Building Leadership in ECE Through Community

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from every person. – Pirkei Avot 4:1

How do we build the capacity of early childhood educators to become leaders? An important goal in Jewish early childhood education is to provide a foundation for children to become caring, contributing members of society who make a positive impact on the world. Early childhood (EC) educators spend a long time focusing on teaching and supporting children to practice their social/emotional skills, such as empathy and cooperation. EC educators realize that when children cooperate, they expand their skills. If we know this to be true for children, why then, do we offer such little time for EC educators to learn together through cooperation? 

An interesting study from 2012, conducted by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation, found that teachers spend only about 3 percent of their teaching day collaborating with colleagues. Although this study was focused on K-12 educators, it unfortunately highlights the fact that most teachers plan, teach and reflect on their practice alone.  How can we expect our teachers to grow into leaders if they are isolated? The Efshar Project, formerly known the Colorado Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (COJECEI) has found success in supporting educators in growing their leadership capacity through learning cohorts.  One such model is a Community of Practice. 

A Community of Practice (CoP) is a “learning experience with a committed community of members who share a domain of interest, interact and engage in shared activities, help each other, share information, and build relationships that enable them to learn with and from each other.”  If properly facilitated, a CoP not only increases the capacity of an educator in a particular domain, it has also proven to increase the capacity and desire to become educational leaders. 

In addition to fostering the leadership capacity in educators, the ripple effect of reaching other educators is profound. Natalie Boscoe, pedagogical coach for the Efshar Project, facilitated  a two-year-long CoP focused on documentation in early childhood education. Educators from four different schools in the Denver area participated in this CoP. Over the two years, the CoP had a total of 13 group sessions as well as individual coaching time for each participant. The group sessions allowed for and encouraged collaboration, shared learning and relationship building. The individual coaching hours offered an opportunity for differentiated learning and goal setting for each participant. 

This mix of group learning with individualized coaching was critical in supporting the participants’ learning and capacity to grow their leadership abilities. All of the participants grew their understanding of documentation and the majority of participants took on leadership roles within their school after participating in the CoP. The educators not only had increased knowledge of a particular domain, but also reported that working together with other teachers increased their confidence and comfort working with their colleagues. One participant named Sheryl, said: 

Over the course of the past two years, I have been a part of this amazing Cop and learned together with wonderful teachers.  This has been a different way of learning for me—in the past I learned one-on-one…  This type of learning [within the CoP] has helped me to think differently and to become more vulnerable in my own work.  Sharing with a group of teachers can be scary; however these women are open and non-judgemental which is very humbling.

During the second year of the CoP, Sheryl took on a coaching role at her school. She was given the title Madricha, the Hebrew word for guide. She coached two classrooms per week focusing on documentation. Gaining confidence and practice through her experience as a Madricha, Sheryl is now serving as an assistant director at another school and coaching an entire staff.

Through collaboration, teachers are able to grow their own practice and skills. Another participant of the CoP, Jen Brehmer, wrote a wonderful blog post for the Early Childhood Education of Reformed Judaism’s website entitled Discovery Through Documentation: Learning from the Children’s point of View. In this post she highlighted the impact her cohort members had on her own learning: 

Through discussions and constructive critiques of my earlier documentation examples by fellow cohort members and our coach, I quickly changed my goal of documentation to making learning visible to the children, school, parents, and myself.  With this change in mind, it was like putting on a new pair of glasses when walking into my classroom.

In addition to sharing her own learning journey in this blog post, hoping to inspire others on a national level, Jen also now serves as a documentation mentor and resource to her colleagues at her school. She offers her time, expertise and what she learned during the CoP to her community. Before participating in the CoP, Jen had not taken on a leadership role in her school.  She gained confidence and the necessary skills to support others by participating in the CoP. 

Francie is another example of growing an educator’s leadership capacity by providing opportunities to collaborate with fellow teachers and a mentor/coach. She, like the other participants, didn’t necessarily have a leadership role in the school prior to participating in the CoP. Francie was so enthralled with the topic and what she was learning that she facilitated a professional development session on documentation at her school for the entire staff. She, too, offers her time and skills by serving as a resource to her colleagues at her school.  

By providing opportunities to collaborate, work within a group and have support from a coach, the participants not only grew their capacity within a particular domain, they also practiced and increased their leadership skills. Listening, empathy, curiosity, collaboration, courage, risk taking, and bravery are all necessary skills to have as a successful leader.  Each participant of the CoP was asked to enter each group session as a learner and a brave leader and as Ben Zoma said, Who is wise? He who learns from every person.

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.

Finding your Shehecheyanu: Connecting Jewish tradition to Thanksgiving

In the past, I celebrated Thanksgiving without giving it much thought. In school, I learned the “traditional story” of Thanksgiving: The Pilgrims were so thankful they survived a winter and were able to produce a harvest that they celebrated with a special feast. The story of Thanksgiving often overlooks the reality of the what happened when Europeans arrived in America, it leaves out the Native American perspective. There is a lot of controversy, bias and harmful stereotypes surrounding Thanksgiving.  In the past, to me, Thanksgiving really only meant a long weekend and a lot of food and family. As I have gotten older and had children, I tried to take a closer look at the holiday and what it represents. Instead of discounting the holiday completely, I decided to focus on the gratitude element and integrated important ideas from my religion. As a Jew,  gratitude is a central component of Jewish life and many Jewish routines and rituals are based around gratitude.

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.

 

 

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

 

Finding Your Family Value

Every year, for as long as I can remember, my parents have hosted an open house for Rosh Hashanah. There are always the familiar faces of friends and family who have consistently attended for as long as I can remember, but every year there are also new faces, guests that we might be meeting for the first or second time. My parents are incredibly welcoming and inclusive. If they hear of someone who does not have anywhere to go for a holiday they invite and welcome them into their home. This tradition of having an open house, a truly open house, one in which it is important to create a community that welcomes people, has been instilled in me from an early age. My parents believe there is always room for one, or in their case, a lot more. They led and taught by example the beautiful Jewish value of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests into your home.

In my previous blog post, Teshuvah Doesn’t Just Mean Saying “I’m Sorry”, I spoke about how Teshuvah is often mistranslated as “repentance” (instead of it’s true meaning, “return”). We can use the idea of Teshuvah to once again help guide us in raising a kind family centered around Jewish values. During the High Holidays, we want to return to our better, kinder, more moral selves. While it is effective to teach values by modeling behavior and leading by example, we often get caught up in our busy lives and don’t always take the time to really highlight and teach those values. To help guide our children in this process of returning to a better self, we can choose one or two Jewish values to focus on for a year. We can set an intention for our family.

Before or during the High Holidays consider having a family meeting. Discuss with your family the theme of returning to a better self. Give a few examples of Jewish values that are important to you (see below for some examples) and ask for suggestions from your family members. What values do your children think are important? What actions do they perform or want to perform? Vote on which values your family wants to focus on during the year. Once a value is chosen, ask for specific examples of how your family can live and express this value and set specific measurable goals. Have a few family meetings throughout the year to check-in with each other.

Keep in mind, children often need tangible examples (something they can physically see or do) to learn values. If your family chooses Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, your goal could be to reduce the trash of your household by recycling and composting. In this example you could even assign specific tasks to each member of your family to help encourage regular action and participation. You could keep a chart of how much trash, recycling and compost you have each week to keep track of your progress.

L’shana Tova Umetukah, have a happy and sweet New Year!

Examples of Jewish Values:

  • Hachnasat Orchim: Welcoming guests
  • Gemilut Chasadim: Acts of loving kindness
  • Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim: Kindness to animals
  • Shalom Bayit: Peaceful home
  • Bikur Cholim: Visiting the sick
  • Kibbud Av V’Eim: Honoring your parents