The Secret Sauce

One of my best friends in college was a fiery Persian Jew from Los Angeles; she reminded me of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin, if the princess had a potty mouth and wore less clothing. One Passover, Jasmine and I were trying to make our respective family charoset recipes. There was just one problem: neither of us actually knew the specific servings of the ingredients. We knew the general recipe and what it should taste like but otherwise we didn’t have a clue (generous helpings of the the Passover drink of choice, Manischewitz, didn’t help the matter). We both grew up making these dishes with our family every Passover, but the recipes were transmitted orally and through the shared experience of cooking together.

No matter, we forged ahead. I found myself covered in the fallout of Ashkenazi ingredients–shaved nuts, pooled honey, wine, apple slices, cinnamon, and nutmeg–while my roommate was painted in the dates, banana mush, ginger, cardamom, and pomegranate juice of Persian charoset. Sauced on sweet wine and befuddled, we exercised every college student’s best option and called our mothers for help. To this day I remember her response when pressed on the specific ingredients: “I don’t know, just taste as you go.”

One of the great ways Jews create community is through food and cooking. Instead of writing down exact prescriptions, people are the keepers of the recipes. This cleverly ensures the need for humans to participate in the process, demanding not only communication, but also face-to-face interaction. The key to a successful recipe is the presence of the “keeper of the recipe,” and as a result, our families were ensuring the continuity of community and tradition. Whether our parents and grandparents realized it, they were making their physical presence a necessity.

The tradition of oral law and storytelling has a long history in Judaism. It exists to create and sustain community. For many generations, the only way to learn the traditions, laws and customs was from the community. Now that I have my own daughter, I can’t wait for the first Passover that she asks me how to make my famous charoset and of course my answer will be, “I don’t know, just taste as you go.”

This time of year can be crazy and overwhelming: Purim celebrations rush quickly into Passover preparations and the stress of expelling every tiny crumb from the house. It is easy to lose track of the ties that connect us to each other. But the demands and traditions of the holiday are also a terrific excuse to reach out and reconnect. Go call your mom, grandma, dad, best friend etc. and share something special together this holiday season. Happy Passover!

Ingredients for my friend’s Persian Charoset:
Dates, apples, banana, walnuts, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, pomegranate juice

Ingredients for my Charoset:
Apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, walnuts, honey, Kosher sweet blackberry wine

Reimagining the Materials in your Classroom

“Provide materials that leave room for the imagination and sufficient time to innovate with these materials.”

– David Elkind

The types of materials used in the classroom can have a huge impact on learning and development. The challenge is to reimagine and rethink classroom materials and how they are being used in order to explore possible new and open-ended uses. Just think of the endless opportunities to create, explore and learn using recycled materials or  “mundane”, everyday objects if only viewed from a different lens.

I recently led a workshop on exploring open-ended materials used in a play based curriculum. It was an opportunity for teachers to explore, create and use materials in a completely new and different way than their intended or original purpose.

Offering alternatives to traditional tools, like paintbrushes, can encourage exploration and creativity. In the pictures above, flowers, flower stems, pinecones, and foam shapes that were once packing material were used instead of brushes to apply homemade “puffy paint” (white glue, shaving cream and liquid water color). The teachers explored the different textures of the non traditional tools and the images created.

Play dough is another wonderful activity to have in early education classrooms. It offers open ended exploration of colors, shapes, textures and encourages development in fine and gross motor skills, as well as developing physical strength (think about all the times you have seen a child use their entire body to flatten a ball of dough). Materials with different shapes and textures such as, shells, star fish, corks, and packing cardboard are just a few examples of items that can be paired with dough. They are a great alternative to the traditional plastic play dough toys and cookie cutters.

Providing materials that encourage exploration in areas of STEM in classrooms, especially ECE classrooms, is also critical. It can be as easy as bringing in a few plastic tubes, balls and cardboard tubes cut in half. These resources can be found at resource recycling centers such as the RAFT (Resource Area For Teaching) and are very inexpensive.  The materials provide an opportunity to engage in trial and error, engineering, and cooperation.

Children are incredibly creative and imaginative. It is important to provide a wide array of developmentally appropriate materials and the time and space for children to explore, create and discover using those materials.

Annual Jewish ECE Conference- Colorado

I recently had the opportunity to host a workshop at the Annual Jewish ECE Conference sponsored by Colorado Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) and the ECE Initiative in Denver, CO. The event brings together Jewish preschools in the greater Denver, Boulder Colorado Springs area as well other cities in Colorado.  Educators attend various workshops and seminars focused around a general theme. This year the theme was “The Power of Story.” I presented a hands-on workshop, Enhancing Storytelling using Story Stones and Loose Parts, and we had an amazing group of educators who made the session a total success. For more insight on story stones, please see my related blog post.

Please enjoy some pictures below from the workshop. I would love to answer any questions you may have and hear about how you use story stones in your classroom!

Telling a Story

Creating Noah’s Ark using a combination of story stones loose parts and traditional toys:

Seminar (1 of 35)

Examples of Jewish Themed Story Stones

Seminar (29 of 35)

These stones are hand drawn illustrations using permanent art markers.

Seminar (15 of 35)

Some of the stones are decorated with clipart images that were printed from a computer and affixed with glue. Other images are hand drawn on paper and then glued onto the stones. All of the stones were covered with a water and glue mixture to seal the paper onto the stones.

Seminar (14 of 35)

These stones are either hand-drawn or they have stickers glued to the face.

Room Set- Up and Materials

 

General Themed Story Stones

 

Adding an Auditory Element to the Stories

Seminar (5 of 35)

A chime, wooden frog instrument and a rain stick

 

The Results

Storytelling Using Story Stones

Children are natural storytellers. Children want to talk about their day, the adventures they had, the enormous tower they are currently building, their new shoes or the pet that is waiting for them at home (even if they don’t actually have a pet, they will tell you an elaborate story all about their imaginary pet). Sometimes all it takes to get a child to share their story is a visual cue, a reminder or a spark that enables the child to create or tell a story. Story stones, loose parts and open-ended materials can be a great tool in story telling.

Story stones are stones decorated with different images. They can have a wide array of images: plants, animals, modes of transportation, different parts of the body and people as well as letters, numbers and even words.  The options for images are endless. These stones serve as a visual way to tell stories or express feelings and emotions. To see more examples of story stones please see the related blog post

Story stones are a useful and fun tool to employ in the classroom. They give children an opportunity to practice story sequencing, creativity, language development and cooperation. The stones can serve as a visual cue to inspire and enhance stories and they are a good resource to have in the classroom. I’ve found that an endless number  of stories can be created from a limited number of stones.

Story Stones can be created inexpensively and children can also be given the opportunity to create their own.  If you are in a Jewish classroom, the stones can have Jewish themed visuals on them, as well. Creating the stones can be as easy as using stickers or clipart printed from the computer to decorate. Often, it also works well to use sharpies or permanent art markers to draw on the stones and the results are beautiful.

I recently presented at a conference in Denver in which we explored the many uses and applications of story stones and open-ended materials in the classroom. The educators in our workshop incorporated different materials to create their stories; some were linear expressions of a story and others were more visual. Offering an array of materials like clay, paint, sand, and natural elements (wood, pine cones, sticks) can lead to a visually stunning and elaborate representation of stories. It is also important to offer unique tools to explore the materials as well. For example, a teacher can offer children foam rollers, coral sponges, etc. as a more open-ended method of applying paint instead of just laying out brushes on a table.

Not only can a varied array of materials be representative of a story but the materials themselves can serve as an inspiration for a story. The types of materials educators provide can be inspired by what the children are interested in and talking about in the classroom. If a child just returned from the beach, then a great addition to the art or sensory table could be sea sponges, shells or sand. The options for different materials can be endless but it is important to choose the materials with intention.

When you bring open-ended materials and story stones in your classroom, have fun and be prepared to see the materials used in creative and new ways.

Play in the Classroom

Incorporating Jewish Play into your Classroom

Over the past year it seems the topic of play has received a lot of attention. A recent story by NPR discussed the positive effects that play has on brain development; another story highlighted the connection between play and a child’s success in life.  Most people attribute the decrease in play in schools to an increase of standardized testing and a focus on a more “academic” curriculum. This has led to more time spent on rote instruction and less time for open-ended play.

Research shows that play is an integral and crucial part of learning and development for children. Play helps children develop skills such as language, self regulation, social competence, and emotional intelligence. Play has even been attributed to brain development. Educational philosopher Stuart Brown states, “Play is a vital way for the brain to integrate its divergent parts and build complex synaptic connections. [These connections] are critical to continued brain stabilization, organization, and development.” (Nell, Drew, Bush 15).  Classic educational theorists and researchers such as Friedrich Froebel, Lev Vygostky, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erickson all attribute and expound the importance of play in a person’s learning and development. If we accept that play in the classroom is important and we commit to providing time for it, what does play look like? Moreover, what does it look like in a Jewish classroom?

In any classroom, Jewish or secular, educators must provide a safe space and appropriate materials for children to be able to play. It is important to provide a variety of open-ended materials for children to explore. Educators can seamlessly integrate Judaism into play by adding some thoughtful elements.

Materials: By definition, there is no right or wrong way of using “open-ended materials” or loose parts. Children are not given instructions when using the materials (other than safety guidelines).  Rather, they are able to explore, create and use the materials as they wish. Open-ended materials used in a Jewish classroom can be exactly the same as those in a secular classroom. Educators can and should give children opportunities to experience specifically Jewish items, as well.

  • Do you have ritual items such as kiddish cups, shabbat candles and sticks, challah covers, kippot, a replica of a Torah, etc. available and accessible to children?
  • Do you have items used for holidays such as a lulav and etrog, chanukiah, building materials for a sukkah, seder plate, etc. available in your classroom for children to explore?
  • Are those items used for holidays available and accessible only during the holidays or are they brought out and explored at various times of the year?
  • How do you/your school/your community feel about letting the children explore Jewish ritual objects (in a safe and respectful manner)?

Music and classroom environment: Music can help create and shape the classroom environment. Educators should be intentional about playing music and the types of music being played. For example, playing Shabbat music on Friday mornings has a profound effect on classroom spirit. By playing music with holiday themes or Hebrew lyrics, educators can create a Jewish environment.

Values and Language: Play creates opportunities to discuss and teach values. Introducing language that supports values during play can encourage safe, appropriate play and offer simple ways to discuss values-based concepts in the classroom. Here are 2 examples of using play to discuss and introduce values:

  • Tikkun Olam, repair the world: Use recycled materials in the classroom. Egg cartons, empty food containers, scrap fabric, tile or wood can be used in imaginative and creative ways and offer an opportunity to discuss concepts such as recycling and caring for the Earth and resources.
  • B’tzelem Elohim, In G-d’s image: We talk a lot about treating each other with respect and kindness in preschool. For young children this value can be used to help promote the idea that all humans are similar and, although we may have differences, we should treat each other with respect and love. Highlighting this value can encourage self-regulation and cooperation.

Just like in secular play, the possibilities of Jewish Play are endless; so take a leap and explore the endless opportunities to incorporate Judaism into play in your classroom.

Digital Media and Reading

After G.N.P., the quantity of books in one’s home was the most important predictor of reading performance…The implications are clear: Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically. It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as décor.

An interesting article, Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves , discussing the effect the loss of physical media as in books, newspapers, music (records, CDs, tapes) has on our opportunity to discover, share and learn using that media.

Finding your Shehecheyanu: How Thanksgiving is a Jewish Tradition

I have always celebrated Thanksgiving without giving it much thought. In school, I learned why we celebrate Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims were so thankful they survived a winter and were able to produce a harvest that they celebrated with a special feast. But really Thanksgiving meant a long weekend and a lot of food and family. As a Jew, however, I should feel a strong and significant connection to this holiday for two reasons: gratitude is a central component of Jewish life and many Jewish routines and rituals are based around gratitude; and Jews have a long history of being the newcomers striving to survive in a new land.

From the moment Jews wake up they are supposed to be filled with a sense of gratitude, and verbalize this through the Modeh Ani. This prayer is recited every morning to show gratitude for waking up. Before Jews do anything else, before planning the day, thinking about the million and one things that have to be done, Jews are supposed to take a moment of gratitude. Another common recognition of gratitude is the shehecheyanu. Jews recite this prayer every time they do something new in a given year. Jews recognize that this moment is special and are thankful for being able to partake in it, …[You] who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion. When I work with schools, educators and families I emphasize the power and importance of the shehecheyanu.

TurkeyAs a parent of a two year old, I have a whole new sense of gratitude. Like any parent of a young child, I find myself being grateful for many things: the incredible hugs and kisses, two extra minutes of sleep, when my daughter happily sits in the carseat without a struggle, the sweet brown eyes and smile that wake me up every morning by announcing “it’s breakfast time” (this one, I admit is sometimes harder than others to be grateful for, especially when it’s 5:00 am), the new word my daughter said that day, when my daughter offers a hug to a crying child. The list could go on and on. But like any busy parent I get lost in the everyday moments of life and lose some of the critical elements and benefits of gratitude. I find it important to recenter and refocus myself and for me, this can be done by saying the shehecheyanu. Taking a moment to stop and reflect on the moment is crucial for building gratitude and appreciation. Children, especially young children, are experiencing and doing something new all the time and are often extremely proud and excited about it. Parents can take these wonderful moments to pause from their busy lives and say the shehecheyanu to express and celebrate their gratitude for reaching this moment. If the shehecheyanu isn’t meaningful to you, create your own tradition, something that is meaningful to you and your family to celebrate a moment of gratitude. Whether or not you believe in G-d, the value of gratitude and being thankful for arriving at a moment is a universal value. Create something that allows you to take a moment to pause and reflect.

My in-laws have a tradition at Thanksgiving in which everyone at the table shares what they are thankful for that year. This year I encourage families to not only share what they are thankful for during the past year, but to also continue the Jewish tradition of gratitude and celebrate moments from your month, week, and day on a regular basis to reflect on and express gratitude.

*Modeh Ani: I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

Modeh anee lefanecha melech chai vekayam, she-he-chezarta bee nishmatee b’chemla, raba emunatecha.

*Shehecheyanu: Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

The Blue Trees

Once, while the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw an old man planting a carob tree.  Honi asked him:  “How many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit?”  The man answered that it would require 70 years.  Honi asked:  “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”  The man answered:  “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me.  So, too, will I plant for my children.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a)

Teaching conservation to young children can be hard. The idea that some things are finite can be a difficult concept for anyone, let alone children. That’s why I love the idea behind The Blue Trees project.

The Blue Trees is a project by Egyptian-born artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, which brings environmental consciousness and social action together in a uniquely beautiful and captivating installation. In this internationally renowned event, a series of trees are colored with a water-based, environmentally safe, blue pigment, transforming the trees into sculpture. What was once taken for granted and unseen suddenly comes to the forefront of our attention and is the impetus for dialogue about global deforestation and its impact on world ecology, and how we individually and collectively shape the natural world around us.The Blue Trees

Just imagine a school yard’s trees covered in paint, yarn, fabric, ribbons or anything else children can use to decorate trees. The ability to capture a child’s attention and fill them with curiosity and wonderment is a powerful tactic in teaching them a concept. In Judaism there is a value Tikkun Olam, to repair the world. This value not only focuses on the future and preservation but also on protecting and fixing the current world. This concept can be applied to many different actions: justice, showing empathy, hospitality, as well as protecting the environment.

Laying the foundation for children who care for their environment, including trees, can start at a young age. While children may not be able to fully understand the impact they have on the environment, they can be taught to notice, love and care for nature, which is the first step in protecting it. Taking something that children see everyday, such as trees, something that may have become mundane and blended into the background of daily life and making it vibrant and unique, just like The Blue Trees, can help capture a child’s attention.

 

 

Making your Classroom Feel More Like Home

“And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your home and  your gates”

-Deuteronomy 6:4-9/11:13-21

For some children, they spend as much time in a classroom or daycare as they do in their homes. So why wouldn’t educators commit to making the classroom feel more like “home”? Hanging a mezuzah*on the classroom door is a way to bring the home-school connection to life and make it tangible for children. Having a mezuzah on the door also makes an important statement, saying “this is a Jewish classroom”.

The start of the school year is a great time to focus on the mezuzah. Children are transitioning from home to school and this is a great opportunity to make children feel like their classroom is a safe and comfortable place, like a second home. Children love sharing stories about their lives, so let each child bring in a picture of a mezuzah they find at their house and share it with the class.  If a child does not have a mezuzah at their home, then use this as an opportunity to discuss different traditions of families and religions. Make it an inclusive project for a diverse classroom.

Children are also much more invested in something if they have a hand in creating it. Let the children help create the decorative case for the parchment scroll to hang on your classroom door. You can easily find large plain wood cases on craft sites to decorate or you can use materials such as clay, plastic tubes, wire,  etc. to create your own case. Children will be excited to see their work hanging on the door. Make sure to let the children create their own mezuzah to take home as well. One way to include families in the process is to invite them to write a prayer or wish for their children or family on the scroll.

There are a lot of opportunities to expand on the concept of a mezuzah and create an entire project around it. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Homes:
    • Composition of a home: (doorposts), materials (wood, brick, cement)
    • houses around the world (huts, igloos, apartments)
  • Mezuzah scroll
    • Explore the different types of writing utensils and paper
  • Mezuzah cover
    • Endless opportunities to explore different materials to create a cover (wood, clay, wire, etc)
    • Are there different traditions and artistic styles for different communities and different parts of the world?

The mezuzah is an important tradition in Judaism and something we see everyday, so celebrate it and have fun exploring and creating!
*A mezuzah is the parchment scroll on which the prayer, the Shema is written and not the decorative cover. For purposes of this post, when I use the word mezuzah, I am referring to both the decorative cover and the parchment inside.

Finding Inspiration in Recycled Materials

During a recent trip to the Denver Art Museum, I happened upon a wonderfully colorful, vibrant, beautiful and thought provoking interactive installation entitled Aqua Terra. The artist, Francisco Alvarado-Jaurez took paper bags from the grocery store to create tropical sea plants and a landscape inspired by his home, Honduras. The description stated that Alvarado-Jaurez felt this piece highlights the many different ways of recycling and using everyday objects to create art. When I saw the art installation, I immediately thought what a wonderful project for a classroom to take inspiration from and create their own. The installation also invited viewers to participate in the creative process by adding a creature, note or original art to the installation. 

There are so many great learning opportunities to stem from a project like this: recycling, taking care of the Earth, learning about the environment, becoming scientists and observing your surroundings, and cooperation.   

Exploring the different themes:

Recycling

  • Discuss the concept of recycling: the process, how it works, why it is important.
  • Ask children/ families to bring in materials from their homes. It could be anything from paper grocery bags, bottles, cans, to natural elements found in their yard that the class will repurpose.
  • Look for items in the school that can be recycled and repurposed.

Science

  • Discuss the process of recycling and the concept of turning something old into something new
  • Explore and discover the environment: the school, the city. Is there an ocean, mountain, desert near by? What trees, flowers, flora and fauna are surrounding the school?

Social/emotional

  • Create and design a piece of artwork
    • discuss a plan for the classroom’s piece. Does the class want to use one type of material or multiple? Does the class want to assign roles and specific jobs or let everyone work on what they want?

Literacy

  • Create science or art journals
  • Research different art mediums and environments

Family engagement component

  • Ask families to contribute to the piece, just like Aqua Terra. Provide some guidelines for parents and families to follow

If you are in a Jewish classroom you can incorporate Jewish values and themes. Here are some values you can discuss and highlight:

  • Tikkun Olam: Repairing the Earth
  • Shemirat Ha’adamah: Protecting the Earth
  • Bal taschit: Do not destroy or needlessly waste