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Insights from the Intersection of Childhood and Education

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Menorah - A Lesson in Giving

5th grade Judaic Studies Teacher Baila Brackman likes to do Chanukah projects with her students that are not only fun to do together, but also bring the lessons of Torah alive by teaching the children about giving. Each year's class decides on what items to collect, and builds a menorah out of them. Sometimes that building can be a little challenging as it was with last year's menorah made out of toys. After celebrating with their menorah, the class donates the items to a charitable organization.

This year's menorah was made of books. Last year's was made of toys, and before that, a "canora," made of canned food even stood up to being lit.

Happy Chanukah to all our families and friends!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Chanukah and Science Go Together

Exploring the miracle of Chanukah can entail many things – songs and storytelling come to mind, so do arts and crafts. But how about learning the scientific method?

In the Peach Room at Akiba-Schechter, the four-year-olds wondered how long oil usually lasts when it is burned. Together they created five oil-burning candles using simple supplies: aluminum containers, cooking string, cooking oil, copper wire, and matches. They twisted the wick holder, put the cooking string through the holder as the wick, poured in the oil and lit the candles. That was the arts and crafts part of the project.

Next, the children predicted how long the burning candles would last. Predictions were logged in a chart. Many of the Peach Room students thought the candles would last eight days. But as they observed the candles burning, they began to recognize that the candles easily go out or burn through the oil, so they revised their predictions.

In the end, the children's longest burning candle lasted for seven hours! This hands-on experiment helped the children better understand the great miracle of Chanukah, but it also just happened to introduce them to the idea of coming up with a hypothesis, setting up an experiment, gathering data, and examining the results.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Favorite Chanukah Books

Chanukah begins December 20th this year - time to think about books to read while "the candles are burning low!" Becky Rubin, who teaches library in our pre-school, shares some favorite Hanukkah books:

Lift the Flap Books

Written by: Joan Holub

Illustrated by: Lynne Cravath

A variety of Chanukiot (menorahs) get lit for Chanukah.

Happy Hanukkah, Biscuit!

Written by: Alyssa Satin Capucilli

Illustrated by: Pat Schories

Biscuit, the puppy, is invited to celebrate Chanukah at his friend Sam’s house.

Song Books

Illustrated by: Susan L. Roth

Sing along with the cute mouse family and enjoy the lovely paper-cut illustrations.


I Have a Little Dreidel

Written by: Maxie Baum

Illustrated by: Julie Paschkis

The dreidel song you know and love plus a few new verses.

A “little something extra” Books

Written and illustrated by: Santiago Cohen

It’s hard to resist these bold, colorful illustrations set against the black pages. The little something extra? Sparkly candle flames!

Written by: Alexandra Cooper

Illustrated by: Claudine Gevry

Learn how fun and easy it is to play the dreidel game - a dreidel is attached!

Longer Story Books

Written by: Sandy Lanton

Illustrated by: Vicki Jo Redenbaugh

Everyone was going to bring food to share at the Chanukah party. Only one person was supposed to bring latkes…read this funny story and find out why everyone ended up bringing latkes!

Written by: Eric A. Kimmel

Illustrated by Giora Carmi

An old woman is busy frying latkes to serve to the Rabbi when he comes to celebrate Chanukah at her home. A bear follows the delicious smell of latkes right into the old woman’s home. The old woman does not see very well, and mistakenly thinks that the bear is the Rabbi. Read this funny to story to find out what happens next.

Latkes and Applesauce: A Hanukkah Story

Written by: Fran Manushkin

Illustrated by: Robin Spowart

Long ago, in a village far away, a family sadly realizes that this Chanukah they will not be able to have latkes and applesauce. An early blizzard covered the potatoes and apples needed to make their favorite foods. It would take a miracle… Read this clever story to find out how the family ends up having a happy Chanukah after all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Grandparents & Special Friends Day Is Important

Rivka Kahana, who teaches 3rd-8th Hebrew at Akiba-Schechter, reflects on her own experience of Grandparents Day, not only as a teacher, but as a grandparent:

Initially, when Akiba-Schechter started hosting Grandparents & Special Friends Day, I didn’t think much of it. We don’t have this in Israel where I grew up and was a young mother, so it was unfamiliar to me. I did not even consider attending it at my own grandchildren’s schools in Michigan and California because taking time off during the school year to travel is difficult as a teacher. However, on one of the first Grandparents & Special Friends Days at Akiba-Schechter, I was in my classroom, and as grandparents were filing in, I happened to be watching one student. I was worried because I knew his grandparents lived abroad and wouldn’t be able to come. Would he be left without a visitor? Then I saw his face light up and turned to see a man whom I knew briefly from the community enter the room. When I later asked this student who it was that had come for him, he was beaming as he told me: “He’s my special friend. He came for me.”

Then I felt bad for never having bothered about Grandparents Day. Clearly, it meant a lot to a child. So, when the next invitation for Grandparents Day at my grandchildren’s school arrived, I took the day off, and I went. Of course it was wonderful to experience their school day, and as a teacher, it was interesting to see how another Hebrew School or Jewish Day School operated, how other Hebrew teachers taught. But I did not expect how nice it would be to meet other grandparents, and to share experiences with them. Now I have made my own friends where my children live. I believe that events like these, that create bonds not only between generations, but also within each generation, are especially important here in America because they foster that sense of community that will continue our traditions.
As a grandparent, I realized that you come to Grandparents & Special Friends Day not only for the kids, but for yourself.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Partner Portraits

Learning about themselves and others through portraiture is a regular feature in all our grades, from the pre-school all the way to 8th grade. Here is a glimpse of how the children in the Peach Room (4-year-olds) recently worked with a classmate:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Buddies Program

In education, academics are not everything, and thus we do a lot at Akiba-Schechter to foster a sense of community. We have always had multi-age classrooms, but in the past few years we’ve instituted a Buddies Program, in which younger and older students work, learn and have fun together. Here, 3rd/4th grade teacher Miriam Kass shares how the Buddies Program works for her students:

Throughout the school year, 3rd/4th graders will get together with their Kindergarten buddies to celebrate Shabbat and other holidays, to read and write stories, and to do some mitzvah projects. Each get-together allows the buddies to strengthen their friendship and create a feeling of community across the grades and the two buildings. For the Kindergartner, the buddy friendship puts a warm and friendly face on what might appear to be the big kids’ school where taller children are weighed down by big backpacks and often seem to be in a hurry to and from the bus. For the 3rd/4th grader, the buddy friendship provides a welcome opportunity to try out his/her leadership skills. The buddy friendships are unique in the lives of the students; both the older and the younger child feel cared for in an unqualified way.

Last week, the 3rd and 4th graders looked just a bit taller as they headed back to their classroom from the first meeting with their Kindergarten buddies.  They had each made a new friend and felt proud of their new role.

“That was so much fun,” said one 4th grade boy, “and my buddy is so cute!”

While the 3- or 4-year age difference is small in our eyes, it is vast in the eyes of both the older and younger students. 

One 3rd grade girl reminisced about her days in Kindergarten when “8-year-olds were practically adults” in her mind, and yet “that feels like it was just last week.”

The Buddies Program definitely brings the ages closer together to benefit from each other.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Academics Are Not Everything

Preschoolers and 7th graders decorate the Sukkah together.

During Sukkot, Principal Miriam Schiller is often asked about Akiba-Schechter’s stance on Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days of the holiday of Sukkot. Many Jewish day schools close their doors for all of Sukkot, with the rationale that this is a good opportunity for family trips and vacations.

However, at Akiba-Schechter we feel that closing can also be a missed opportunity for a school. While we provide an excellent education at Akiba-Schechter, an excellent education amounts to so much more than challenging academic programs. The difference between a good education and an excellent one is not always easy to pinpoint, but it has a lot to do with intellectual and emotional honesty: Living a value rather than merely teaching it. For instance, we are committed to our Buddy System and other inter-age activities, not only because they are good pedagogic practice, but also because they are part of our larger mission: to help create decent human beings who care that they are part of something larger than themselves: a school, a community, and in this case, the Jewish people.
Holidays like Sukkot provide much-needed room for teachers and students to engage in less formal activities – activities that students will remember long after a test or due date has passed. So the intermediate days of Sukkot are dedicated to exactly those activities that are Jewish-themed and also give the children and teachers an opportunity to celebrate a holiday together.

A 7th grader shows a preschooler how
to hold and shake a lulav.

We serve lunch in the school’s Sukkah, even if it is cold, and students love to sit together, brave the wind, and admire the handiwork of the decorations they created together. During Sukkot, P.E. teacher Sara Price organized Sukkot-themed physical activities during which students of different ages worked together, and older students were called upon to be leaders. Another day found the middle school students hosting a Sukkah fair for younger students and guest judges. They had worked in groups to create models of the various ways a Sukkah can be built, following discussions in the Mishnah. Middle school students also visited the preschoolers to show them how to shake the Lulav and hold an Etrog.

A preschooler sniffs an etrog during a visit
from the middle school students.

These aspects of Jewish education reach beyond “excellent academics” and give “community” a real meaning, and they are why we at Akiba-Schechter choose not to close our doors on Chol Hamoed.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Teachers' Tips on Easing the Transition to First Grade

1st/2nd grade classroom at Akiba-Schechter
Akiba-Schechter teachers share tips on how to ease the transition from Kindergarten to first grade on the NPN Blog. Check it out!

Monday, October 3, 2011

What If your Child Isn't Athletic?

By P.E. teacher Sara Price

Parents often come to me in despair: “We have tried everything! My child just doesn’t like sports!” But “everything” often refers to the more prevalent sports like Little League baseball, after-school basketball, or soccer. All of these are wonderful programs, if your child enjoys team sports. However, many children prefer the solitary challenges of an individual sport, like gymnastics, swimming, or fencing (my personal favorite).

Variety is important in making physical education more appealing, and exposing children to many different sports can be the key to finding one that will engage them. At the beginning of every school year I remind my students that they may not love every activity we learn, but they will all find something they do love. To me, this is the key to increasing the likelihood that someone will remain active and fit throughout his or her lifetime.

Last year I received a phone call from a parent. She had enrolled her son in basketball, baseball, martial arts, and more over the years, but nothing clicked. While she knew it was important to keep her son active and fit, she didn’t know what to do to encourage him. He came home one day from school and informed her, “I found my sport.” She had called to thank me, and to ask, “Where do I find a badminton program?”

Monday, September 26, 2011

Can P.E. be fun and educational?

P.E. Teacher Sara Price reacts to the recent Wall Street Journal article "Taking the Dread out of Phys Ed"

P.E. teacher Sara Price (upper left) demonstrates basic moves.

This summer a girl with whom my son had gone to school told me about her first day of 7th grade and her nightmare physical education (P.E.) class: “First he made us run four laps around the track, and then we did push-ups and sit-ups…on gravel! And then we ran some more! I hate P.E.!”

Sadly, it’s a story I have been hearing for years. As a lecturer in Health and Kinesiology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and an adjunct professor at DePaul University, I have spent the past decade trying to convince the Physical Education majors who pass through my classes not to become one of those P.E. teachers. Even at Akiba-Schechter, I have spoken with parents who remember their P.E. classes with a distinct lack of fondness.

My own P.E. experience as a student was not far from the one described in the Wall Street Journal’s September 13 article “Taking the Dread Out of Phys Ed,” and it’s almost a miracle that I became a P.E. teacher at all. In the article, Sue Shellenbarger describes the “fear of getting dressed in the locker room, of wearing a nerdy uniform, of looking clumsy, of being picked last.” In middle school I was not athletic, and our P.E. uniforms were polyester one-pieces that were green on the bottom and green and beige striped on top. It didn’t get nerdier than that. Then there was the running (I always came in close to last), and the long, boring, painful calisthenics we did every day.

Maybe because of my awful memories it has become my mission to make physical education fun and educational. My philosophy in teaching P.E. is that children are more likely to stay physically active throughout their lives if:
  • they feel competent;
  • they enjoy what they’re doing;
  • they understand why it’s important.
To this end, we have devised a physical education curriculum at Akiba-Schechter that stresses skills development, and sport, games, and fitness concepts. We strive to provide variety and fun in all our activities.

From an early age, we work with students to master basic skills such as throwing, catching, skipping, galloping, hula hooping, jumping rope, kicking, and trapping. These skills form the building blocks for more complex sports that children begin learning in third grade. This year, for example, students have begun learning tennis ground strokes, volleying and serving, tennis rules, and the scoring system. We spend four weeks, or eight days, on each unit, mastering basic sport skills through drills, lead-up games, and finally, competitive games. When students feel that they have mastered the skills, they are better able to enjoy playing the games.

We also strive to educate our students physically. We still run laps from time-to-time, but it is one of many ways we warm up for an activity. We still do calisthenics, but we try to be more creative, make them more engaging, and we teach them in a sport-specific capacity. We learn what muscles they engage, and why it is important to engage them. Akiba-Schechter students learn about aerobic fitness, and why it is important to strengthen their hearts as well as their core muscles, arms, and legs. Students learn not only to play sports, but a little about the sports as well. They learn whether it is an Olympic sport or not, where it originated, and where it is popular. And they learn enough of the rules and strategies to be informed players and spectators.

Finally, P.E. has to be fun! Most classes begin with a warm up game, followed by a fun fitness activity. Lessons are designed to maximize activity time (you will rarely, if ever, see a long line of students waiting for their turn), minimize repetitive activities (you won’t see them doing countless trials of any drill), and increase skill level and confidence.

We try to create a positive and safe environment for each child. Sportsmanship and teamwork are stressed over competition and winning. Children learn to interact positively and encourage each other. Cooperation precedes competition, and when children do compete, it is always in a controlled, fair manner.

At Akiba-Schechter, we have thoughtfully and purposefully designed a physical education curriculum to give our students the tools to participate in sports and recreational activities, and to instill the love to pursue them for a lifetime.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Staying Connected: Why Our Administrators Still Teach

Principal Miriam Schiller reads with a student.
Miriam Schiller has been principal of Akiba-Schechter since 1988, and while the school has grown threefold under her leadership, and her administrative duties have grown more than that, every morning she can still be found reading with a first grader or second grader. She says: “I feel there is no better way of connecting with the students than to be teaching them. We want our students to feel a strong connection to the school, so I want to feel a strong connection to them.”

Couldn’t all that be gleaned from observing in the classroom? “No – when you observe there is a buffer: You’re not interacting with the child; you’re observing someone else interact with the child.”

Mrs. Schiller has taught all Akiba-Schechter students how to read, and she feels particularly fortunate because she gets to know them at the very beginning, in first grade: “Reading is the window to learning. It is the basis for everything else, and I love helping children acquire this critical skill. Teaching first grade also gives me a unique perspective as students grow up because I know where they started. I can speak to parents about their child not from up above, but from having taught their child.”

Pre-School Director Carla Goldberg (center) sings with the parent/tot class.
Pre-School Director Carla Goldberg agrees that being the first teacher a child and a family experience is a privilege. Even though she heads up a staff of more than 20, she’s been teaching Akiba-Schechter’s parent/tot class – for children 13 to 24 months old – for 15 years: “Being a child’s first teacher allows me to ensure that it’s a nurturing and challenging experience. I get to plant the seed for a love of learning. I also get to know 15 new families every year, and they become my families. Just the other week I spent time sitting on the floor with the new Kindergartners on their first day because I truly feel connected to them. The parent/tot class is about building community, and I am proud to say that almost all families who have been in parent/tot continue at Akiba-Schechter.”

Mrs. Schiller and Mrs. Goldberg also find that teaching makes them more relatable for their staff. “My foot is still in the trenches,” says Mrs. Goldberg, “I can advise from my own classroom experience.” – “If you don’t teach,” adds Mrs. Schiller, “you don’t experience the children as students, and you can’t really appreciate that vantage point. You can also better advocate for the child vis-à-vis parents because you know what you’re talking about. You’ve been in the classroom, you’ve taught that child.”

And that’s what it’s all about: each and every child.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Coming Soon!

If you've stumbled on our blog and are disappointed not to see any posts yet, don't be! Watch for our official launch in mid-September. We promise to offer timely and relevant reads, and look forward to engaging with you in this exciting new forum. Stay tuned...