Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman
Did you ever stop to think….?
As early childhood educators, we know what young children need developmentally. We know that play is the “work” of young children and that experience is the best, and sometimes the only teacher. We know about designing environments: affective, child-centered, hands-on, experiential, learning by doing, sensory learning, emergent, Reggio Emilia project approach, critical thinking, and problem solving—environments where a child’s questions and interests can emerge.
So, here is our question: Why is it a given in a Jewish early childhood learning environment that we have children make New Year’s cards for Rosh Ha-Shanah? If left alone, would they spontaneously ask to make these cards? We know the answer to that. They might only if they had had enough real experience with New Year’s cards for them to be interested in making one for someone. Is that the case with our children?
What has happened to all that we know? When did we, as teachers and directors, become “makers” instead of “doers?” We know that children are experiential learners, but the Jewish curriculum, in particular, becomes day after day of making things and pictures that go home. How has this happened?
It happened because of something all early childhood educators’ face—the need to convince parents that their children are learning in a play focused classroom. With all the best of intentions, we still haven’t been able to educate our families to know that a “make and take” project is not an indicator of early childhood learning.
Parents are still of the mindset that things coming home is evidence that their children are “doing” something and further proves that the teacher has a plan. Parents often want the teachers who send home the most “stuff” and perceive that as the more “academic” classroom. So, it becomes all about the making instead of learning, the product instead of the process.
Slow down and ask yourself these fundamental questions: Does the child understand WHY he is doing this activity? What is she learning from making this? Yes, it can be fun to glue beads, pompoms, foam shapes, tissue paper, or pieces of old cards on an apple or shofar shape. But what does that teach about Rosh Ha-Shanah? With all that gluing of “stuff,” what has the child learned about the holiday? Where is the child in this project—her interests and knowledge? Is this one of those projects that we do year after year without really stopping to see what our children understand, or whether it has meaning for them?
What is a New Year’s card to a young child? For adults, these cards have meaning or more likely history in this age of email and e-cards. Yes, it is a tradition to send New Year’s cards to our family and friends to wish them a good and sweet year. What does receiving mail mean to the children in your class?
It is still the beginning of the year. Have you considered that a child who is new to school may have never glued or painted before? Is this “product” going to be confusing? Is this project appropriate for these children at this point of the year? What does “come and glue” or “stick” these things on “this” mean for a child who does not know those words?
Depending on the age of the children you teach or this year’s class, it may be appropriate to tell the children about the custom of sending cards and show them a variety of cards that they can hold and explore. There are critical Questions to ask—Why are people sending us cards? Why do people want to wish us a “happy or sweet new year?” What does that mean? To whom should we send cards? If you sent the world (if you have introduced the idea of Rosh Hashanah as the world’s birthday) a card, what would the card say?
Once you have explored these questions, if appropriate for your class this year, you might introduce the children to New Year’s cards. Have a “card center” available and see what the children do in it. If they indicate an interest, be present to discuss what they could do, or for whom they could make a card. That will be the “Eureka” moment, evidence that they do in fact understand the concept of sending and/or receiving a Rosh Ha-Shanah card.
So, this is really about being able to articulate your philosophy about early childhood education to families. It is about making sure that your curriculum is in line with your philosophy. It is about finding ways to document what is going on in your classroom that reflects real learning and not just adorable children (with many thanks to the inventors of digital cameras), so that parents can see their children engaged, involved and learning. It is about the opportunities we provide for children to experience learning. And for educators, it is about coming to an appropriate understanding of concepts—new, year, etc. Education should never be dragging horses to water to make them drink. It is about having all kinds of water available, with teachers who can guide children in having a rich variety of experiences and empowering them to choose what engages them the most.
Rosh ha-Shanah is about so much more than the rote making of a New Year’s card. Consider, as you plan, all the concepts and customs surrounding this holiday that are both meaningful and appropriate. The children in your class will be able to celebrate a joyful Rosh ha-Shanah with knowledge and understanding, even if they do not make a New Year’s card this year. And remember, they will continue to learn about Rosh ha-Shanah in the coming years, building on what they know.
Happy New Year – Shanah Tovah.
Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning,
observe carefully what children do and then,
if you have understood well,
perhaps teaching will be different than before.
Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy