A Note From Noah

A career as an early childhood educator, it turns out, is kind of like a mashup of Billy Madison and Groundhog Day – I’m back in Miss Lippy’s class, every day. Immersing myself in the world of childhood has taught me a few things; I’d like to share three of them here in my last Note to our community.

Thank you for reading my Notes and engaging in the dialogue I hope they’ve sparked with your friends and family. More importantly, thank you each for the trust, love, and warmth that you have shown me and your child’s classroom teachers. Your belief in the work we do together allows us to be the community we want to be. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for granting me this opportunity to be your school director.

Here is what I’ve learned in nursery school, the second time around:

The whole world changes every few years.

From my vantage point in nursery school, it doesn’t take 25 years for a new generation to inherit the country and paint our collective future. Every three years, the entire population of our youngest citizens – our nursery school students – turns over. Every three years, a new generation arrives in our school and show us a fresh vision of imagined possibilities, of novel futures.

The pace of change, when viewed through this prism, is not the slow, plodding molasses of adult-bureaucracy and bicameral legislation. Children change the world with fervor and rapidity, never slowing down to consider who they’ve offended in the changing of the guard.

In the months leading up to the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries, a mother in our school shared with me a remarkable line from her five year old daughter. They were talking about the candidates, Hillary in particular, when her daughter told her, “Well, she can’t be President – she’s not brown.” The norm-shattering second half of that statement reminded me that during the primaries eight years prior, my grandfather sheepishly admitted to me that even as a lifelong Democrat, he couldn’t bring himself to vote for a black presidential candidate. After 43 white presidents, it took just one black POTUS and nursery students accepted dark skin as the presidential-norm. And as radical as her statement was, here’s the thing – children say stuff like this all the time.

Earlier this week, my neighbor shared with me that her daughter had met someone new at the playground: a transgender peer. Catching up at the end of the day, her daughter told her about meeting this new friend: “Henry is a girl with a penis.” And then she moved on, continuing to recount her day. The child’s simple, clear description – of a subject which appears massively complex to many adults – was in my mind the following morning as I read about a statue being unveiled to honor two transgender women and the role they played in the Stonewall uprising. In honor of 50 years since the uprising, the statue is the first in the city, and “one of the world’s first,” to depict transgender individuals. Marsha Johnson, born in 1945 and featured in the statue, “was about 5 when she began to wear dresses, but other children’s retaliation pressured her to stop.” It took 50 years from Stonewall to include transgender representation in New York City’s statues; it took one meeting at the playground for these two four-year-olds to recognize each other.

The present now / will later be past / The order is / Rapidly fading – these lyrics are a prophecy which our youngest citizens annually fulfill. The breathtaking pace with which children change the world has me eager and excited to see what lies ahead: How will nursery school students define the world three years from now? What possibilities will they present us with?

“Belonging” is the unshakable premise, and omnipotent promise, of community.

I mentioned at Parent Orientation this year that my journey at the JCC started with the then-Associate Director offering me a hug on the sidewalk outside the entrance to the building on my first day of work. The hug told me, “Welcome. You belong here.” I’ve done my best to pay this forward over the years, and in doing so, have learned about the remarkably powerful qualities that “belonging” has on each of us.

Teaching one year in a 3s classroom, my team and I had a young boy who was quite rambunctious. He would knock down his friends’ block structures, run around the classroom, and angrily refute teacher-instructions. After several weeks of trying various pedagogical strategies (“classroom management”), we came up with a different approach: For the first 90 minutes of each day, we would not use any negative words with him (“no,” “don’t,” “can’t,” etc). He wouldn’t hear any statements that excluded him or highlighted his difficult behavior. Instead, we replaced those phrases with hugs, cuddles, and smiles. We would show him, plain and simple, that he belonged, here, with us. Well, it worked. After a few weeks of this (you might call it a “strategy of belonging”), he transformed. He settled into the classroom environment, made friends, and flourished. His parents wrote me at the end of that year:

When we started the school year, we had so many worries about our son. We had received feedback from other programs that he was overly active and did not always behave. But we couldn’t put our finger on the problem. During the year, you really gained his trust and affection. As a result, you were better able to understand his issues. It has been so amazing to see him grow over the year. I can tell he is so proud of all that he achieved. You have truly made a difference.

The “difference” was the simple switch from telling him what he couldn’t do, to showing him that regardless of his behavior, he belonged here. Once he knew he belonged it made all the difference.

In recent years, after transitioning from the classroom to the office, I’ve noticed the same power of “belonging” at work with our parents. Late one June, I received an email from a parent who had just wrapped up her final year with us. It had been a difficult year for her and her family, full of emotion, change, and transition. She was writing to let me know “how much the JCC has meant to me and my family” during this tumultuous period:

You were all magic and love and I cannot thank you enough. I cannot tell you the relief we felt being able to drop [our son] at the JCC and know the love and support he had every day. Please know how grateful I am for an amazing school that really, above all the money and influence it has, cares deeply above and beyond about the children and parents in its community.

I’ve spent the past eleven years investigating what children and families need, and how nursery school can provide that. What I’ve learned is that nothing matters more than belonging. Rabbi Hillel tells us in Pirkei Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” The role of the nursery school, then, is to accomplish the inverse: To make sure no one is separated from the community.

Children need more quiet patience and empty space then we ever give them.

We now know, thanks to the proliferation of research into child development over the past half-century, that children come fully equipped with the requisite mechanisms to propel them forward in growth and development. Young humans have been designed, over millennia of evolution, to ask questions and go about determining answers – this is their natural stance in life, it is what they do. Children are scientists (read this book!).

Given this, we are left with the uncomfortable recognition that our students and children flat-out don’t need the incessant questioning of parents and teachers (“What color is this?” “What shape is that?” “How many blocks am I holding?”) or stream of new toys (“Look at this!” “Do it this way!” “Isn’t this exciting?”) to push them forward in their learning-journey. They are already questioning, critiquing, and reflecting – in short, growing and learning. Their brains are designed to do this.

In any given day – in any given hour! – our children feel the weight of adult-expectations imposed on them dozens if not hundreds of times. They are expected, somehow, to want to submit to instructions and comply with rules (that themselves change with each adult and space they are moved to) with docility. And once they are behaving properly and paying attention to the grownup in the room, we consider it as our golden opportunity to teach them a lesson (“Make sure you say sorry.” “Now you try it, like this.” “You see?”).

I now see our adult-words with young children as akin to gas in a fuel tank: you have a finite supply before you hit empty, and, what’s more, we don’t always need to be driving – sometimes we should just pull to the side of the road, roll down the window, and enjoy the view. Use your words sparingly around children so that they last – if you talk too much, they simply stop listening. If you’ve asked the question twice, asking it a third time does not make a child more likely to respond. You’ve just wasted your gas. This is what teachers mean when we use the word “intentional” – using our words intentionally, in specific moments and with specific purpose, knowing that a garden-hose approach just doesn’t work, spraying words everywhere.

When you simply stop talking around children, it’s as if you’ve given them a megaphone. A simple nod and “hmm” is often all the encouragement a child needs to continue her query, extend her story, or elaborate her design. Having learned this by watching our students, I now enter our classrooms with a commitment to being as quiet as I can and taking up as little space as I can. I watch, I nod, I smile. I sit on my hands. And something remarkable happens – our students show me what they’re working on, what they’ve been learning, where their curiosities are. I watch as they overcome hurdles, deal with frustration, and incrementally conquer challenges. Try accomplishing that with a three year old by poking and prodding – you know where it gets you (“Let’s try it like this!” “What are you guys working on?” “Here, let me show you.”).

Children need us to recede, to bite our tongue, to twiddle our thumbs, and to give them empty space in which to work. This is deeply countercultural, as we are awash in the neoliberal trance of “more is better.” For our children – assuming the already-busy schedules we all keep in Manhattan – less is better. Less noise, less distractions, less stimulation. And yes, I am writing this as a school director: our children need less “teaching,” not more. Fewer adults telling them what to do, fewer moments in the day when they are exposed to adult inquiries and interventions. More quiet patience and empty space in which to ponder, tinker, and think – to roll down the window and gaze at the view.

Shabbat shalom,


As we head into summer, check out last year’s Note on playgrounds throughout Manhattan.