Friday, March 31, 2017

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayakhel-P'kudei

Today, with help from and thanks to Moreh Simon, I managed to connect the week's parsha with my favorite storybook character when I visited with the 4s classes as their Shabbes Guest. 

In this week's parshaVayakhel-P'kudei, Betzalel and other skilled artisans were granted the privilege of building and beautifying the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary, that the Israelites carried with them in the desert. When we love something we want to take care of it, keep it safe, and make it beautiful. (Just remember how much fun it was to wrap your beloved newborn in that ridiculously expensive but adorable onesie that they would never be able to fit into again.) When we take something that God commands us to do, like lighting Shabbat candles, and make sure that our candlesticks are special and beautiful, we elevate the mitzvah. This is called hiddur mitzvah.

But my favorite storybook character, Elizabeth, the Paper Bag Princess, is anything but beautiful when she rescues her prince from the dragon that burned down her castle. She's dirty, her hair is tangled, and she's literally wearing a paper bag when she outsmarts the dragon and rescues her prince. Who immediately calls her out for not looking like a princess. At which point, Elizabeth wisely dumps him and skips off into the sunset. Elizabeth knows she doesn't have to be beautiful to be wonderful.

So, we should remember hiddur mitzvah and make an effort to make our celebration of the mitzvot as beautiful as possible, while remembering that even the things that aren't so beautiful are special, important, and valuable, too.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayikra

This week we start reading from the book of Vayikra (or Leviticus), a book that contains many of the laws surrounding ritual and observance. When thinking about laws in general, it's easy to think about the laws that govern Shabbat. In order to make a clear distinction between the workweek and Shabbat, there are certain things that the tradition proscribes, like driving cars, using money, or watching TV. But rather than think about what we "can't do" on Shabbat, I've always preferred to think about what we "don't have to do." We don't have to do laundry, we don't have to drive to soccer practice, and we don't have to stand in line at the grocery store. Instead, we get to do the things that are so much more meaningful and rewarding: having dinner together as a family, playing games as a family, and spending time together as a family, without so many distractions. Wishing you and your family a Good Shabbes!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Shabbat Around the Table -- Purim: "They are all Esthers"

The celebration of Purim seems to have been designed with young children in mind: cookies, costumes, parades, carnivals, goody bags, songs, and silliness. Yet, the story of Purim itself is decidedly child un-friendly. We read about gluttony, greed, misogyny, xenophobia, and attempted genocide. And don't forget the execution at the end. So what should we focus on when teaching this story to our children?

I used to ask my fourth and fifth graders to identify the 'big idea' in a story, and I used to think the 'big idea' in Megillat Esther is that one person really can make a difference. But this year I see a new 'big idea.'

King Achashverosh was willing to follow the suggestion of his evil adviser Haman and kill all the Jews in Persia, until he learned that his beloved wife was Jewish.  In that moment, the Jews in his kingdom became less amorphous; they became real people. At least one Jew in his kingdom had a face, a mind, a personality. If Esther, a Jew, was a real person, then all the other nameless, faceless Jews must be real people, too, none of whom deserved to die because ONE Jew had refused to bow down to Haman.

In today's world, where increasingly it seems as if different groups, for different reasons, are trying to identify an 'us' and a 'them,' and to pit 'us' against 'them,' I think it's important to remember who 'them' are. They are all Esthers.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Constructivism Part 3

In my last two bulletin articles, I presented the theory of constructivism: learners construct knowledge via their experiences and not through direct instruction. While the theory is applicable at all levels of education, it is especially essential in the early childhood classroom. Young children must be provided with a multitude of sensory experiences in order to engage with their world, arrive at questions, seek answers to their questions, continue to explore, and then create meaning for themselves. The early childhood teacher’s role in such a classroom is to facilitate, coach, encourage, challenge, and, most importantly, know when not to interfere.

At the Early Childhood Education Conference in December, Rabbi Meir Muller spoke passionately about the theory of constructivism. Near the end of his presentation he acknowledged that some Jewish educators are wary of the theory for three main reasons. He then swiftly refuted each one.

Some educators worry that if children are allowed to construct their own knowledge, they may construct something that is factually wrong; for example, they may construct that pigs are kosher. But Rabbi Muller explained that that simply isn’t likely to happen. The idea that pigs are kosher is so “outside the rules of the game” that it is highly unlikely that children would construct that meaning from their experiences. In the unlikely event that they would, the teacher would simply say, “The Torah says that pigs aren’t kosher.” There’s no judgement there, just a statement of fact. The children will accept that and move on.

Some might argue that constructivism just isn’t the way Jews have traditionally learned, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The chavruta model, a way Jews have studied the Torah and Talmud for a thousand years, in which two learners sit across from each other, read from a primary source, proceed to question and answer and argue with each other, and then seek to apply the learning to a new situation, is the very definition of constructivism. In chavruta,learners are creating meaning for themselves, they’re not being asked to memorize something and repeat it back later on. It’s the new ideas -- the new perspectives -- that are so highly valued.

Finally, and this one was framed differently than the other two, some Jewish teachers might think they’re teaching a Jewish concept when in fact children are constructing a very different kind of knowledge from the experience the teachers have created. The example he gave was of children attaching small yellow pieces of tissue paper to a chanukiah made out of wooden clothespins. Engaged in that experience, children might be constructing an understanding of one-to-one correspondence, a formative math skill, or practicing their fine motor skills, but they’re really not learning about Chanukah. Teachers need to be careful observers to know what children are actually learning while they’re playing, which is what next month’s column will focus on.

Grasshoppers to Giants

From June 2017 In a few weeks, we'll read about Moses sending twelve spies into the land of Israel to do a reconnaissance mission. Th...