from you” and proceeded to learn her native practice of catch.

Last weekend, in California child-free with Shira for a friend’s wedding, we were seated for hotel brunch with friends – and their 2.5 year old. All seated around the table, the adults talked and the child played with her water glass, gently moving ice cubes from the glass to her bowl, and then back again, as she marveled at their slipperiness. I moved my glass next to hers so she could expand her experiments. While she was engaged with the melting ice, her parents were making plans for what to do after brunch – go back to hotel room with dad or run errands with mom. They asked her which of these options she wanted to do. The child looked at her parents, looked at me, looked at her ice – and then resumed playing with the ice. With my research hat on, her expression was clear as day – “This is what I want to do. Leave your imperialism away from my native practices. I’m good – I’ll just keep playing with this ice, that’s enough for me.” (Yes, I have a hard time putting away my investigations into childhood even when my own are 3,000 miles away!)

In both of these situations, we can begin to see the child’s agency, if we only look for it – their subtle resistance to adult intervention and correction.

What are we to do with concepts like native practices, agentive children, and resistance to imperialism?

Anna Stetsenko, renowned scholar and researcher, and academic mentor of mine (she is a longstanding professor at CUNY), writes in her most recent book that if we want to “emphasize the role of the learners’ own agency, stance, and voice”, then, “the task of education is to work on developing learners’ own agency by providing them with access to the tools that afford such agency.” Stetsenko continues, “If agency is acknowledged as a continuous work in progress and an evolving struggle for a unique contribution to a world shared with others, then recognizing our incompleteness and the need for us all to learn and become more fully agentive, throughout the life span and together with others, opens up possibilities for a pedagogical stance without connotations of deficiency or inferiority in need of correction.”

This can begin to turn us away from the paradigm in which adults are “right” and children are deficient – and therefore in need of correction – and instead towards relationships with children in which we seek to augment and support their agency. This means finding some moments – not every moment, not every interaction – in which we can learn from our child instead of control them. These moments are readily available if we begin to look for them – when playing with your child, position yourself to learn what he is doing rather than offering a more advanced (adult) version or challenge. When you are not in a rush (rare, I know!), slow down and rather than present your child with two choices just observe what they are already doing.

In our classroom, this plays out as we seek to find ever-increasing ways to respect the child’s agency. In recent years, our classrooms have begun to have children create their own job charts several weeks into the school year, rather than present them, fully-formed, on Day One. This gives children a chance to wrestle with, and answer, meaningful questions from within their own native practices: What jobs need to get done in our classroom? How can we devise a fair way to assign these jobs? Likewise, the agency of the child is felt in the development of our emergent curriculum. Children see their own ideas – about firestations, train tracks, grocery lists, and more – turn into full-fledged class-wide projects. Per Stetsenko’s writing, this gives our students “access to the tools that afford such agency.”

I believe that our children are better served if we can determine where control is needed (and of course there are many biological areas where children need us), and where it has been needlessly extended. Our children are powerful creatures, agentive and expressive in their own rights. When we deny them the capacity to offer new ideas and insights, to meaningfully contribute to the creation of their day and their environment, we dwarf a part of what it means to be human.

So, I invite you to explore this with your children. Where are you in power and need to be, and where are you in power instinctively, without meaning to be? Where can you observe rather than control? And, significantly, what happens when you start observing more than controlling?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this and feedback on how this feels in your family.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah