After observing a traditional Hebrew School that met by weekly on Wednesday and Sunday I felt there was something stale and missing in what I was seeing hence the desire to change. I was grateful that the school had very few children and it was a synagogue willing to see change happen. There was a vision that needed to be checked with reality yet seemed worth trying. Coming from a background of family centered education, constructivist in nature and inspired by the work of the Reggio Emilia schools in Northern Italy we were ready to think and do. "Naseh ve nishmah" at its core...
We imagined a Hebrew Immersion possibility (did not work as such), changed the school to an authentic Jewish time to gather and to experience Jewish Living and learning as a family-to Fridays. The end of the week, tired and et a time to let go, checking the times to light the candles and to transition to Shabbat at that time and becoming very aware of this transition as an island of possibility, of dialogue and awareness of a different nature. The classrooms became intentional informal environments, Jewish artifacts, books, symbols, materials are authentic. There is the welcoming room, children come in , check in, have a snack, share about their lives, wash and say the brachot according to the food served. At times they prepared snacks for one another but this did not go as far as we wished yet.
It is a "family" time to talk about life. Whenever possible teachers will connect the dialogue to Jewish values etc.
The next classroom is modeled after a homey living room, library and office. It is both a research room, with books and computers and also a space to sit in sofa's and armchairs around an area to dialogue. Candles are lit in this room and followed by a Jewish meditation time.The third room is the art, creative room. Children flow in small groups as needed. Teens are invited to come and learn with the group. They also act as facilitators of individualized small group Hebrew reading and tefillah learning a they begin to lead in the family Kabbalat Shabbat. The families arrive for services and join the school and larger community.
The core values that guide us: Families research and present together-reinforcing the learning community-this happens on two Sundays a year (the original plan called for 4 times a year), Families stay for dinner once a month and volunteer to cook 3 times a yea (this is happening less often than we hoped for ). Children love to eat what they cooked. It has also created and strengthened friendships. At the beginning of the year children sat with their families during services-no most want to sit with one another and parents are more comfortable in the services.
As a staff we spend more time reflecting before as we prepare to facilitate the learning and reflecting after the day-than with the chidden. Approximately 6-7 hours a week are sent preparing 3.5hs. The culture is one of inquiry. As families presented their research we realized that the children were asking questions and engaging everyone in dialogue taking the presentations to deeper places. Since they always take home "Food for thought" questions to talk about with their parents they brought this to our presentation, learning from one another presentations. A core aspect is to learn about the master stories -parashat ha shavuah and engage in deep dialogue. It is amazing to see what comes up when the children see the adults valuing their ideas, listening and taking them forward. The feel competent as they share and thinking. They engage in debates and dialogue.
They also connect the Hebrew learning with Tefillah and see they need it in order to lead. They are now engaged in choosing which tefillah they want to lead and need to research and then share the background of the prayer and meaning with others-again a learn and teach/share opportunity.They do love to learn from one another. We want children and families to become curious, the children are surrounded by the books and sources-not just a pediatric rendition of them. We share the same with parents and have asked them to participate as seeing everyone involved in learning tells them a story of life long learning and additionally that Judaism adds meaning and depth to life. We always check to make sure we create a joyful atmosphere, that it warm and connected. The environment is emotionally responsive and each child is valued for his /her uniqueness, strengths and celebrated for them.Jewish diversity is brought in -as an example we shared Lecha Dodi around the world-from a community in Uganda, to the army, to a Haredi community in Israel etc.
More about our reflections, what we feel is going well and what we want to amplify or change as we evaluate our first half year in another post.