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!

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