A Note From Noah

I hope your kids are bored.

And I hope you’re not doing anything about it.

OK, hold on, don’t be mad, let me explain.

In the world’s least-shocking-statement award, Psychology Today reported earlier this month that “mothers are drowning in stress.” Not only that, but according to Making Motherhood Work, published last month by sociologist Caitlyn Collins after spending five years studying parenthood in four wealthy western countries, “U.S. moms have it the worst.”

Congrats!

As Collins points out, there is an utter failure in our country at the policy level (“Of all Western industrialized countries, the U.S. ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies”). This is exacerbated because, as economists Deopke and Zilibotti point out in their new book, Love, Money & Parenting, U.S. mothers paradoxically now work more weekly hours then their mothers did (70% of mothers now work, compared to 47% in 1975), AND spend more time actively with their children: Deopke and Zilibotti show that from 1970 to 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American mothers added “an additional hour and forty-five minutes of parent-child interaction per day.” Per day! (How is that even possible?!)

Despite our good intentions, all this extra attention is not only stressful for us, but…it turns out…is bad for our children! Here comes the argument for why you should be happy when your children are bored.

Paula Fass, historian of American childhood, writes, “Today’s parents are much more often seen as hovering than hands-off, and their faults lie in excessive supervision, not the reverse.” This “over-parenting” is exactly what Julie Lythcotte-Haims warned about in her January talk at the JCC. As Julie warned, there’s a cliff ahead – and it’s called the-rest-of-their-life. Here’s the calculus on this one: the more we’re involved in our children’s minutiae now, the less they’ve exercised their muscles of independence, the worse off they are later. It’s a pretty straight shot (more from Julie on how this works).

The only problem is, as nearly every parenting book written in the past five years agrees on, we are embedded in a culture which screams at us, “Do more! You are not good enough! Your kid is not good enough!”

Schools are hard to get into. The middle class is disappearing. We’re about to become the first generation worse off financially then our parents. And, concurrently, an explosion of neurological and psychological research into child development yields acute insight into how to train children to learn and grow in particular ways. All of this – the push to spend more time with our children, during a period in which mothers are working in vastly greater numbers – leads to the now-obviousness, and compounded nature, of maternal stress conjoined with an ossifying of adult-dependence by children. (Kim Brooks offers a highly-readable, deeply-insightful perspective on this)

Beyond making parents (and mothers in particular) overwhelmed with stress, there’s a buried secret here: children do not need us in their lives nearly as frequently as we think (or hope). This is not only true for middle and high schoolers, but our young ones as well. (Yes, even our crawlers!!)

KJ Dell’Antonia recognizes this in her book published this summer, “How to be a Happier Parent”: “We expect our constant attendance itself to be enough to get the job done. We show up relentlessly, as though looking for a good attendance award, when we might teach our children more by being less present.”

I so loved that line. It gave me permission, and I hope you as well, to be less present. To accept that you are already present – and worthy – enough. That your unconditional love is the ingredient your child needs, not your unconditional presence. That they need to carry your love around with them; they don’t need to carry YOU around with them.

Talking this idea through with a friend recently, a parent to a newborn and a toddler, she nodded her head and smiled: “Yea yea yea, that’s what I call ‘horizontal parenting’.” Intrigued, I asked what she meant. “Here’s how it goes: I lie down on the couch, horizontal. You play on the rug with your toys. We stay out of each other’s way. That’s the whole thing.” This idea of staying out of our children’s play has caught traction recently, with some pointing out that until recent generations, consensus parenting advice was to stay away from children’s play and amusements (thank you Rachel Yadgard for that link!).

Don’t play with your kids? Yes, you’re reading that right. Know when to not play or otherwise involve yourself in their activities. Don’t feel compelled to always offer stimulation, always have them excited about something. As the NY Times reported last month:

Only a few short decades ago, during the lost age of underparenting (I guess this is my friend’s “horizontal parenting”), grown-ups thought a certain amount of boredom was appropriate. And children came to appreciate their empty agendas. In an interview with GQ magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom,” he said. (I knew a Lin-Manuel quote would pull our parents in here!)

Consider that Jennifer Senior reported in 2015 that in middle and upper class families, “each individual child, in our culture of fearful and controlling parenting, is subject to constant attention, vigilance, supervision, surveillance.” Contrast that with Annette Lareau’s research that in families where parents DID NOT invest themselves in their children’s play, children “tended to show more creativity, spontaneity, enjoyment, and initiative in their leisure pastimes” compared to children whose parents were heavily invested in their play and leisure activities.

Look at those lists of qualities. Which do we want for our children?

Our children do not always have to be accomplishing something. Whimsy is good! Boredom is healthy! And, significantly for our own stress levels, we-as-parents need some hands-off time as well. That hands-off time should not only be at work or when your children are asleep.

I tried this out with Jonah and Solomon a few weekends ago. I sat at the dining room table engrossed in a book while they messed around the apartment. I told them (well, really Jonah) that I’d be responsible for keeping enough snack food on the table for the afternoon, but beyond that, they were on their own. They loved it. And so did I. Jonah did none of the activities I would have hoped – draw or paint, build with LEGOs or magnatiles – and instead, literally rolled around on the living room rug with his two-year-old brother. They hooted and howled the afternoon away, alternately tackling each other, jumping off the couch, and hiding underneath the dining room table.

Nothing productive. Pure whimsy. And for us, that afternoon, it was exactly what we needed.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

Two of our teachers are on their way right now to Auckland, New Zealand, for an early childhood study tour. They arrive in several hours and will land in a country grieving after a tragic terrorist attack in a mosque. We are in touch with conference organizers and will hear from Lizzy (Classroom 4) and Lindsay (Classroom 6) as soon as they touch down. Sarah (Classroom 4) has put together a display in the Common Space (check it out this morning!) to document their travels.

The conference in New Zealand is designed for nursery school teachers to learn about the Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum, a state-sponsored initiative which is

underpinned by a vision for children who are competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.

While we typically send two teachers this time of year to Reggio Emilia, Italy, to learn from educators in the birthplace of Reggio pedagogy, this year we decided to challenge and stretch ourselves. While both Reggio and Te Whāriki embrace a socio-constructivist pedagogy (the idea that knowledge is constructed through social relationships), the educators in New Zealand place an additional emphasis on the “undoing of social, cultural and political inequities in early childhood education and policy.”

The conference was recommended to us by Megan Madison, who we first met at last year’s PA panel on anti-racism and later ran a workshop, “Black Lives Matter in Early Childhood Education,” at our August conference. Megan attended the New Zealand conference in previous years and described it to me as “the best professional development experience I’ve had in 10 years!” She further wrote that the conference helped her dig deep into “the dynamics of settler colonialism.” Another past participant on the conference described that the experience helped her

to begin to understand what it meant to live your values. I came back to my program with new ideas about what is possible for young children and feeling renewed to push forward to co-create a vision for the future alongside my staff.

In a world seemingly tearing apart at the seams, I am so proud of Lizzy and Lindsay, who jumped at the chance to learn more about New Zealand’s critical pedagogy and its social implications. I have always believed that early childhood educators stand at the front lines of social change and possibilities for social justice. Our hope is that Lizzy and Lindsay encounter new ideas and new pedagogies to further inspire our work in the nursery school.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

Are there fish at a zoo?

This was the question posed in Classroom 7 this week, on the heels of an extensive and extended investigation into animals, pets, and zoos, dating all the way back six months to the first week of school. During that week, one of the students pondered out loud, “Does Clyde [a guinea pig and then-class pet] have teeth? And a tongue?” Since that query, the students have been on a meandering journey of knowledge-accumulation – and question-accumulation – about animals. It has led them to creating several versions of zoos in their classroom, which after much discussion, yielded the above question. Two children offered accurate-yet-contrasting answers (extracted from a longer Daily Reflection):

There are no fishes [at the zoo]. They are [only] in the sea.

There are dead fishes in the zoo because some animals eat fish – polar bears!

I find their two answers so intriguing because it offers a perspective on the fallibility of knowledge and a wavering quality to truth. It reminds us that only rarely is there “one way” to understand something. A “classic” pedagogical response to “are there fish at the zoo” might be for the teacher to inform the students that zoos have animals and aquariums have fish. This presents the world through a lens of unequivocal, rigid taxonomy: certain things have certain places in which they belong, and all you-as-the-learner need to do is absorb that ready-made, stable information in order to progress along your learning-journey.

Our stance as a school, however, stands in stark contrast to that outdated pedagogical model. In its place we posit that learners need to be engaged in a relationship with knowledge which respects the fact that the content of knowledge, truth, or information only matters – has a degree of salience – when we also attend to the context of that knowledge, truth, or information. This is why you hear our teachers respond to students’ factual statements with: How do you know that? Why do you think that? And why we respond to their questions with more questions: How can you figure that out? Why are you asking that question? Who might be helpful in this exploration?

And so the Room 7 teachers did just that. A small group of students walked around the school to ask this question to multiple people and see what their answers might yield. As the teachers explained in the Daily Reflection, “Each student was empowered to share ideas, figure out a research method, and enact that method.” This is being-in-relationship-with-

knowledge, being liberated from the constraints of “I talk, you listen/ I teach, you learn,” being engaged with building knowledge rather than receiving it.

Are their fish at the zoo? The second answer astounded me. Of course there are, but it takes a non-taxonomical rendering of the world to realize this: a more-fluid, less-static relationship with knowledge. There is more than one way to answer a question.

Likewise, in Classroom 4, the students have been on a year-long investigation about bowling alleys (I mean, what could be more fun!?). In advance of a class-wide field trip to a bowling alley, a small group of students was tasked with determining the best way to get there. They approached me weeks ago to ask if taking a bus was possible. We went over the different options – a private bus would cost X amount of dollars; a public bus would entail a metro card. We discussed the difference between “private” and “public” and they found examples of each in their lives. We talked about the value of money and appropriate spending. We talked about different routes to get to the bowling alley. We poured over a map of Manhattan and all available options; the map was appropriately crinkly and marked-up by the time the students were done.

In the end, the children decided to take the public bus. Having thus decided, a teacher took two students from that group on a scouting expedition, on a dry-run to the bowling alley before taking the whole class. The children learned on that prefatory trip that, in fact, the bus would not work for their needs – it did not come frequently enough and presented its own obstacles. They did, however, learn that they could take the 2/3 train to Times Square and use the underpass to Port Authority to arrive directly, and efficiently, at their destination. They returned to Classroom 4 and reported their findings; they outlined what route, and mode of transportation, the whole class would be using for their field trip.

The teachers explained in their Daily Reflection: “This opportunity gave the children ownership and responsibility for the trip that they worked so hard to plan.” Our students don’t follow the map; they make the map. This is their relationship with knowledge. Was the public bus the most direct route? Yes. However, it was also the wrong route, because of the contextual factors the children learned-through-doing. There is more than one way to solve a problem; context and experience matters.

This pedagogical vision that we enact daily here with your children is representative of the world they will both create and inherit as they age into adulthood (yes, it does happen eventually). A postmodern world requires that we have a relationship with information as opposed to non-critically consuming it. We are challenged by the exponentially-changing worlds of technology and information to understand not only what we are engaged with but how and why we are engaged with it. A Reggio-inspired pedagogy sets up our children-as-learners to question knowledge, to critique information, and to actively seek out methods to build their own foundation from which to understand the world.

The key to this relationship with knowledge for our young learners is that we, as adults, must pull back. We must recede as we restrain our proclivity to explain, to teach, to inform (to be pedagogical) and instead allow our children to confront the world, to grapple with its ambiguities, to navigate its complexity. Along the way, our children will be actively building a powerful and long-lasting relationship with knowledge.

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

I’m looking forward to seeing many of you at our upcoming Peer Learning Cycle (PLC) evening, February 13th, 6-7pm.

Please RSVP here so we can plan accordingly.

I wrote about some elements of our PLC recently, exploring the intersection between pedagogy and democracy, through the lens of the “Activist New York” exhibit now at MCNY. I’ve also shared, in an earlier Note, the central question guiding our teachers’ PLC work this year: “We value democracy in our communities. How do classroom investigations empower children to become democratic citizens?”

What really excites me about our PLC is that it situates teachers as developers of ideas, beyond the traditional role of “teaching”. Many of our ideals around this are inspired by the notion that a school can be a “center of inquiry”. In this model, outlined by Robert Schaefer, schools should be organized so that the teaching staff is “characterized by a pervasive search for meaning” and “new knowledge.” To achieve that, our PLC can be recognized as “the deliberate creation of new intellectual outlets for teachers” in which teachers can connect their in-class experiences, their relationships with children, with their own intellectual curiosity and begin to develop novel approaches to bring back into their classrooms. In short, the PLC model allows for us to “investigate matters not yet understood.”

At our monthly Coffee Chat this morning, we dove into a discussion about the tension between our parent-desire to retain authority over our children and also, concurrently, encourage them to develop the strength and tools necessary to self-advocate and advocate for others (ie, to resist adult authority). We explored the opposing forces of control and resistance, of authority and dissent. We discussed how children’s resistance manifests vastly differently based on context and relationship – home vs. school, grandparents vs. parents, peers vs. siblings, etc. We also touched on how the power and authority of a parent is often couched in protective love as well as the understanding that children benefit from the stability provided by rules and structure.

I would love for you to join us in expanding – and critiquing – this conversation on February 13th. The evening is designed as a conversation and explicitly not a “presentation” – we do not have any answers, only questions and curiosities. The teachers will be sharing with you what their conversation on this topic has looked like so far this year, and will then be asking for your participation in that conversation.

We are hoping to chart new territory and need your involvement! As Schaefer concludes, “How can children fully know the dynamism of learning if the adults around them stand still?”

Shabbat shalom,
Noah

A Note From Noah

As Martin Luther King, Jr, Day approaches, I’d like to share with you a bit more about our “Peer Learning Cycle” and how our teachers will be spending this Tuesday, with school closed for our annual Professional Development Day. In sync with our national attitude around MLK Day, our Tuesday will be spent exploring notions of protest, activism, and dissent – and how this applies to your young one.

As was highlighted in a November Note, this year our entire teaching staff is using our Peer Learning Cycle (PLC) to explore the intersection between democracy and pedagogy (2/13 6pm is our PLC evening at school, I hope this is already on your calendars!). We will be using our time on Tuesday to visit the “Activist New York” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, which “presents the passions and conflicts that underlie the city’s history of agitation.” Our goal for the day is to consider how democratic activism is embodied by our students in your classrooms – how we can consider our students’ collective “agitation” as their expression of democratic dissent.

A recent Washington Post article (thank you Rabbi Joy for sending to me!) explained how we can consider democracy and pedagogy co-existing:

"Joel Westheimer, a professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on civics education, observes that the term “good citizenship” is typically employed to mean nothing more than “listening to authority figures, dressing neatly, being nice to neighbors, and helping out at a soup kitchen.” What it should mean — what ought to define a democratic society’s approach to education — has more to do with asking difficult questions, organizing for collective action, insisting that people be able to participate in making decisions about matters that affect them, and confronting the systemic roots of problems. Westheimer proposes a thought experiment: You have been magically transported to a classroom somewhere in the world without knowing where you are. Can you tell from the teaching whether you are in a democratic or totalitarian nation? If not, schooling in that country doesn’t really prepare students for democracy."

Westheimer outlines how the experiences within classrooms need not be learning modules "about" democracy to be practiced by free citizens in the future, but instead ought to be authentic expressions of democracy.

This thread is picked up in the early childhood sphere by a small cohort of authors who seek to “reconceptualize” what early childhood education can be, as opposed to non-critically affirming that schools are about the passive accumulation of content knowledge. Recognizing the political power of children to resist those in control, these authors advocate for a re-envisioning of school as a place of democratic practices, through which children can actively express “a means of resisting power and its will to govern, and the forms of oppression and injustice that arise from the unrestrained exercise of power”. The “democratic participation” of children in this reconceptualized school setting necessarily re-frames children’s resistance away from being “problematic” and instead reconstructs children’s dissent as “an important criterion of citizenship”. In this view, autocratic control of early childhood classrooms – by teachers – stifles the capacity for young children to act in politically resistant ways.

Within this framework, children are always-and-already acting in politically subversive ways: "They [children] take action in situations where things are going wrong from their perspective; they choose between different practices going on in the nursery to avoid subordination and to gain power; they take sides between different groupings for ethical reasons; and they follow and challenge the nursery rules as it seems beneficial". These are political actions by political beings, though we often do not recognize our youngest citizen’s behavior as such – we too often only understand our young learners through a developmental, not a political, prism.

These notions and more will be considered by our teaching staff this Tuesday and through the remaining months of the year. Additionally, we will be using two local, JCC-resources to extend the conversation:

“What is Democracy?”, a film by Astra Taylor, was shown this month at the JCC along with a Q+A with the director. The film (90 second trailer) explores the historical roots, and modern contradictions within, democratic practices.

“Protest: 70 Years of American Resistance”: The current exhibit in the JCC’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery, in our building’s lobby, explores the idea that “America itself was born out of protest” while considering that “protest has defined and reshaped the landscape of American rights and justice.”

I invite you to join your child’s teachers in this exploration by visiting the Activist New York Exhibit (it doesn’t hurt that the museum also has a Corduroy exhibit right next to it!) as well as the video and gallery mentioned above.

If we consider our children’s dissent as an exercise of their democratic reaction to authority and control, how does that re-position us as teachers and parents? What responsibilities do we have, given our assumed control over a population who simultaneously both needs us and rebels against us? How can we reconcile our control over our students with their exercising of dissent, a requisite tool of a democratic society?

Shabbat shalom,
Noah