sub title

Insights from the Intersection of Childhood and Education

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Why I Teach the Way I Do

by 1st/2nd grade teacher Scott Salk

I grew up in suburbia and went to highly regarded public schools.

Like many others, I remember being bored in school, 

coping with classrooms where opportunities to move around, talk, be curious — or anything that kids naturally want and need to do — were rare. Usually there were uninspired and uninspiring lessons, endless worksheets and textbooks with questions at the end of the chapter. The general sentiment among kids was, “It’s school! What do you expect?” Most learned to “play the game:” give the teachers what they want, make them ‘think’ you’re doing what they want, learn to do the minimum necessary to achieve one’s desired goal.

I did not think there was another way for school to be.

Then I happened upon The Family School, a small “free” school in California.

I came to learn that “free” meant, above all, freedom from the way school was “supposed to be.” 

Children were free to be kids and develop in their own way and at their own pace. Teachers were free to provide a rich environment that was meaningful, interesting and joyful. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was so happy, relaxed, and engaged. And there was so much wonderful learning going on!

After becoming a teacher at The Family School (despite not having any experience in teaching, the directors apparently liked the way I interacted with the kids), I realized I had found my life’s work and returned to college to get a teaching credential. I began to learn that there was a long and distinguished lineage of thinkers who extolled the glories of a child-centered approach or what is most generally referred to as progressive education: from Rousseau to Frobel to Dewey to Montessori to Piaget, not to mention a host of teacher-writers like Kohl, Holt, and Kozol--they all provided a theoretical and practical foundation for the free school and open classroom movements of the ‘60s and beyond.

Ever since, my goal as a teacher has been to provide a learning environment where children thrive best. The materials and activities should be intrinsically interesting and meaningful, developmentally appropriate yet always allowing for children to move along on their own trajectories. The culture should encourage curiosity, self-expression, responsibility, independence, and collaboration. The barometer is the level of engagement.

When children, or adults for that matter, are absorbed in what is before them, learning is optimized because attention is optimal. 

For example, I predominantly teach reading and writing through "language" experience, augmented with fun phonics.

This means using the children's or the class's own words to write and read. Just a few ways this can be done are:
  • We brainstorm ideas, write them on an easel so we can refer back to them. 
  • The students invent characters and write chapters about them, getting as much or as little help as they need. They might dictate to me, then read and write, or get words spelled as needed, or sound words out phonetically.     
  • We write collaborative poems where everyone contributes a line, and we read it back together.
  • Students pick a state and gather information, make a map, send a letter to the state tourism office, locate interesting facts, put together a computer-based presentation of the state. 

In other words, they learn to become a (better) reader by constantly interacting with words in interesting, meaningful ways.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

40 Years Later, Alumni Find that a School's Spirit is Still Palpable

by Susan Evans, Akiba-Schechter class of '79

Class of '79 alumnae Shelly (Weinbaum) Ashkenazi, Miriam Raider-Roth 
and Susan Evans visit the Purple Room 
For most of us alumni, it had been 40 years since we walked through the halls of Akiba-Schechter. While many things are different now (such as multi-age classrooms, a maker-space and modern playground equipment), the ruach (spirit) of the school and the bond we had formed with each other because of school, felt more than familiar. Since 1979, when we graduated, that ruach has been part of who we are, both individually and as a group. 

Graduates of Akiba-Schechter’s Class of 1979
 at Mike’s Place, the preschool playground: 
Elliot Frohlichstein-Appel, 
Shelly (Weinbaum) Ashkenazi, 
Susan Evans, and Miriam Raider-Roth
In early September, I was in Hyde Park with several of my former classmates to tour the school and join the “Back to School Picnic.” The event came together because one of our classmates, who now lives in Israel, was going to be in town officiating at her sister’s wedding. Recognizing that it had been 40 years since we graduated (and last gathered as a group), we aimed to organize a visit for that time, which fortuitously coincided with the start of school. 

So, five of the eleven 1979 Akiba-Schechter grads convened over a weekend to reconnect, share a meal and perhaps most importantly, reminisce about our experiences at Akiba. Most of us had been in school together since Kindergarten or first grade. Several of us went on to attend high school and even college together. We have kept in touch over the years – attending weddings, funerals, bar/bat mitzvot and visiting one another across the US and in Israel. As lives got busy, contact may have been sporadic, but those childhood bonds and our shared history provided the bedrock upon which we built our lives. Reconnecting, at least for me, has always felt familiar and easy.

Over Shabbat dinner, our conversation flowed as if it had not been decades since we had all been together. We spoke not only about our current lives, children, siblings and parents (many of whom are of blessed memory) but also about modern-day Israeli politics, our connections with organized Jewish life—all that shaped us as Jews, and how we have faced and dealt with the inevitable adversity of life. At times the conversation was bittersweet. More often, it was filled with laughter as we recounted our school memories, some of which others recalled, but many of which were our own to share.

Apparently the word ruach appears 389 times in the Torah. Due to this frequency, it can have multiple meanings. When applied to a person, ruach can mean vital powers or strength. So it was intentional to say that the ruach in the school felt familiar. Our lives at school back in the 1970s were exciting, interesting, academically challenging, and, at times, (as preteens and teens) perplexing. But overarching all that was the strength of the love that flowed freely around us. 

The four visiting alumni in their class picture from 1979:
Top row from the left: Susan (2nd), Shelly (4th), Miriam (6th);
Elliot is in the bottom row, 2nd from the left.
There was a love for learning, a love for the Jewish people and for the state of Israel. There was the love we felt from our teachers, from Mille and Rose Miller, and from our rabbis (I would be remiss were I not to mention specifically Rabbis Well, Bateman and Biber). Perhaps, however, fostered by all the love around us, our love for one another was the most important. 
That feeling of love is still palpable. Being back together, even for a few hours, reminded us of what it felt like to be students at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School. Those of us who were able to visit the school were grateful to be back in those familiar classrooms and hallways.
At Akiba-Schechter's September 8 Indoor Picnic, from left to right:
Head of School Dr. Eliezer Jones and his son, Miriam Raider-Roth, 
Shelly (Weinbaum) Ashkenazi, Susan Evans, Principal Miriam Kass, and
Elliot Frohlichstein-Appel
We want to thank the staff for the “behind-the-scenes” tour. We are truly grateful for what happened in those classrooms and hallways 40+ years ago: the strength of the love that enriched our lives and enabled us to map our own future paths. Those paths were not always easy and never perfect, but they were forged with the understanding that we were important, that we had learned not only the aleph-bet, math, history and Judaic Studies, but that we had also learned about the strength of true and steadfast friendships.   

Susan Evans is a class of 1979 Akiba-Schechter graduate, a new board member, and the sister of Michael Evans z’l, for whom the school’s playground is named “Mike’s Place.” She is a formerly a broadcast news producer and currently works as a Government Relations and policy officer at the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. Susan is intensely interested in tracking down Akiba alumni. Please help by sharing this article with any Akiba grads you know, or contact Director of Development Levi Zeffren for more information on getting involved with the new alumni network Akiba-Schechter is trying to launch.