A Note From Noah

One of our parents told me last week that her five year old son woke up at 5:30am and immediately said, “Mom, we have to get to school, so we can play Hideout!” His PreK class has been engaged in a “hideout” curriculum for months.

This enthusiasm for learning is why we do what we do. And in fact, much of our approach is guided by a book of the same title (Why we do what we do, by Edward Deci). Deci writes that three crucial ingredients – autonomy, competence, and interpersonal connectedness – open up vast potentials for learning when combined. Deci spent decades doing laboratory studies with human participants and boiled his findings down into those three ingredients, which he hypothesizes apply equally to children and adults, and schools and adult workplaces.  (Deci and his research partner Ryan pioneered the research in self-determination theory and intrinsic motivation.)

Autonomy in this conversation is knowing that you can make decisions for yourself and that your work/projects/learning stems from those decisions. Competency means you are presented with environments, materials, and tasks which you can be successful in and with. The work is not too hard nor is it too easy – you feel challenged yet successful when working on the project. Interpersonal connectedness means that you are building meaningful relationships while you are doing the work/task/learning. This last ingredient is re-interpreted by Daniel Pink (in Drive) as “purpose” – the notion that your contribution to the project is not isolated or discrete but rather becomes part of something bigger, something meaningful. (Pink also re-interprets competency as “mastery”.)

Autonomy, competency, and social purpose are deeply embedded within the curricula that emerge in our classrooms each year. In the Reggio approach, you might hear your teachers describe an “emergent curriculum” which is “co-constructed” by the children and teachers together. As many of you heard on your admissions tour way-back-when, my fondest memory of this as a classroom teacher here was after I spent the day at The American Museum of Natural History with my three year old students, only to realize later that what really mattered to them from the field trip was the hot dog stand on Central Park West as we walked out of the museum. We spent the next four months creating a hot dog stand in our classroom – and through that project, gave our students a heightened sense of autonomy, competence, and social purpose. We build off of children’s intrinsic motivation – their internal desire to be a part of something – because children learn better when they want to be learning.  I watched as a group of boys learned to write, after spending the first half of the year avoiding the art and literacy areas of the room. They so desperately wanted to a part of the work that they were compelled to spend time creating signs and menus. Their work started as scribbles but ended as letter-like shapes, setting them up for success in PreK the following year.

All of this is why my heart warmed when I heard about our five year old who so desperately wanted to get to work in his classroom that he woke up at 5:30am and begged his mother to get going.

He woke up early that morning because he is a part of something – and being a part of something drives his learning. The “something” he is a part of has been driven completely by him and his peer’s interests throughout the year. His class has been talking about witches, traps, and hideouts all year, and the back half of their class has now been transformed by cardboard boxes, yarn, and tape into an elaborate hideout to protect the children, chock full of traps to (one day!) catch the evil witch. Along the way, the students have been learning how to make a plan and execute it, how to negotiate with peers while working on a project, how to navigate setbacks while working towards a goal, as well as more academic subjects like math and literacy as they create patterned designs, clocks, and signs for the hideout.

One of the joys of teaching in a progressive nursery school is never knowing how the curriculum will play out each year. Our teachers keep their ears to the ground, diligently paying attention to the children’s behavior, play, and speech patterns as they build curriculum around subjects that matter to their students. For a quick sampling, here is what our older students (3s and PreK) are involved in right now:

Puppets, story-telling, and good/bad babies (Room 2), theatre, fashion, script-writing, and stage production (Room 3), witches, traps, and hideouts (Room 4), voting, elections, and campaign (Room 5), dinosaurs, archeology, and using evidence to prove something happened in the past (Room 6), New York City buildings, architecture, and blueprints (Room 7 AM), springtime, animals, and cats (Room 7 PM).

While the subject matter in each of these curricular units is distinct, the underlying ingredients of autonomy, competence, and social purpose are all the same. In each of these curricula, children are engaged in work that is meaningful to them, that challenges them while showing off their competency, and connects them with their peers. When that happens, as Deci highlights, the child’s learning takes off to new heights. Through these curricula, our students are engaged in deep, authentic learning – most importantly, learning that they want to be a part of.

And so I leave you to ponder as parents – how can you support these three ingredients at home? How can you create an environment for your child where he or she feels autonomous, competent, and socially-connected? Both books linked above provide invaluable insights into how we might approach each of these areas, at school, home, and work. They are fun, surprisingly quick reads and make for good conversation fodder. You are welcome to borrow them off my shelf if you are interested. I would love to hear what you think about this topic.

Shabbat shalom,


Paternity leave: As a reminder, today is my last day in the office as I start paternity leave Monday, May 8. I will be back for the final four days of the school year, and then will be in part-time over the summer months. During my leave, please direct any questions you might have brought to my attention to Shari Taishoff, our superb associate director, at staishoff@jccmanhattan.org and 646-505-5737. You are also welcome to go to Dava Schub for anything related to the JCC in general during my leave. Dava is JCC Manhattan’s Chief Programming Officer and my direct supervisor; Dava can be reached at dschub@jccmanhattan.org and 646-505-4383.