“You’re all rock stars!”

It was an inspiring moment, as a lifelong teacher stood and addressed a crowd of 1,000 early childhood professionals last Friday.  She spoke about why she is proud to be a teacher, work with children, and pursue social justice.  She was receiving the 2014 Vivian Gussin Paley Award for Early Childhood Excellence, an annual award given out at Wonderplay, the premiere early childhood educators’ conference, and took the opportunity to share some of her personal teaching journey and inspire many of the younger teachers in the room.

The teacher was our very own Joyce Portnoy-Eisman.  Joyce has taught for many years in the JCC nursery school, camp, and Havurah program, sits on our school Leadership Team, has traveled to Reggio Emilia, Italy on a staff professional development trip, is our resident Story Teller, and devoted advocate for mitzvah and social justice projects. This award is a statement of respect and honor for her life’s work as a teacher. Please join me in congratulating Joyce, if you have not already, on this occasion.

Joyce’s speech kicked off two days of conferences for nursery teachers about play and Reggio-inspired schools.  As a co-chair for the second day of the conference, I was able to watch as many of our community members engaged not only in learning but also in teaching. Four of our teachers, Anna Goodkind (room 3), Joyce Eisman (room 4), Catherine Garrison (room 5), and Jane Tuv (room 6), presented a breakout session titled, “Case Study of a Reggio-inspired School: JCC Manhattan.” Their session was standing-room-only as teachers filled the room to learn about Journey Binders, Daily Reflections, special needs, and more.  Down the hall, two of our parents, Ariel Devine and Jill Lebwohl, served on a panel in a breakout session titled, “Reggio-inspired Schools in NYC: Parents’ Experience.”  Again, no empty chairs!  Ariel and Jill shared some of their experiences as parents here at the JCC in order to help teachers better understand how a Reggio-inspired school impacts children, parents, and families.

We heard from some fantastic keynote speakers as well.  We heard about schools in which teachers really, truly listen to children by Claudia Gudiccia and Lella Gandini, the two most prominent leaders of the Reggio approach. Claudie is director of the preschool in Italy and flew in to deliver this talk; Lella promotes the approach as she travels throughout the United States. They spoke about the role of the teacher as asking questions instead of answering them, of following the child instead of leading him.  Some of the research presented by Pietro Biroli, out of James Heckman’s office, was written about (again) by Nicholas Kristof in yesterday’s NY Times. If you are interested in how politics, economics, and education come together, read this piece.

Closing out the two days was Jerome Bruner.  Bruner received his PhD from Harvard in 1941 (that is not a typo!) and has been sculpting the landscape of education, psychology, and human development ever since.  He coined many of the terms and concepts prevalent in education today, and was involved in the White House discussions in the ‘60s that began Head Start, among other national education initiatives. Turning 99 last month, Bruner became an honorary citizen of the town of Reggio Emilia many years ago. Having spent a century studying optimal early learning environments, Bruner sees the Reggio-inspired approach as an ideal environment for children to be growing up in.

Settling back in his armchair on stage, Bruner shrunk the auditorium and it suddenly seemed as if we were all in his living room.  Bruner shared his belief that, “We have entered a new era now that we realize the powerful effects of early childhood on later life. We’re ready for it. We’re ready to rethink what we’re doing.”  Bruner went on to share that the more he learns, the more he doesn’t know: “You could fill this whole room with things I don’t know!” Rethink what we’re doing? Not knowing?

The more we learn, the more there is to learn. This is something we do our best to embody. Our schools can be better places. We believe, along with Bruner, that a Reggio-inspired approach is the best way to do this. In our pursuit to offer optimal environments to our children and our community, we are always learning, growing, and “rethinking” as a community.

I invite you to join our staff in two opportunities in the coming months to do just that.

The Wonder of Learning exhibit has traveled around the world for the last couple of decades in an effort to give parents, children, and teachers the chance to interact with a Reggio-inspired environment and better understand what it is all about.  We are very excited that the exhibit will be here in NYC from January 15-May 15!  We are asking that our parents not only visit the exhibit, but volunteer to serve as ushers and chaperones to help make the exhibit possible. You can expect to hear more about this from the PA in the coming days and weeks; you can learn more about the exhibit and related events here. You are invited to join our entire teaching staff on February 5th as we travel a few short blocks to Steven Wise to hear from a panel of professors about Reggio-inspired education in America. I sit on the Steering Committee bringing the exhibit to NYC and the many related events, and am very excited for our community to engage in deep learning about Reggio-inspired schools over the course of the year.

In a conversation with Bruner after his talk, I asked him how a process-oriented approach like Reggio, which emphasizes the process of learning and not only on its output, fits into the American landscape, where we so often focus on the product, the outcome, the end result.  Looking through his thick glasses, Bruner smiled as he said, “The end? Ha! There is no end! The problem with the end is that there is no end, there is only new learning.”  I hope that you will join me and our teaching staff in new learning this year at the Wonder of Learning exhibit, in our many Parent Nights and workshops, and continuously through asking questions and reflecting on what we do as a school.

Shabbat shalom,