Friday, December 16, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayishlach

Jacob famously wrestles with one of God's messenger's in this week's parsha, Vayishlach. After the nighttime encounter , an angel renames Jacob Israel, which means,"you have struggled with God."  

The Jewish people have also historically been known as the people of Israel, which refers less to the modern state and more to our ancestor Jacob/Israel. Just as Jacob struggled with God that night long ago, we continue to struggle with God as we try to make sense of this world, our place in it , and our role in making it a better place.

Anything that is worth doing is worth struggling over. Most things that are worth doing, that are important, are hard. When our children struggle, with sharing, tying their shoes, or building a chanukiah six feet tall, they are doing something important. They are learning, which is certainly worth doing. When we don't allow our children to struggle, when we try to help them so that they don't experience frustration, we take away their opportunity to learn. It's hard to see our children struggling, but it's important that we let them.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayetse

In this week's parshaVayetse, Jacob leaves his home, arrives in Haran, and immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel. He wants to marry her, but is tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah, instead. Leah had worn a veil during the marriage ceremony and Jacob hadn't realized she wasn't Rachel. From this story arises the custom of bedeken in a Jewish wedding: the groom (after checking to make sure the bride is who he thinks it is!) covers the bride's face with a veil.

What a perfect week to dig up your wedding photos, video, or memorabilia and share your family's story with your children. They'll probably be surprised to learn that there was a time in your life when they weren't in it!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Learning Empathy Through Literature

How do we teach our children right from wrong? How do we teach them that bullying is unacceptable? How do we teach them to stand up for what is right, that if they find themselves in a situation where bullying or harassment is happening they should be upstanders and not bystanders? How do we teach them to respect others, especially those who might be of a different religious or ethnic background? How do we teach them that differences are to be celebrated, not condemned? How do we teach our children to be good, decent, moral individuals? How do we teach them empathy?

We teach them Jewish values, of course, values like b’tzelem Elohim and kavod. We teach them that all of us are made in the image of God and therefore all of us are deserving of respect. We model kind and generous behavior. When they’re ready, we honestly answer their hard questions about the world, and why things are sometimes the way they are and not the way we think they should be. We teach them to volunteer, to participate, to stand up and make a difference.

There is another, scientifically proven, way to teach our children empathy, how to understand and share the feelings and experiences of others. How to make sense of and respect people whose lives are so different from theirs. We read to them. Specifically, we read fiction.

Numerous studies* have shown that reading fiction teaches empathy. Simply, people who read fiction score better on empathy tests. When we lose ourselves in a good story, when we identify with or relate to the protagonist, when we laugh or cry with our favorite characters, when we get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling, we’re exercising the same parts of our brains that we use in the real world when we to try to understand how and why someone thinks and feels the way they do.

Any of my Gesher students will tell you that Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is my favorite children’s book. Based on true events, it’s a fictionalized account of a 19th century Native woman left behind on an island off the coast of California when her people leave for the mainland. Named Karana, she lives alone for 18 years. She tames a wild dog who becomes her pet, Rontu.

I read this story aloud to every class I had, and every year I wept uncontrollably when Rontu dies. Every year I’d psych myself up when that chapter rolled around; I’d tell myself to keep it together. But I couldn’t. Ever. In reading the story aloud, I had become Karana, and her profound loss was mine, too. Just about every year my students would sit in stunned silence as I cried; some years, some would cry with me. I knew it was somehow important to share this experience with them, but it wasn’t until I became familiar with these studies about fiction and empathy that I really began to understand why.

So, if you needed another reason to read to your child, or encourage them to read, this is it. Reading doesn’t just improve our focus and expand our vocabulary, it actually makes us kinder, better people. Read on.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayera

This week's portion is Vayera. Abraham and Sarah graciously and without hesitation welcome three wandering strangers into their home and offer them food. It is the perfect illustration of Middle Eastern hospitality and the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). These are important values at any time of year, but how much more so this week?

With Thanksgiving upon us, we can teach our children the importance of hospitality and how to be good hosts. We can expect them to say "Welcome to our home!" and "Can I get you a drink?" when your guests arrive.  We can encourage them to offer the turkey to their sibling or their grandmother before they take some for themselves. We can teach them to consider the needs of others before they tend to their own needs and the importance of sharing with others all that they are blessed with. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Imagination Playground and Loose Parts

Thanks to the generosity of the Chaiken family, the preschool has been able to purchase a set of Imagination Playground blocks for our gross motor play space in the social hall. Unlike a traditional playground, where the kind of play is predetermined by the different equipment available, Imagination Playground encourages open ended play, self-discovery, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity. The pieces are made of lightweight foam and can fit together in dozens of ways. Working in groups of 10-12, the children can build virtually anything they can imagine. Because the pieces are so large, the children also get to interact with whatever they’ve built. We’re so excited about our new toy! Thank you Chaiken family!

Imagination Playground falls into the category of “loose parts,” a philosophy that encourages children (and adults!) to use everyday materials to discover and create, imagine and build. According to Loose Parts, Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky, “ . . . loose parts means alluring, beautiful found objects and materials that children can move, manipulate, control, and change while they play. Children can carry, combine, redesign, line up, take apart, and put loose parts back together in almost endless ways. The materials come with no specific set of directions, and they can be used alone or combined with other materials. Children can turn them into whatever they desire: a stone can become a character in a story; an acorn can become an ingredient in an imaginary soup. These objects invite conversations and interactions, and they encourage collaboration. Put another way, loose parts promote social competence because they support creativity and innovation.” Click here for a great example of loose parts play -- you might recognize the star!

If loose parts theory sounds like the kind of play you engaged in as a child, you’re probably right. And loose parts play is just as important now as it was then. In my opinion, the hardest thing about being an educator right now is that we don’t know exactly what skills and knowledge our students will need in the next decade. Or in 2030. Or 2050. Think of the technological changes that have impacted our homes, schools, and businesses in just the last decade. The iPad was released in 2010, only six years ago. Eight years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I couldn’t have imagined the changes that the iPad would bring to the classroom.

The types of skills that loose parts theory, and toys like Imagination Playground, provide go way beyond technology. Loose parts play encourages problem solving and collaboration, critical and creative thinking, and flexibility and adaptability. The children who are in school today will probably live in a technological world that we can’t imagine, but they will face many of the same problems. By challenging and empowering them now we are enabling them for the future.

Please join me on Tuesday, December 6 at 7:30 pm for a discussion on Loose Parts, Inspiring Play in Young Children. We'll talk and play!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Bereishit

This week we start reading the Torah from the beginning. The first book of the Torah, Bereishit, is also the name of the first parsha. The stories in Bereishit are the ones everyone knows: creation, Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel, and the journey of Abraham and his family.

This week we read about Adam and Eve. God creates a paradise for them but warns them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Curious and tempted, of course they eat the fruit. In that moment, they become aware of their nakedness and lose their innocence.

I've always thought that this story is a beautiful metaphor for parenthood. We want to provide our children with everything they need to be happy and healthy and safe. We want to shelter them from the harsh realities of the grown up world. But, ultimately, we can't. Our children grow up, explore, take chances, make mistakes. They become their own people and -- eventually -- leave home. It's sad for us, even though we always knew it was inevitable. 

I've always imagined God as the parent here. God realizes God wouldn't always be able to protect and shelter the human souls God had lovingly created, and therefore God lovingly lets them go when the time comes for them to live their own lives. Letting go of our children, whether it's to attend preschool or leave for college, is hard. It's sometimes sad. But it's what we do because we love them.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- V'zot Habracha

This week we read the last parsha of the Torah, V'zot Habracha. Moses says good-bye to the Jewish people and then dies on the mountain and Joshua becomes the people's leader. 

midrash (or commentary on the biblical text) teaches us that the last letter of the Torah is lamed, and the fist letter of the first word of the Torah, Bereshit, is bet. Therefore, the last letter and the first letter spell lev, or heart. This is understood to mean that the Torah is the heart of the Jewish people. 

I shared this simple teaching with the children today during our Kabbalat Shabbat/Simchat Torah celebration. Please ask them about how they felt singing songs, dancing with the Torah, and waving their flags and if they remembered that the Torah is always in their heart.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Ha'azinu

In this week's parshaHa'azinu, Moses recites a poem praising God before he ascends Mount Nebo. He knows he will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land before he dies; he will only be able to look upon it from a distance. Moses is very near the end of his life at this moment, and we are very near the end of the Torah.

In our tradition, we celebrate both beginnings and endings. I've always found the final shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur services to be rather celebratory, almost like a festive acknowledgement of all our hard work. We mark the end of Shabbat with candles, wine, and spices at Havdalah. And on Simchat Torah, after we read the last words of the Torah, we celebrate by immediately reading from Bresheit, the first book of the Torah.

It reminds me of all those times I've finished reading a book to a child and she immediately cries out, "Read it again!" She loved the story so much, or she loved being read to so much, that she didn't want the experience to end. The message for our children, then, is simple. We love the stories in our Torah so much, and we love reading our Torah so much, that we don't ever want it to end. As soon as we finish it, we can't wait to start reading it all over again.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayelech

This week's parsha is Vayelech. On Moses's last day on earth, he ensures that future generations will know the Torah by finishing the task of writing it down in a scroll and giving it to the Levites to protect it. He also appoints Joshua as the leader to succeed him.

Moses also says something very powerful: "Gather the people -- men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities -- that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God . . ."

"Those who have not had the experience" refers to those who weren't with Moses in the desert for all those years, those who didn't experience the revelation at Mt. Sinai directly. Moses is suggesting that even generations not yet born are blessed with the teachings of the Torah. I can't think of a more profound concept to impress on our children: God knew each of us before we were born, God had faith in us, and God had a most precious gift God was anxiously waiting to give us: the gift of Torah.

Friday, September 30, 2016

B'tzelem Elohim and Developmentally Appropriate Practice

B’tzelem Elohim is a Jewish value that means we are all created in the image of God. To me, this means that if God is unique, then every human soul is unique; if God is holy, then every human soul is holy; if God is to be celebrated, then every human soul is to be celebrated.

In teaching, remembering and practicing B’tzelem Elohim is essential. Every child is unique, holy, and to be celebrated. Every child comes to school with their own likes and dislikes, beliefs and opinions, quirky habits, family situation, physical traits, and stories to tell. As educators, it is our job to get to know each child, figure out where they are in their growth and development, and then help them move forward along their path.

In early childhood education, there is a name for this approach: developmentally appropriate practice, or DAP. DAP is not easily defined in a few short sentences. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) position statement on developmentally appropriate practice says, in part:
  • “Developmentally appropriate practice requires both meeting children where they are—which means that teachers must get to know them well—and enabling them to reach goals that are both challenging and achievable. 
  • All teaching practices should be appropriate to children’s age and developmental status, attuned to them as unique individuals, and responsive to the social and cultural contexts in which they live.
  • Developmentally appropriate practice does not mean making things easier for children. Rather, it means ensuring that goals and experiences are suited to their learning and development and challenging enough to promote their progress and interest.”
By teaching children in ways that are developmentally appropriate, we are practicing B’tzelem Elohim. When we infuse best practices in education with Jewish values, our teaching takes on new meaning. I genuinely believe that teaching children – of all ages – in a developmentally appropriate way is something of a sacred responsibility, especially when you think of DAP in relation to B’tzelem Elohim. Thank you for granting me the privilege of working with this community’s children and enabling me to practicing this value.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Ki Tavo

The parsha this week, Ki Tavo, instructs the children of Israel to bring the first ripened fruits of their harvest to the Temple as a show of gratitude to God for all of the blessings God has bestowed upon them. When reading this, I immediately thought of apples. Crisp, sweet, juicy, farm fresh apples. The kind of apples that you can only find at farmers markets in September and October.

When I translate the Hebrew blessing for apples for older children, I translate the blessing literally: "Blessed are you, Lord and God, Sovereign of the Universe, for creating the fruit of the tree." For younger children, I take a more liberal approach. I tell the children the blessing means: "Thank you God for making apples. They're really delicious." In taking a moment to thank God for the fruit of the tree, we're teaching our children about a special kind of gratitude. It's easy to say "thank you" when someone helps you open your lunchbox or tie your shoes. It's harder to remember that we should still be thankful for the things most of us take for granted, like delicious, crisp, sweet, juicy apples that only autumn brings.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Ki Tetzei

Contained within this week's parshaKi Tetzei, is one of my favorite mitzvot: "You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt." It is a mitzvah that is increasingly hard to fulfill in today's sophisticated, multi-layered, direct deposit global economy,  but I think the essence of the mitzvah remains clear: respect all work and respect all workers.

I also think that's how we approach teaching this mitzvah to our children. We all teach our children to be polite, to say please and thank you, but what if we added an extra layer? What if we taught that we were thanking our doctor, our grocery store clerk, our teacher, our letter carrier, our house cleaning crew, our gardener, our rabbi, or our neighborhood firefighter specifically for the job they did for us? We would be teaching our children that we value the work that was done on our behalf, no matter how big or small the job, and that we appreciate the person who did the work for us.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Shabbat Around the Table -- Shoftim

This week’s parsha (or weekly reading) is Shoftim. It’s first words are, “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your G-d is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the pleas of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you.”

How can we talk to our children about this parsha? Children certainly have a strong sense of right and wrong, so that’s a good place to start! Children also need to know that they can go to someone for help when they’re having a problem. There are people who can help them when they’re having disagreements with someone else. Of course, we want to teach our children how to resolve conflicts on their own, but they should also understand that it’s OK to ask for help. We all need help from time to time remembering the rules or figuring out right from wrong.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Preschools Past and Present

The George Mason University Child Development Center, where I worked almost twenty years ago, would probably still be considered progressive by today’s standards. In the four-year-old room, we had a wood working station, outfitted with real wood, real nails, and real hammers. Wearing protective eye gear the children would hammer away as they found new ways to get chunky pieces of wood to fit together. One day, a girl came to me, holding out her thumb and crying so hard that she wasn’t making any noise. Her thumb was huge and purple and it looked like it hurt. I jumped into action and fixed her up as best I could and then, with a few encouraging words, sent her on her way to continue pounding away. About ten minutes later, she gave me something. She’d found a large round piece of wood into which she’d hammered nails to look like eyes and a nose. She’d used markers to draw a mouth and hair and she’d written “Thanks!” across the forehead. I still have that work of art, and it reminds me that children are clever and resilient and if we empower them and trust them they won’t give up until they’re the ones who are satisfied.

A few years later I started working at Keshet, a much more traditional Jewish preschool. What I remember most about my time there is cooking with the children. We mixed and kneaded and braided and baked lumpy challahs every Friday; we made over-sized and over-filled hamantaschen every Purim; and for Pesach I let them decide how much cinnamon and sugar to add to the charoset, which meant a lot. Baking with children, especially Jewish baking, is going to be a hands-on sensory experience. It’s going to get messy and it’s going to take at least three times as long as you think it should. You have to be willing to let go a little and not worry so much about measuring just right or not kneading too much. Forget that little bit of eggshell. Children live Judaism when they bake Jewish food, and by smelling and tasting what they’ve made with their own hands they’re making Jewish memories that will last them a lifetime.

In 2005, my son started preschool at Reggio-Emilia inspired Beverley Hills parent co-operative. One of my favorite pieces of art from his days there wasn’t even made by him; it was made by the friends on his birthday committee for him. They interviewed him and found out what he liked best. That week it was trucks. Working together, and carefully guided by their teacher, they brainstormed what to make him and how, using what materials. Equipped with good paper, water colors, fine-tipped black markers, buttons, and fabric pieces, they worked for a week and created a work of art and presented it to him on behalf of the class. It hung in our family room for years, a reminder of the gentle simplicity of a handmade gift, and it now hangs in my office, a reminder of what children are capable of when given the right materials, the right environment, and the right guidance.

I’m looking forward to a school year here at Agudas Achim Preschool full of risk-taking, creative baking, and beautiful art making, and I hope you are too!

The Socially Awkward Person's Guide to Playing with Children

The title of this piece is a little misleading. It should be the "Any Adult Person's Guide to Playing with Children."  A...