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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.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Creating Murals Creates Community

Big Kids on the Go work on their summer mural, see the result below.
Every year, our preschool summer program chooses a creative focus. This summer they decided on a study of murals, which are abundant in Chicago and particularly in our very own neighborhood of Hyde Park.

Naturally, this summer included field trips to view the murals in Hyde Park, such as a trip to the underpass at 55th Street.

However, one of this summer's biggest takeaways was that, to create a mural, you need to work as a team and collaborate. 

Murals are big and thus require teamwork to create, especially if you’re a child. For example, our Big Kids on the Go Blue created a tree print mural by working together under the direction of our resident artist Susan Carton. 

First the children paired up to use a special paint "brush" made by hanging a t-shirt from a broom handle. The class found the contraption looked like a car wash! Working in pairs, each child held one end of the broom and together they walked the paint-soaked shirt across the paper. This was done several times with different groups of children until the big paper was covered in rich blue lines.

The next step was to make prints from a tree branch. The whole team decided on the color of the prints. Then, in teams of two, the children rolled the paint on the branch and carefully placed it on the blue background to create the print.  

Tree print mural by Big Kids on the Go Blue

In our Parent/Tot class, parents got a chance to get their hands dirty.
Mural by the Parent/Tot class

Creating murals extended to involving parents and community artists. 

Right at the beginning of summer, our Parent/Tot class began exploring painting a mural with foam brushes and blue and green paint. The next day, they used bottles and funnels, resulting in circular prints on the previous day's creation.

The entire school also worked with local artist Doug on a mural on big wood panels.

Each class created a different scene. It was striking how differently each group approached these enormous panels of wood. Some classes abandoned the brushes and tools, and instead used their hands and arms to paint the giant surfaces. The Purple Big Kids on the Go used small brushes to paint their own portions of the large mural. The Blue Big Kids On the Go actually painted in absolute silence.

Eventually, we will display the mural boards from this project along the fence in the preschool playground, ready to welcome everybody when the new school year begins!

Another mural project asked the children to share what summer reminds them of. They gathered materials and each one of them shared one particularly favorite part of summer.

Our 3-year old preschoolers began their study of murals with fingerpaint, then moved on to including 3-D objects in another mural.

All through the summer, children learned to work alongside their friends to paint, draw, make a mono print and employ so many different art techniques.

We wrapped up this in-depth study with a grand gallery opening on Thursday, July 25, showcasing all the murals created over the summer. The community effort was evident in the children's work, and the gallery really made all of this summer's learning visible for everyone.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Amazon-Inspired Purim Masks

As part of their ongoing exploration of and learning about the rain forest and the Amazon, the Kindergarteners created Purim masks inspired by the indigenous Amazon people and their customs.

The children used real life images as a reference. Through this project the class learned about the native people's customs and rituals, for example the way they express gratitude. They also learned how they use make up to express their feelings or their appreciation for animals.

 The children demonstrated a remarkable ability to take their time, persevere, and be creative.

The Kindergarteners also did a fantastic job keeping the colors separated by washing their brushes, and they kept their work space amazingly clean! They wrapped up this project by creating special hats for their masks that were also inspired by what they had learned.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Kindergarteners Draw Picasso-Inspired Self Portraits

Our Kindergarteners' January self portraits were inspired by the unique work of Pablo Picasso. The teachers printed out a few examples of how Picasso drew faces for the children to study.

The samples were also meant to spark a deeper understanding of what Picasso was like. And indeed it did! The children discussed how confident and secure Picasso must have been to be able to present himself in this way.

Self Portrait by Pablo Picasso at age 89
More here
Noah: "Picasso did not care to draw himself funny and he did not care what people thought about it; so he drew himself more."

Ethan: "He made the faces look weird."

Vered: "I like the way he painted the faces because Picasso loved his art."

As the children attempted their own colorful self portraits using the "Picasso method," they also reflected on what they liked about the process, see some of their notes below the portraits.

We believe that since art is subjective, it opens doors to many interpretations. Art is great tool for children to stretch their imagination, as well as promote critical thinking and overall language skills.

For our teachers it was fantastic to see with how much confidence, enthusiam and pride the children approached this project.

Friday, January 18, 2019

How to Identify Trees in Winter

by Preschool Teacher Susan Carton, who is studying to become a Master Naturalist

One of the best things about studying to be a Master Naturalist is that 

the more I learn, the more I see. 

I have always loved the trees in our neighborhood of Hyde Park. Now that I've learned a few things about their history, such as why certain trees flourish here, how they grow and survive, and their diversity, I am noticing even more about them. Quite fitting for the upcoming holiday of Tu B'Shvat (the New Year of the Trees in Israel), I recently participated in a winter tree ID workshop at the Sand Ridge Nature CenterWell, the take-away is that it’s pretty hard, but it is something that you can learn and study your whole life. Nature is like that!

Bark seemed the obvious place to start. 

My classmates and I learned about the distinctive bark of some trees: the almost tile-like black shingles of the cherry tree, the peeling bark of sycamores, the bumpy bark of hackberries, and the smooth reddish bark of dogwoods.

We also learned to observe the general shape and size of trees: Does the trunk split near the ground, or are there many small trunks? Do the branches form one long column like on a white oak, do they spread out in a circle like on a red oak, or do they curve and twist like a crabapple does?

Serviceberry Tree (like tree our school recently planted at Promontory
Point in memory of our school matriarch Millie Miller)
These days I’m seeing twigs and buds everywhere. Every tree in Chicago is full of buds right now. You can study the buds (are they clustered, single, scaled?), the leaf scars (are they round, crescent shaped?), and the twig placement (do the twigs grow opposite each other or alternate along two sides of the twig?).  

Twigs intrigued me the most. 

Twig illustration from the Field Museum's Guide to Winter Trees

Twig structure and formation is so specific to each tree species that you can pretty much identify it by just observing the twigs. One place to start with twigs is their placement on the trunk. Do the twigs grow directly opposite each other or do they alternate along the branch? There are relatively few trees with opposite twigs. Here’s a way to remember them:

M maple
A ash
D dogwood
Cap Caprifoliaceae or honeysuckle
Buck buckeye
Horse horse chestnut

Next time you are looking at a bare winter tree, see if it has “opposite” twigs. If it does, it will be one of these trees. It’s a place to start.

As you can imagine, you really need a field guide to identify most trees, but now you have an idea of what to look for. The good news is that the Field Museum has just created a field guide for winter tree identification, and it will be on their website very soon.