Reflecting on the responsibility that comes with teaching; fostering a sense of identity and belonging; bringing nature into the classroom (and the classroom into nature) — if you want insight into the latest foci in preschool education, talk to one of the 700-plus educators who attended the Jewish Early Childhood Education Conference last month.
Held at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, on Dec. 7, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s annual conference drew preschool teachers and administrators across the Greater Washington area. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and non-denominational early childhood programs were all represented in the diverse crowd, a clear illustration of the event’s broad appeal and value to the community.
Each year, the conference has a theme, represented by one word; achrayut, responsibility, was the 2017 conference’s theme. Sharon Sherry, an early childhood education and family engagement specialist for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, outlined the value, concept, and behavior of achrayut:the sacred responsibility of educators to step up for children, colleagues, families, and community.
Dr. Erica Brown, associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, framed the learning of the day by speaking about the pedagogy of achrayut. She began by asking the attendees to reflect on their responsibility toward responsibility: why they teach, and who they are as people who are educators.
After two sessions, with lunch in between, schools were given the opportunity to hold a reflection session led by their director. During her school’s reflection session, Young Israel Shomrai Emunah Nursery Director Ruthie Cohen said, “It was clear that we all had learned so much and feel inspired and empowered to bring new energy and ideas to our role as educators.”
Rena Shulman, Shomrai Nursery pre-K classroom assistant, was most inspired by the session entitled “An Expanded Relationship with Nature: The Path to Develop Ecological Responsibility in the Classroom,” presented by Jake Ifshin.
“He taught us how to support the goal of teaching responsibility by connecting children to nature and why it plays such an important role in our lives,” she said.
Tali Bitton, who teaches 3- and 4-year-olds at the Silver Spring Learning Center, also appreciated the focus on nature — so much so that she asked the Learning Center’s director, Debbie Ungar, to buy soil and seeds so she could plant with the children.
“Nature is a big part of schools now — gardens, spending time outside, composting, bringing the outdoors in,” explained Sherry. “This stimulates children and it’s our responsibility as Jews and citizens of the world.”
Ora Cohen Rosenfeld, preschool director at the Bender JCC in Rockville, said she appreciated the impact the conference has on her each year. “I am always impressed by the high caliber of presenters each year, like Dr. Erica Brown, Dr. Naama Zoren, and others. These leaders in education inspire me to think more deeply about elements of our preschool, beyond the day to day running of the preschool,” Rosenfeld said. She was inspired by Dr. Zoren’s focus on how to create a sense of belonging and shared language for everyone connected to the preschool — children, parents, and staff — building a sense of belonging and strengthening identity through the holiday experiences the school provides for children and adults.
Sherry agreed. “It is important and vital to engage families. It’s not just the child, but the whole family that comes to the school. The family is often learning along with the child and forging a community of their own,” she said.
“The most amazing thing I’m struck by at this conference is the sheer number who come. It is amazing to see the dedication of these people and how they give so much of themselves,” Sherry said.
“They’re doing a great job,” said Bitton of the conference organizaers. “Picking one word [as a theme for the conference], they’re giving you a different point of view. I’ve been going for 12 years. You always learn something.”
Ruthie Cohen contributed to this article.
By Kami Troy
Kami Troy is senior editor of Kol HaBirah.