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10 May 2013

Looking for Answers at Preschool

By Phil Liff-Grieff, Associate Director 
BJE of Los Angeles


I have been sitting at many tables lately, in my role at BJE, at which the discussion is focused on part-time Jewish education. Whatever you choose to call it-- Hebrew School, Religious School, Complementary Education or Supplementary Education, this type of Jewish education remains the form of Jewish learning experienced by the majority of children enrolled in programs of Jewish education around the country. There is much talk these days about the nature of this educational setting and what might be done to help it transform into something new that responds to the changing times we live in. 

Also, in my role at BJE, I am privileged to work with early childhood centers- those institutions that are the portal for many Jewish families into Jewish life as their 2 year old or 3 year old starts their Jewish education in a local Jewish preschool. These schools provide children and their families with a range of opportunities for experiencing Jewish living while learning about the rituals, holidays, customs and traditions that make up the core of what it means to be a Jew within that ideological worldview.

As I spend more time in the world of early childhood education, I am struck by the number of our schools that take a developmental approach to the education of the children in their charge. In particular, the philosophy espoused in the Reggio Emilia approach seems very popular. Coming from all sides of the ideological spectrum, these “Reggio-inspired” schools operate based on a set of principles that are child-centered and project-based. The curriculum emerges out of the interest of the child with the environment playing a key role in stimulating curiosity and interest. Parents are seen as partners in the educational process and teachers function as facilitators and co-learners. The community plays a critical role in the learning process with social relationships being central to the children’s exploration, discovery and growth.


In the Reggio Emilia approach, the learner and his or her parents are all trusted partners in the learning process; they are valued as key participants in shaping the learning experience and helping to see it through. This stance-- trusting the learner and her parent-- is replicated in preschool after preschool: we expect the three year old and his parent to own the educational process as much as we educators do.

How is it that, in our Jewish educational systems, we relate to three year olds and their parents with a stance of trust and empowerment, then do a complete reversal the moment a child re-enters our system at age 5 or 6 or even 8? After all, when the child is in religious school, we are the ones who know what’s best for them. We know what they need to learn and what constitutes appropriate literacy. Empowering the learner? That is something that happens in preschool but not here.

And parents are no longer seen as partners in the learning process. We talk about them as having the wrong priorities, as being unwilling to “make their kids go to Hebrew school” or, worse yet, telling them they have to go because “I had to suffer through this so you do as well.” How did it happen that we trust a three-year-old student (and her parent) to own their part of the learning process but refuse to allow them to do the same when a child reaches six years of age?

What it would look like if we applied the same principles we espouse in Reggio-inspired preschools to our religious school system? What would it look like if religious school were child-centered and project-based? If parents were seen as partners in their child’s education and not as the major obstacle? If teachers and rabbis saw themselves as co-learners and working side by side with their students instead of being the ones who hold all wisdom and knowledge? If the environment was arranged to stimulate curiosity and interest? And if the curriculum emerged out of the interest and curiosity of the learner as they sought to grapple with real-world issues using a Jewish lens? 



Finally, what would religious school look like if we were to take the stance that I see in evidence in early childhood classrooms across Los Angeles-- a stance of love for the students and joy in a process of play-like discovery? 

The good news is that some of these things are already happening in some of our schools. The challenge, however, is for us to begin to give our elementary students and their parents the same level of trust that we did when they were younger. Can we risk that? Or is not doing so an even greater risk? 


This post is reprinted with permission from bjela.org

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