Impressive, collaborative, strategic, caring, and dedicated are some of the adjectives that come to mind after talking with Jewish Primary Day School’s (JPDS) Kindergarten General Studies team, comprised of Lisa Davis, Xani Pollakoff, and Vas Pournaras. Despite teaching separate classes, these educational leaders work closely together, planning their sessions on a weekly basis, discussing their students’ skill sets and coming up with creative ways to simultaneously further develop them and learn from them. Ronit Greenstein, Director of Communication, credited the strong parental involvement as a contributing factor to the strong development of the students. She talked about how the parents leverage their expertise and professions to develop the students, citing a recent example where a parent helped train the students in interview skills.
These skills were indeed apparent in the three kindergarteners that Kol HaBirah had a chance to “interview” – Lior Zucker, Hannah Jakabovics, and Lani Walder. They eagerly talked about the 2015-2016 Community Library Project, an initiative they worked on to revamp the kindergarten library, which resulted in JPDS’s kindergarten receiving an “Award for Development of Critical and/or Creative Thinking,” one of the six 2017 Kohelet Prizes for Jewish Excellence. These articulate, engaging, and bright five year old children (who admitted they were nervous before speaking with us but then spent about 30 minutes talking about the project) mentioned that before the Community Library Project, the books were disorganized, hard to find, and the general area appeared as if a “hurricane” had hit it (some unfortunate teenagers may cite this as their father’s most creative description of the state of their bedroom). As a result, the Community Library Project was born. Armed with a mission to revamp the library, the faculty, along with the children, developed a clear strategy: they were going to visit a number of successful libraries, learn and compile a number of best practices, and apply them to their current library.
Each of the three classes visited a separate library, including Noyes Library (Hannah pointed out that there was not actually much noise there), Mount Pleasant Library, and Rabin Library at the school’s North Campus and then all the classes visited the Library of Congress. A number of the best practices they developed from these libraries included understanding the different categories of books (e.g. non-fiction, fiction), proper methods for labeling and sorting books, identifying and fixing books that need repair, the types of awards that books receive, the shelving process, visual aids, and learning about comfortable areas that make for good book reading.
Armed with all this information, the children (with guidance from the faculty) implemented them in their own library. They sorted the books into various categories, labeled them with letters and visuals so children at all reading levels can find the books they are looking for, and shelved them accordingly. The children came up with the idea of constructing a “book hospital” for the books that needed repair, a return basket for them once they are fixed, and a “comfy area” for readers to enjoy their books. This provided an opportunity for the children to develop carpentry skills, as they constructed the items needed for these locations.
The students also make their own books as well as stuffed animals to reflect characters in existing books, to make the books even more real for the reader. The process for developing the stuffed characters is quite nuanced and deliberate. It starts with a child developing an initial sketch of the character, which is subject to a round of constructive feedback by the other children in their class. The process is logged in a book that includes multiple iterations of visuals and feedback, until a final sketch is agreed upon. Once that occurs, they build the stuffed character themselves on most occasions.
When all was said and done, Lior, Hannah, and Lani said they frequent the library more often and read more books because the library is more organized and they are able to find the books easier. When asked what their favorite books were (to confirm that they can actually read), Lior said his was “Harry Potter,”and Hannah’s and Lani’s was “Pippy Longstockings.” As part of the initiative, they had a special day where they invited their grandparents as special guests on the 60th day of school and they gave various awards to their grandparent’s books. As a special addition to the initiative, the children created a community library outside in front of the JPDS-NC building for members of the community to borrow and read books.
It’s no wonder that the kindergarten faculty and students received the prestigious Kohelet Award for this initiative. The combination of dedicated faculty leveraging a non-traditional curriculum and thinking outside of the box along with eager and bright students and supportive and involved parents ultimately led to the project’s success.
The award reciepients enjoyed a wonderful celebration that included lemonade, a Shecheyanu (a blessing said on special occasions), a kol hakavod dance, and a round of pictures. The children were quick to point out that the celebration could not have happened without them because they were a big part of the project!
What’s next for this year’s group of kindergarteners? These talented teachers are preparing a Community Theater Project. Xani admits that she may not be an expert in theater just yet, but she looks forward to learning about it together with the students. Vas agreed, saying that they look to foster an environment where the students ask questions and find out the answers for themselves with guidance. Lisa cited an interesting example from a separate project, where her students were trying to figure out how to communicate with the other classes and began to explore various options, after which they settled on building a tube that connected to each class through which the students could talk to each other.
Vas talked about how the students watched a short video called “Austin’s Butterfly” before the project, which highlights the importance of learning from each other, being receptive to and giving feedback, and learning how to think collaboratively. This culture was apparent among the teachers, the students, and the “products” that they were developing.
The Kohelet prize ultimately speaks for the success of this educational model, which will undoubtedly continue to result in a high level of student and teacher development.
We will cover JPDS's second Kohelet Prize for Real World Learning - Election Project 2016: Kids Voices Count in the next issue.