On a sunny morning last week, a group of early childhood professionals walked around a garden thinking and talking about how to grow Jewish values along with green leafy vegetables.
They were among 150 teachers and administrators from 10 Jewish preschools who gathered Feb. 18 in Palo Alto for a conference for early childhood educators.
Titled “Under the Fig Tree,” the four-hour event took place at the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life. It was held under the auspices of the Oshman Family JCC’s Leslie Family Early Childhood Education Center.
Much of the focus was on an educational theory called constructivism.
For example, one group of educators examined how to combine music and building skills by constructing instruments out of plastic milk jugs, wire, spare wood and old bicycle tires. Other teachers plunged their fingers into sand, water, clay and fingerpaint as they explored play in an open-ended environment.
“Constructivism is an approach that we and some other Jewish Bay Area preschools are now following,” explained Zvi Weiss, the Palo Alto JCC’s director of early childhood strategic initiatives. The Leslie Family school (formerly named T’enna Preschool) has been working for nine years to become a completely constructivist Jewish preschool.
Constructivism, also known as the Reggio Emilia approach, has educators partnering with the children in constructing their learning.
“We create environments and educational experiences based on what the children already know and what they are interested in and curious about,” Weiss said. “This means that we have an emergent curriculum, and it can change all the time.”
Weiss went on to explain how — in Jewish schools — these open-ended opportunities can result in real-life Jewish learning experiences.
For example, through working together in the garden, the children discover Jewish values such as respecting nature, l’dor v’dor (generation to generation) and community.
“I hadn’t really thought beyond the more obvious Jewish values related to gardening, like shomrei adamah (keepers of the earth), before this,” said conference attendee Adam Lowy, who teaches at the preschool at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. “I’m now thinking about a garden as a space around which you can build kehillah [community].”
Issues beyond constructivism were addressed, as well. In the morning keynote speech, for example, Mark Horowitz spoke about how parents of today face many pressures, and how it’s vital for schools to find ways of effectively communicating and partnering with them.
Horowitz is the vice president of early childhood education and family engagement at the JCC Association of North America.
“The keynote really hit home with me,” said Lowy. “It’s harder and harder to find new ways to communicate with parents. The communication piece is critical and we need to find time and space to communicate well with each parent. We need to support them. They depend on us for answers.”
“Our relationship with each family is our starting point,” added Esty Marcus, director of Chai Preschool in Foster City. “We believe that religion should come from the home, so we support whatever the parents are interested in Jewishly.”
The conference was presented by the OFJCC in partnership with the Early Childhood Education Initiative of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation. S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks had some input, as well, and also presented certificates to those who have reached significant milestones in the field.
Often feeling that they are not taken seriously as educators, and that they are underpaid, the preschool teachers who attended the conference felt it gave a boost to their profession. “This conference promotes professionalism and intentionality in the field,” said Janet Harris, director of the federation’s ECE Initiative.
Weiss made a point of announcing that the day’s learning would not end at the close of the conference. Educators were encouraged to continue communicating and exchanging ideas through follow-up online discussion groups and newly formed communities of practice.