HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Importance of Vision in Early Childhood Jewish Education

by Diana Ganger Issue: The Educated Jew

Excellent schools have a clear shared vision, strong parental engagement, a reflective culture of inquiry and dialogue, and a context of investigation through play that grows the moral development of a child. Graduates of schools that excel in these areas leave with enhanced focus, a collaborative stance and self-reliance. Families, as well as the graduates, are seeded with Jewish ideas and memories left to sprout throughout a lifetime.

Exemplary early childhood Jewish education is to be found in schools that are intentional about their vision and how it translates to ordinary moments in the daily life of the school. The moment families enter the school, they see writing and images that welcome them and declares the vision and philosophy of the school. The stated values are immediately carried out with a warm welcome and a crafted environment. When families walk around the building, they see and hear the vision in action: people greet them and it is the children’s voices that dominate. The school walls tell a story—they display photographs, words and images of the children’s work and thinking. This process of documentation communicates the values of the school and vision of those who share it. Jewish objects adorn the classrooms inviting curiosity and exploration. Natural materials are available, and quality books invite reading. The overall tone of the school is joyful.

Exemplary early childhood Jewish education is to be found in schools that are intentional about their vision and how it translates to ordinary moments in the daily life of the school. The moment families enter the school, they see writing and images that welcome them and declares the vision and philosophy of the school.

Further, the place is transparent with the staff made known through photographs and a short bio, an empowerment to the families. A warm response greets a family that calls, with answers to pertinent questions and invitations for parents to visit and spend time at school. Everything is open and honest, and even reciprocal as during the first visit questions are also asked to get to know the family and its unique context.

Parents from excellent schools are engaged in a number of ways. They know how to partner with a leadership that cares to listen and communicates regularly with parents as well as invites parents to engage with the daily life of the school. They commit to learn and to relate with the school and other parents. They know that teachers take time to reflect upon the children’s learning through sharing documentation and images. The school partners with parents and understands that to maximize a child’s potential there must be communication, collaboration, and a model learning community—a place of continuous reflection and dialogue with one another.

Parents in these model schools are encouraged to participate in their child’s education. Their backgrounds, interests and areas of expertise are known and are invited into the classroom and school environment in a variety of ways. Parents further engage by seeing and reading documentation pertaining to their children’s learning community in the classroom: how they think, hypothesize, wonder, and experiment. They see that their children are involved in deep experiences and long-term project work.

Parents are expected to “know and be known.” They develop friendships and there is a sense of belonging in the schools. Their opinions and thoughts are invited often and serve as the source of ongoing dialogue. True dialogue and learning are fostered as this way of communicating goes well beyond sharing information. Parents see the teachers as eager listeners and learners who seek to develop meaningful relationships. Children thrive as they see their home and school deeply connected. Parents are invited to learn in a variety of formats—from small group dialogue and text-based formats to larger Jewish experiences with other families. The graduating family will have grown over the years gaining Jewish knowledge. They will continue to seek Jewish experiences in the future. The school will intentionally engage families to think about their future growth as a Jewish family.

Play is where the child develops and expresses; how it is orchestrated is what makes excellence. The role of the teacher is essential in facilitating meaningful play. Teachers act as researchers, ask questions, and journey with the children for as long as the children are interested. Teachers model a collaborative, warm environment. Teachers listen to the children and create a negotiated curriculum. Through these interactions, children learn to ask questions and reflect on their work and are only satisfied after much editing. And it is not the adult who puts an end to the work, but the children. In turn, this leads to enhanced focus, strung along by an investigator’s curiosity, and towards collaboration with peers [fellow students]. Children know they can think, translate ideas into creations that are recognized and honored by the teachers.

In the end, what emerges is a complete child who embodies many Jewish fundamentals: inquisitiveness, creativity, a relational stance, curiosity, emotional self-regulation, thinking, friendship, a budding morality, an identity within the greater Jewish community, and a family that looks to start or continue their life journey through a Jewish lens.

Behind a successful play session is time. Only in schools that realize the need for time to engage in creating scripts with complex plots and a variety of characters will children flourish. Within these scenes, children can investigate the world—using props and their imaginations through the high drama play can generate. In addition, both personal identities and interpersonal relationships are shaped through the vicissitudes of interactions. The environment becomes emotionally responsive; children learn to self-regulate and take care of one another. The intentional modeling of values at all levels forms the foundation of an empathetically based morality.

Beyond time, children are treated with dignity and seen as competent. They are also given a great space from which to operate. There are quality materials and a provocative environment that stimulates the child’s curiosity. With these tools, play becomes wondrous, joyful and satisfying; it becomes fertile soil for the formation of a thinking, socially competent child.

To instill a Jewish foundation, the environment filled with Jewish imagery and objects contains photos of Jewish diversity, both religious and ethnic. Israel is represented both with Hebrew language and other symbols. Jewish books steeped in Jewish values are chosen. All of this creates the environment that the child explores and slowly integrates as the norm. Apart from environment, Sabbath experiences as well as other Jewish holidays and lifecycle events imprint the child and stimulate a spillover of information back to the family.

Children learn to initiate driven by their desire to make meaning of the world. But John Dewey has stated, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” In an excellent Jewish early childhood learning experience, the process of reflecting through dialogue and inquiry is ongoing. It is a value. New staff are acculturated and leaders pay attention to the fact that the school can always grow and become better at what it does in all realms. The reality of the everyday is set against the vision to assure that gaps are minimized. The quality of relationships is continuously analyzed at all levels-family to family, school to family, teachers and child, school leadership and board, staff to staff etc. All members of the community question how the school is a place of learning and how people collaborate.

Teachers take time to learn together—they develop a learning community and think about their practice. They set goals for themselves and strive to grow through coaching and mentorship with protected time to do so. For example, teachers may chose to observe how children use the space and equipment in the classroom and ask themselves the following questions: How are the children using the space in the classroom? How are they invited to think in this environment? Can they take initiative and wonder? How accessible are the materials? What is the quality of these materials? Is the space provocative? Are the children able to focus? Is it cluttered and overwhelming? Is the furniture welcoming? These types of questions frame the teacher’s observations of the children and support the process of reflection on an ongoing basis. Children’s learning and thinking within the environment is made visible through documentation teachers’ produce. Other members of the community are invited to respond and to engage in dialogue to deepen the learning.

At excellent schools, children learn to learn. They will enter any future learning environment with a love of learning and a self-confidence that will propel them forward. A strong Jewish identity will be sown through innovative environments that incorporate Jewish visions with which the children can wrestle. Because families grow along with the child, as they are intimately involved on a daily basis, they also grow closer to their Jewish foundations. This sets the stage for developing and evolving the families’ Jewish identity at a crucial time in their development as a family.

Also, they are part of a greater community of parents at or near the beginning of their life journeys. They build friendships through this commonality and partake in Jewish experiences together. The school presents them with occasions to celebrate holidays and experience many other Jewish education opportunities. In the end, what emerges is a complete child who embodies many Jewish fundamentals: inquisitiveness, creativity, a relational stance, curiosity, emotional self-regulation, thinking, friendship, a budding morality, an identity within the greater Jewish community, and a family that looks to start or continue their life journey through a Jewish lens. ♦

Diana Ganger is an organizational and educational coach/consultant. She can be reached at dganger1818@gmail.com..

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The Educated Jew

The authors here are engaged in an argument leshem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, over the question of what should a Jewish day school produce. Some emphasize cultural knowledge: Hebrew fluency, tefillah mastery, literacy of core texts in the Jewish library. Others view middot as central: ethics, commitment, curiosity, caring; while yet others choose social action as the goal.

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