Director's Review

Week of January 29, 2018 / 13th of Shevat, 5778

How do Tu BiShvat, the Israeli flag, and our PASECC Benefit/Auction all come together this week? Easily!

As promised, we are working to connect parents to our Jewish Life curriculum in a more transparent fashion, so that you can bring the Jewish conversation home. As you know, the more that learning is reinforced at home – whether it is secular, religious, or social-emotional – the better. Simply put, repetition is key for young children.

In the last two blasts we included an attachment to tell you how we have been teaching Tu BiShvat. We have focused on the Jewish value of bal tash’cheet, not wasting. Throughout the year, we implement routines in the classroom that help young children learn about caring for the earth. On Tu BiShvat, we highlight all of these important ways we can work to save the earth – from recycling to reusing to planting in our garden.

Our Benefit/Auction last week was a huge success. The amount of hard work that went into preparation for the event was awe-inspiring. Committees of parents spent hours organizing donations, planning the benefit, and coordinating the art projects for sale. We are so grateful for all of your efforts.

One project illustrates how Tu BiShvat, the Israeli flag, and the Benefit/Auction all fit together. First, our school is known for the strength of our parent community. Parents team together to ensure that events are successful for one reason: the children. This year, recognizing our focus on using natural sustainable objects in our art, the parents on the class project committee designed an Israeli flag that would reflect this initiative. They provided branches, flowers, rocks, and other natural objects and gave each child had the opportunity to paint an item blue or white – kahol v lavan, the colors of the Israeli flag:.

Children and parents worked tirelessly to paint the objects and then glue them onto a canvas. The result is an extraordinary Israeli flag that will hang right next to our American flag to show the dedication and love we feel for the land of Israel in the ECC and at PAS.

Thanks to the generosity of the Kay and Zackowitz families, this flag also raised money that will go directly to the ECC. It is a genuinely collaborative effort of parents and children working on behalf of the school, using materials that reflect bal tash’cheet in honor of Tu BiShvat.

Week of January 8, 2018 / 23rd of Tevet, 5778
Teaching Our Children, Learning Ourselves

At the PASECC, we recognize that life at home shapes a child’s personality, interests, and yes, day-to-day behavior. We are devoted not only to creating the best possible school environment for our children but also to promoting the home-school connection and supporting parents. A leading researcher on children’s learning, Dr. Stuart Ablon, teaches that “children do well if they can.” We understand that knowing the context of children’s life at home enables us to help them succeed. Fluid communication and transparency between home and school helps children to do well.
One way that we build the home-school connection is through our Friday morning coffee and conversation series and our parent learning events. We offer these experiences in partnership with our Parent Association to connect parents to themes and topics in early education, in parenting, and in raising Jewish children. Attendance has been high this year, and we appreciate the honest and open conversation that characterizes these sessions.
As you all know, a principal goal of the ECC is to educate children about their Jewish identify. In the ECC, we appreciate and celebrate that every family is different. Our common ground is that each family, in their own way, believes that being Jewish is important and that teaching children about Judasim is a priority. The decision of how to embrace rituals and tradition lies in your hands.

We know that our children bring their Jewish learning home, where the prayers and traditions they have learned may not be familiar to their families. What happens if your child knows more than you do about prayers or a holiday or a tradition? We hope that does not frustrate you! Rather, we want to teach you just as we teach the children. For example, Tu BiShvat, “the birthday of the trees,” is around the corner. We will share with you what and how we teach the kids about Tu BiShvat, so that you are able to carry on conversations at home that further the learning that occurs in the classroom. Please look out for a new section of the blast: Jewish Life in the ECC. We’ll use that section to share information that will help you engage in Jewish conversations with your children.
We believe that our children will succeed in carrying on the traditions and learning of our faith if the learning they bring home from the ECC is reviewed and repeated with the people they love and trust most: you.

Week of December 11, 2017/23rd of Kislev 5778
Welcoming Candle Light on Hanukkah 

Candlelight evokes a feeling, unlike any other light. On Hanukkah, in kindling light, we bring light into the world. Each child, and even each adult, has a spark that brightens the world. One of the privileges of working with children is to see their openness, curiosity and lack of filter. They are often clearly able to share their opinions about a multitude of things, before they are taught different ways to “couch” different messages.

Last week we welcomed back Dr. Juliet Cooper, who shared her thoughts, expertise and experience on how to be more mindful while parenting, or being with children and even being with ourselves.

It all starts with us. As parents, we are the Shamash, the helper candle that lights the other candles and brings them to life. We always light the Shamash first; hence we must take a moment to think and be mindful and present before we are able to tend to someone else’s needs. Of course, this is not always easy, nor as simple as it sounds. But we can take small steps. When we wake up each morning or before we go to sleep, we can check in with ourselves: how was our day, we might ask ourselves, and what we were able to accomplish with our children or what would we like to do better?

As we light the menorah, let us take a moment, to not only take in the light and peace of the holiday but to recognize the light that is in each one of us and in all others.

Week of November 27, 2017/9th of Kislev 5778
Todah Rabbah, Thanks ECC-style

With Thanksgiving not long behind us, I have giving thanks on my mind, and I would like to thank the parent community in the ECC. The magnitude of giving that occurs daily in the ECC is inspiring. I am grateful to all of you who spend hours of your time helping our school. As I write this, I am thinking about Marissa and Samantha, our two PA chairs who are constantly at the computer and in the school working on projects from memorabilia to communications with class reps. There are parent committees helping to plan Special Visitors Day, working on our January Benefit/Auction, imagining school-wide sustainable art projects, and preparing to label challahs. To all of you, I say Todah Rabbah.

I also want to give you a glimpse of our “Rainbow Time” Thanksgiving assembly. Our children understand the meaning of this holiday in very specific ways. With Josh, we sang a version of “Head Shoulder Knees and Toes” using the words “Todah Rabbah.” Rabbi Witkovsky and Rabbi Savenor helped us re-enact the story of Avraham and Sarah, inviting guests into their tent. (In our version, they served the guests chocolate chip pancakes!) Many of our students contributed insights about the story, recognizing the value of serving guests food and drink as well as greeting them and welcoming them. As usual at Rainbow Time, friends waved to other friends across the room as they danced, sang, and rejoiced. And, in the words of one of our seasoned teachers, the room felt “warm, just like it should be.” Our students learn the value of being thankful and welcoming others and experience it not only on Thanksgiving, but daily.

Educators teach students in the ECC not only how to welcome others but also why we welcome others. Simply put, it makes people feel happy and good, and we want people to feel that way. So it is no surprise that I am greeted and welcomed when I walk into our older classrooms. What is surprising and deeply rewarding is that when I walk into the classrooms of our twos and young threes – ages when children are developmentally egocentric – they too stop what they are doing and welcome me.

Todah Rabbah to all of our educators, who join me and Malka in our vision of raising the level of learning for young children in this way. I thank these teachers for respecting the ability of our children as young as two to understand and express these Jewish values. It is this value-based environment that sets us apart as a school that teaches to the mind, body and soul.

Week of November 13, 2017/24th of Heshvan 5778
It All Comes Down to a . . . Leaf Blower

What does it mean when an early childhood center claims in its mission and philosophy to be hands-on and experiential? It may all come down to a leaf blower.

Three years ago, I was blessed with a grant and the autonomy to decide how to allocate the generous funds. I chose to invest in our educators, the most essential aspect of our school. Three teachers applied and were selected for our Leadership Team. Over the past three years, the Leadership Team’s work has helped to move our program to greater levels of excellence and to bring best practices to the forefront.

One initiative, as you all know, has been an effort to practice the value of Bal Tash’hit, not wasting. Our art materials have evolved from store-bought supplies to items that children find in their homes, both natural and manufactured. The open-ended nature of these items leaves more space for creativity. The materials do not dictate the end product.
In the ECC children come with ideas and have the opportunity to use their hands to explore and work through these ideas. One classroom is studying fall. Following a multidisciplinary approach, these children have learned about fall through art, math, science and literacy.

I can only imagine how the idea of making a leaf blower originated. A child walking to school heard the sounds of a leaf blower and observed what the tool looked like and what the worker using the leaf blower did. Then, that child arrived at school and asked, “Can we make a leaf blower?”
After extensive developmentally appropriate research in books and on the internet, the interested children joined their educator in the art closet to select suitable materials to create just the right leaf blower. And then, magic occurred as the children experienced hands-on what it is like to make a leaf blower. It involves many conversations and a lot of collaboration between peers. One friend notices the handle is missing and chooses an old library stamper to glue on to the hose.

In the end, the value of the process far outweighs the product, but the product is pretty awesome as well. Take a look.

Week of November 1, 2017/10th of Heshvan 5778

Where Happiness Lives

If you have walked by the office lately, you may have noticed that we are knee deep in admissions season. One aspect of this process that I appreciate most is that it forces both Malka and I to reflect on who we are as a school and what sets us apart.

What I am realizing this go around is that the prospective parents, through their observations, are the defining the ECC better than Malka or I could. Simply by walking around and listening to their parent tour guides, these parents are identifying our “special sauce”. And what they are finding seems obvious both to Malka and me, and probably to all of you, but bears spelling out. They are observing happy children.

What does that mean? Ah, the elusive term of happiness and how we all yearn to define it and capture it. Except, if we all paused and spent time observing, as you are obligated to do when you tour, it is clear that to be happy is to learn and to play in the ECC. And there most definitely is a method to developing this happiness. The children are the epicenter; everything the educators, administrators, staff and parent volunteers do emanates from them. We all respect their ideas, their comments and their feelings in an authentic manner that, in turn, contributes to their happiness.

We care, and need, their interests to drive our curriculum. In essence our program depends on them. And I believe this type of empowerment and necessity for their active engagement also contributes to their happiness.
And when you are young, and your parents are happy and trusting of where you are, you are happy. The partnership between parents and our school is strong, it is healthy, and it is growing. This too lends to the daily joy our children experience.

In short, I do believe that happiness is hard to grasp, challenging to define and hard to sustain. That is, until I walk into an PASECC classroom, listen to the children, witness the gleam in their eyes and smile on their faces.

Week of October 16, 2017 / 26th of Tishrei 5778
A Mindful Mission

I admit it. While the past three years have seen great accomplishments in the ECC, each day feels rushed, with one meeting spilling into the next. I am guilty of not being fully present in the moment and – an even greater offense – not appreciating the significance of each moment.
This year will be the last one in our space as we know it. Next year we will move to a temporary space while our school space is renovated. While this process will be exciting and ultimately a great blessing, we recognize that it will mean many, many transitions for our educators, students, and staff.

I for one do not want to go through the next two years like a spinning top just whirling through one step after another until we reach the finish line. Rather, I want to live in the present for each moment that transpires before we move back into our new school. I want to practice mindfulness as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it: paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. I want to lead a staff that stops to identify what is happening presently both in their teaching practices and with their students.

During staff orientation last month, we learned about the theory behind mindfulness and why it is an effective practice for both educators and their students as well as learning specific techniques to use with our students. I am continuing to read and research teaching mindfulness to young children and the importance of mindful parenting.

Currently, I am reading Child’s Mind: Mindfulness practices to help our children be more focused, calm and relaxed by Christopher Willard. Willard identifies the critical reason why all who work with and love children must practice mindfulness:
Think of the small child whose favorite question is simply, why? and consider how that curiosity and openness gradually fades over time. We must begin to ask ourselves what we are parents and educators do that dampens this natural curiosity and openness and try not to extinguish it.

I found this particular statement on point. I challenge us all to ignite the curiosity and to feed the flames of inquiry. That is always our goal in the ECC, but as the pace intensifies we often lose sight of the fact that it is the children’s passion to learn that lies at the core of why we teach.

Whether we work in a classroom or not, we will be teachers if we spend time with children. Children are always students, always learning, whether explicitly or from our example.

At the ECC, we are all practicing mindfulness first and foremost for ourselves in our own practices and then with our children. I ask you all to join us in our mindful mission.

Week of May 22, 2017 / 26th of Iyyar 5777

Gratitude and Thanks

As I complete my third year as Director of the ECC, the overwhelming feeling I have is gratitude. At holiday time, we teach our students about giving and gratitude and talk to parents about how to emphasize these values at home. I believe the end of the school year is another time to pause to remember giving and gratitude.
Our educators give heart, soul and mind throughout the school year. They strive for excellence in achieving curricular standards in line with best practices and they remain flexible in embracing new initiatives. Even more importantly, they individualize to meet all of our children’s needs, and they truly become invested in each child’s development. The end of the school year gives us a chance to express our gratitude for their efforts. As I have shared previously, I highly encourage you to write a letter to your teachers and cc me so that I can place the letter in the teacher’s professional file.
The parents in the ECC also give throughout the school year. They give time and energy volunteering for various projects and events. It never ceases to amaze me how many parents, with children and jobs, still find the time to chair committees, give out challahs, and organize events. Thank you for your devotion to our school.
Two parents stand out: Jamie Bahar and Marissa Zackowitz, our Parent Association Co-chairs. Jamie and Marissa have each demonstrated the highest level of leadership. Jamie, thank you for the past two years that you have dedicated to our school. Marissa, thank you for giving the ECC an incredible amount of devoted attention this year as PA Chair-we look forward to your continuing to lead our parent body.
Finally, my gratitude extends to the children. Each student in the ECC has an individual spark that contributes to our glowing, vibrant community. I have had the privilege of spending time interacting with all 101 children this year, both individually and in their classroom groups. Watching each child grow and develop academically, emotionally, and physically, is a pleasure. I wish all of our students a fun, active, healthy summer.
In sum, there is so much to be grateful for at PASECC, and I look forward to continuing to work together as we move from strength to strength.

Week of May 8, 2017 / 12th of Iyyar 5777
Respect 

Today, May 9, is Teacher Appreciation Day. In the ECC, every day is a day to appreciate our educators. The most frequent compliment I hear about our school relates to our teachers. Parents share with me that the teachers really understand their children and often tell me how the teachers in our school have changed their child’s life.
While that statement may sound dramatic, I find it accurate. Across the whole staff, our teachers demonstrate a distinct style that reflects a true respect for children. That type of respect can, indeed, change an individual’s life. It is extraordinary how educators in the ECC listen and learn about each child so that they can extend, stretch and challenge them to maximize their abilities in a developmentally appropriate way. Whether it relates to making new social connections or taking risks academically, our educators work to create trust based on respect with their students. In turn, the children feel safe to take risks and grow.
As an educator myself, I have been impressed by the intention and measured thinking that weighs in to each interaction our teachers have with their students – particularly as they manage high intensity moments. Even when children have made unwise decisions and need guidance, our teachers deal with these moments respectfully and find ways to turn them into teaching experiences.
On this Teacher Appreciation Day, I wanted to focus your attention on the people that we see each day who spend endless hours listening to, caring for, and educating our children. Our program is undoubtedly excellent, but it is our educators who deliver the curriculum with great talent and respect; they are the key to the success of our school.

Week of April 24, 2017 / 28 of Nissan 5777
Care Builds Community

As the children each returned from Pesah, I asked each of them, “How was your Passover?” I received the usual responses varying from trips to Florida to watching Moana for the hundredth time. However, one response stood out, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. When I asked one Yellow Roomer about her Passover, she said, “I thought about you, Pamela.” Both her mother and I could hardly believe our ears. When we asked her what she said, she repeated those words clear as day.

I was deeply moved by the fact that this child was thinking about me over her break, and it inspired me to think about the children in the ECC as well as the parent community.
I am an educator who believes that kindness and care can be taught both directly and indirectly. Although young children are naturally egotistic, I think that when they are exposed to modeling both in school and at home that encourages them to think of others, even young children can learn to think of others. Common daily routines in the ECC such as giving tzedakah and bikkur holim (calling friends who are sick) help the children focus on others and not only on themselves.
When I spoke with our PA Chairs recently about the essence of our school, their agreed that the idea of community and caring for others is central. Promoting and practicing kindness and care builds this type of community. PAS is a community, and the ECC is a community within that community. Our communities grow and are strengthened when we do just as that child did: we think about others even when we are not together.

I have seen this community operate in the most wondrous ways. From 100 percent participation in fundraising efforts to supporting families through losses or accidents to celebrating many happy memorable occasions. It is no coincidence that when children witness these acts and hear the way we talk to one another, they emulate the kindness modeled by their teachers and parents.
This year, we have been blessed to have many parents work as a community to accomplish great efforts from donating pajamas to running Mitzvah Day to making sure our children take home a challah each Friday. We thank all of you for taking time to think about others and to make our school excellent.

Special thanks to our extraordinary Benefit and Auction team. The time and effort you contributed to our school and to our community was extraordinary, kind and caring. We are so blessed with the results and the many ways that our school will benefit.

Week of March 27, 2017 / 29 of Adar 5777
Shabbat: A Time for Pause

The latest educational research points to the importance and value of practicing mindfulness even with children as young as two. Teaching children the habit of pausing has a short-term positive effect on building self-regulation and a long-term impact of helping students to prepare for and take tests with a measured calm that leads to greater success.

Last week, Rabbi Ethan led a parent workshop on how to celebrate Shabbat in the home. As each of the parents shared the value Shabbat has in their children’s lives, both at school and at home, I realized that practicing mindfulness and celebrating Shabbat are undoubtedly aligned.
Sending your child to preschool at a Jewish Early Childhood Center achieves desired goals, and I imagine, goals that you may not have intended. The ability to achieve mindfulness through the celebration of Shabbat may be an unintended goal, but it is an invaluable one.

When your children celebrate Shabbat in the ECC, it is a time for pausing. The whole classroom stops. It is quiet and calm, and the classroom community operates together in harmony. Think about this feat. We are talking about young children with lots of energy and multiple agendas; however, when the lights dim and the Shabbat candles are lit, the children are in sync – ready to stop, come together, and rest with meaning.

Our Shabbat ritual includes saying brakhot, the blessings over the candles, the grape juice, and the challah – but I would like to boldly state that that the blessings are not necessarily what the children miss when they leave the ECC. Rather, it is the magical spirit conjured at the moment of the brakhot. Consciously or not, the children value the comfort of this tradition which involves talking to adults, often clergy members, who make time to connect with them and to welcome in Shabbat.

At the workshop, we each shared the ways our families celebrate Shabbat at home. Rabbi Ethan listened to each description without judgement and with the true PAS approach of meeting us each where we are. Whether your Shabbat observance is to eat pizza together or to follow the traditional rituals, Shabbat is a time of mindfulness.

While we invite you to say the brakhot as we do in the classroom, above all we encourage you to carve out time on Shabbat to pause in order to achieve rest with meaning, reflection, and peace.

Week of March 13, 2017 / 15 of Adar 5777
Haknasat Orhim in Action

 

This week we welcome a new group of children and parents into Park Avenue Synagogue Early Childhood Center for the 2017-2018 school year. It may seem like distant history to many of you, but if you take a moment to muster up memories of the pre-school process, you may remember moments of anxiety and a general feeling of disequilibrium. You may remember wondering where your child would be accepted and whether or not you as a family would feel connected – whether or not you would fit in.

During this process, I had a parent ask me, “How do I know whether or not I will fit in?” The answer seemed simple to me. Parents who “fit in” in the ECC are those who want to be part of an active, caring community. Parents who fit in have the following in common: they are inclusive; they are kind; they value quality early childhood education; they are committed to a life of Judaism in their own way; and, above all, they love their children.
And not coincidentally, our students follow suit. They value being part of a community; they are inclusive and kind; and they embrace their Jewish identity. They care about and love their friends.

We teach our children about many Jewish values that help them grow and develop into caring individuals. As you know, one of those values is Haknasat Orhim, hospitality. The true assessment of how this value lives in our students lies in how children respond to real-life events.
This week, the Blue Roomers welcome a new friend into their classroom. This boy recently moved from Rochester, NY due to a family job relocation. Our children and our teachers have shown hospitality by making all the adjustments to their routines and to their classroom that will ensure this child and his family feel both welcomed and included. Our teachers will spend time orienting the family and our clergy will reach out to help them feel part of the ECC and part of PAS. Haknastat Orhim in action.

I write this review both to clarify who we are as a parent body and a student community and to remind you all that we are in the process of welcoming new families into our school and into our synagogue. I ask that each of you think back to when you began and how important it was to feel welcomed. We look to each of you to help us integrate new families.
This Friday, March 17, at 9:30 am, we will host our New Parent Coffee. We invite any of you who may be available to come. Let us know if you would be interested and we will happily include you in this event. And even if you cannot come, I ask that you read this review and remember why you came to PASECC. Let that memory inspire you to find a way to embrace our new families.

Week of February 13, 2017 / 17 of Shevat 5777
Speaking to Listen in the Age of Emoji: A Workshop with Karen Blumberg, Diana Potts, and Mike Ritzius

As an educator, I have always understood that listening to children is a critical skill. There are a myriad of reasons why educators listen: to hear the quality of speech and expressive language, to assess children’s interests, to hear their wants and needs and, most importantly, to connect.

Adults often assume that we know how to listen and don’t think of listening as a skill to be practiced and improved. In my own professional and personal development, I am working on being more intentional whenever I listen. I know that I am when students speak, but for me as for many of us, the principles we apply to communicating with our students may be lost or forgotten when we are communicating with adults or with our own children. And smartphones and tablets add another dimension of complexity.

Last week, I attended a workshop entitled Speaking to Listen in the Age of Emojis. We spent the day exploring best practices for communicating in the digital age. As I read over my notes from the day, I recognize that educators are the people who are masterful at these listening techniques,-particularly educators whose entire curricular units focus on the interests of their students, as ours do.

Like all good listeners, our educators are present. They are reflective. They acknowledge their own thoughts and prejudices. And if they do not, our job as supervisors is to help them recognize what may be getting in their way, because “judgement and curiosity cannot exist in the same space.” It is important that after an interaction we think, “What is it about what just happened that caused me to react the way I reacted, and did I really listen?”

Educators here excel in the ability to listen without interjecting; they just listen. When children talk, we manage ourselves and hold back the urge to question because then their story becomes a shared story, instead of their own. After we listen as educators, there are times that we can share a personal anecdote that connects us to the children, but what is vital is to respect that it is their story to tell, purely.

Think for a moment about the last conversation you had with a colleague or a peer. Did you really listen? Did you interject? Did it become about you? I challenge you to listen and I challenge myself. Listening means remaining present and completely focused on the person speaking. Resist that urge to make it about you. And start with your own child. What you hear may just change your whole perspective on communication.

Week of January 30, 2017 / 30 Shevat 5777
The Gift of Books

Your actions are speaking loudly to me this week-it is clear that as parents, you value the gift of literature and reading to children as much as I do and as much as all the ECC educators do. So, first and foremost, thank you. It has been an honor to receive the books as they come in. The children feel great pride placing their book plates on the books and bringing the books to their classroom. These books, are truly one of the greatest gifts the PASECC could receive.
Educators continue to debate what defines a child’s success in school, but all agree that parents and teachers can position children to reach their learning potential- through of books and reading.
One of the first theories teachers learn in graduate programs is that children who are not only read to on a regular basis and who are also surrounded by a literacy rich environment have a better chance to succeed in school. All too often, we underestimate the importance of reading aloud to our children every day. It is and always has been the most significant way to give your child academic advantages.
As many of you may know, we celebrate the gift of books in many ways in the ECC. One way is READ ACROSS AMERICA day, which is celebrated every year on the birthday of Dr. Seuss, March 2. On this day, children come in to school dressed in their pajamas and donate a pair of pajamas to children who cannot afford them.
I am excited to report that an ECC family who chooses to remain anonymous has offered, in honor of Read Across America, to match the purchase of all books made through our Gift of Books program (separate from our Reach out and Read drive during the month of February). For every book you buy for your child’s classroom, another book will be donated in your child’s honor. This is so exciting, and we hope it motivates you to continue to buy books for the ECC!
Let’s reach a goal of 100% participation. That means that in the month of February, 202 books could be added to the ECC, a true gift!

Week of January 16, 2017 / 18 Shevat 5777
What Does it Mean to be an Inclusive School?

Inclusion is an aspect of education that I have been studying and examining for many years. In fact, it is the inspiration behind how I became passionately involved in the field of education.

Recently, PAS has been invested in thinking and collaborating with outside organizations, congregants and educators about how we can be a more inclusive environment. The discussions involved in this initiative have solidified how proud I am to be involved in this synagogue and in our school and how inclusive we are.

February is JDAIM Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Rabbi Charlie Savenor, Director of Congregational Education, and the team of dedicated congregants leading the Inclusion Committee (including Dena Klein, mom of Alivia Klein in the Blue Room) have been working closely with the education leaders at PAS to open dialogue and to inspire us to think about inclusion in each of our departments.

Inclusion can be defined broadly in educational terms. As it relates to PASECC, it has a different definition than it may in a more specialized educational environment. Nevertheless, the desire for each classroom, each curricular moment, each project, and each interaction to include all of our students is at the forefront of our educational efforts.

Since I arrived at PASECC, we have always discussed differentiation of learning as a prime shared goal. This goal encourages educators to think carefully about the individual needs of each learner as they plan curriculum. In fact, this focus on differentiation led to a fundamental change in scheduling as we began to include small group learning times. I always smile when I walk in the rooms and hear the children cheering for small group learning! Teaching fluid, small groups that target children's different abilities and needs both academically and social/emotionally is one critical way that we know we include all learners.

Inclusion in early childhood also relates to our responsibilities as educators to teach to the heart and soul of our children. When I first began teaching, all teachers were preaching Vivian Paley's coined phrase, "You Can't Say You Can't Play". While we all, in the ECC, agree that ideally, we would want our students to play with everyone, we understand that our students have preferences and that that is part of human nature. Rather, we try to sensitize them towards trying to find ways to include new friends, we encourage a flexibility in our students to collaborate with a variety of peers even when the person may not be preferred. We model the language children can use when they are negotiation with peers that they are not inclined to choose. This highlights another important way that we are an inclusive school.

Finally, and most importantly, we know that each child in our school is working on something-maybe it’s trying new food, maybe its touching new materials like shaving cream and maybe its keeping a safe body. We respect all areas of challenge whether they are big or small, and we want parents to feel comfortable discussing these challenges with teachers and administrators. Sometimes these difficulties lead us to include other providers on our team and sometimes they don't, but we are open to this teaming and to finding ways to help each child succeed-this is truly what makes us an inclusive school. 

I encourage you to learn more about the inclusion efforts at PAS and at PASECC. I hope you will join us on Friday February 10th to hear Dan Gottlieb. Please read details of this event here.

Week of December 12, 2016 / 12 Kislev 5777

Holidays - A Time for Gratitude

Last Friday, Dr. Juliet Cooper spoke to PASECC parents about teaching giving and gratitude in young children. Of all of the wise points Juliet made, one resonated deeply with me. Juliet said, “Gratitude should be at the center of every holiday.”

Throughout the year, the educators at PASECC encourage our students to give through Tzedakah and to express gratitude each morning when they sing Modeh Ani. However, we have never discussed the element of gratitude as it pertains to each holiday.

The topic of young children giving and expressing gratitude came up last year. We thought about how much our children receive during Hanukah and felt that parents and educators could use advice on how to emphasize giving. Dr. Cooper came to speak last year as well. She stressed the importance that our children need to give as well as to receive during this time.

This time, she planted that new seed. She shared that gratitude should be emphasized each time we celebrate-not just at Hanukah time. Looking forward, I am going to pose this as a challenge to the educators at PASECC.
What is the gratitude we can emphasize at Rosh Hashanah? Pesach? Purim? On a child’s birthday? Remembering that our children are young and response to information at the most concrete level, I think we can meet this challenge. We tell the story of Passover at each age level. Now, we will add the element of gratitude. We can be grateful for our ancestors who braved the journey to escape Egypt to bring us the freedom we enjoy.

Dr. Cooper shared that as parents we need to think about how we would like to influence our children. We all agree parents and educators alike that teaching gratitude is a priority. The perspective Juliet shared that gratitude should be at the center of every holiday, is a guiding principle for us to reach our goal.
On this holiday of Hanukah, I would like to express gratitude first and foremost to my family. Then to the educators and administrators that make PASECC excellent. Finally, to all of you. It's an extreme privilege to educate and spend our days with your children.

Week of November 28, 2016 / 27 Heshvan 5777

Calling All Guests!

Visit the ECC, and you will hear joyous voices greet you at the classroom doors. Children have learned to receive guests by saying, “Welcome” and “We are so happy you are here!” When you leave, you may hear our students say, “Thank you so much for coming!”

Educating our students goes well beyond academic skills. To our staff, it is even more important to educate their souls. Teaching children how to welcome guests into their space and how to be a considerate guest in others’ spaces is paramount. This is our mission: to grow mensches.

The Jewish value of Hakhnasat Orhim (welcoming guests) was an important topic for our students around Thanksgiving time. The children learned that Native Americans welcomed the Pilgrims and taught them new skills as their guests. The Pilgrims also brought their knowledge to their new friends. In the Jewish tradition, the children learned the story of Avraham and Sarah who welcomed three travelers into their home, washing their feet, offering them a meal, and giving them a comfortable place to rest.

These stories inspire children to invite people into their classrooms and their homes, and inspire them to invite people into their immediate space as they create a block structure, begin an art project, or undertake a scientific exploration. We encourage our students to become collaborative learners. In this way, we continue to talk about the value of Hakhnasat Orhim throughout the year with every educational endeavor in the ECC.

Week of November 14, 2016 / 13 Heshvan 5777

Reflecting on The Joys and Oys of Parenting:
A workshop with Dr. Maurice J. Elias, Ph. D.

On November 4, we were fortunate to have a workshop with Dr. Maurice Klein, author of The Joys and Oys of Parenting: Insight and Wisdom from the Jewish Tradition. Dr. Elias is a mentor to Dena Klein and we are grateful to her for introducing him to our community.
The workshop with Dr. Elias helped each one of us process what our children do that bring us extreme joy as well as what our children do that bring us extreme angst!

I attended this workshop as an educator, but found it impossible not to wear my “parenting hat” as well. Dr. Elias asked fundamental questions that we think about constantly as parents and educators, and he brought a Jewish angle to the discussion that we greatly appreciated.

How can I create a peaceful home? How can I help my child feel more secure? How can I empower my child to face life’s challenges? How can I teach my child responsibility? How can I motivate my child to succeed? How can I guide my child to be kind? How can I inspire my children to be appreciative?

Here are some of the points that Dr. Elias shared to answers of these essential questions.
First, Dr. Elias emphasized that our primary goal is to find the strengths in every child. That thrilled me, since that is something we do every day as educators. It is our job as educators and parents to “love even the unlovable.” When children drive us to moments of “oy,” it is important not to globalize. Children are not “bad” because they cannot get ready on time in the morning or stop fighting with their siblings. Rather than labeling the child or the situation “bad,” we need to describe for the child exactly what is not going well in these moments, making clear that the child is loved regardless of the momentary stress the parent or educator is experiencing. “I need your help to put on your shoes so we can be on time for school. I know it is hard for you to move faster, but please try. I love you, but I get very frustrated when we are late. You may miss something fun.”

Dr. Elias says that parents should use “descriptive praise” generously. I am sure many of you have read about how parents often praise too much. Children are keen at determining genuine vs. non-genuine praise. If you routinely praise without specific details, the praise becomes empty and meaningless and does not build a child’s confidence. When we give praise that is specific and descriptive – “I noticed the way you played with your little sister using a safe body and kind words, thank you.” – a child trusts that you actually watched what he/she was doing, and that you appreciate those actions.

Dr. Elias also spoke about increasing children’s emotional vocabulary, another point also resonated with both my educator and my parent side. Asking children to “use their words” has almost become an automatic response when children resort to physicality or begin to cry when they don’t get their way. However, many young children do not possess the repertoire of emotional vocabulary they need to express what they are feeling in these moments. Alternatively, they may possess the vocabulary, but when emotions take over, they struggle to access these words. As educators, we help them cope by giving them the words we imagine they may want to say in that moment. “Pamela, I can tell you really wanted that Lego piece, and that is why you grabbed it. Please ask, ‘Malka, can I please have that piece when you are finished.’” Follow up with descriptive praise when a child uses language in a subsequent situation, “Wow, Pamela I really hear you using words to ask for what you need.”

In sum, it is always striking to me how parent workshops and educator training often overlap in their purpose and content. Dr. Elias discussed many other aspects of parenting that we, also discuss as educators at PASECC.
Thank you again, Dena Klein, for bringing Dr. Elias to our PASECC community. I highly recommend that each of you read his book.

Week of October 31, 2016 / 29 Tishrei 5777

What Does the Rainbow Really Mean at PASECC?

When people ask what I like most about my job, I always have the same response. I am in the unique position to have a vision and watch it realized. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional career.
Rainbow Time is an example. Three years ago, when I was new in this job, I sat with lay leaders and began to dream. I told them I wanted to bring the school together regularly for “Rainbow Time” when all the children would sing, celebrate, and be together like colors of the rainbow.

Three years later, we have had multiple Rainbow Times, The most recent one in the sukkah reminded me about why I had this vision in the first place. All the colors of the rainbow came together, sat in the sukkah, and reviewed the holidays that we had just celebrated. Eliana led the music, Rabbi Ethan led us in prayer and the children’s voices sang in merriment. Children danced together and truly had a wonderful time.

Most poignant to me were the moments when children waved to teachers they had last year, cousins shared an enthusiastic hello, and older siblings got up to find and care for their younger siblings.
Making this Rainbow Time even more significant, when Oscar, our maintenance man extraordinaire, walked by, we invited him to be a guest at our Rainbow Time. The children were delighted to share this experience with Oscar.

At PASECC, this is what the Rainbow means. It means times when we all come together, all six classrooms, all of the teachers and staff, to sing, pray, experience joy, and express gratitude. Rainbow Time is always a perfect moment for this, and I look forward to many more like the one on October 21.

Week of October 9, 2016 / 7 Tishrei 5777

Here at PASECC, we educate young children. When teaching young children about their identity and all about who they are, we always try to be as concrete as possible. When a child asks about what color eyes she has, we bring a mirror to her to look directly. We display family photos in the classroom to help children when they miss their families to hold and look at. It is no different when it comes to educating children about their Jewish identity. We are blessed in the ECC to have clergy members come and spend time singing during Tefilla and celebrating Shabbat. These clergy members are the people who children see at the forefront at shul and they come into their classrooms, their Jewish spaces, to have intimate conversations about being Jewish.

This week, children have been talking about what it feels like to learn and be together in a Jewish space. A big part of this experience is learning about the Shema and Modeh Ani-two prayers we sing to greet the day. Children are learning about what a Mezzuzah is and that the Shema is located inside the Mezzuzah. We have loved receiving photos of your children and their Mezzuzot.

A big part of teaching children about being Jewish is teaching them about our homeland far, far away: Israel. Trust me, this is a challenge. Most of our children have never traveled this far. Of course, we have used picture books, photos and videos throughout the years. Most recently, our parent Tikkun Olam Committee brought up the idea of partnering with a school in Israel to concretize the learning even more. After a year of determination and searching, our committee found our perfect match, Gan Aluma, a school on a kibutz in the Western Galilie.

To my great delight, the Director Eti Shustick, came to NYC and had the chance to tour PASECC. She loved us, and we loved her. A true, symbiotic relationship began. This happened right around Yom Haatzmaut. The Gan Aluma kids taught us dances through videos, and we sent them back videos of our Rainbow Times. This year, we began introducing our students to Gan Aluma from day one. They all have photos of the children along with their names. Many classes sent Shana Tova cards to them and we, in turn, received cards back. Now, we will talk about their sukkah and compare it to ours at PAS.

This year, our learning about Israel will be enhanced through our direct connection and relationship to Gan Aluma. We are blessed to add this as a integral part of our Jewish life curriculum and wanted you all to know about the school. Click here to see a presentation of Gan Aluma.

Week of September 19, 2016 / 16 Elul 5776

Reflection and Preparation

The summer season at PAS is spent preparing. Many of the preparations are visible, like new bulletin boards, and equally many are intangible. Before we make any innovations, we first reflect on the school year that has just ended. We discuss what worked well and what could work better and how we can improve both our program and our environment so that when we open our doors on the first day of school, we are better prepared to welcome our students than ever before.

This summer, we welcomed Malka Lowenstein as Assistant Director. With her arrival, we took the opportunity to evaluate our office spaces and our space needs. Our reflection led us to reorganize. Our administrative team now sits together in the room that was my office. The new arrangement increases communication and collaboration among our staff while offering our teachers and parents a new meeting area.

You will often hear me say that our environment serves as a third teacher. Reflecting on how we could improve our environment led us to spend money raised by last year’s spring benefit to purchase and install new bulletin boards throughout the school. Providing a neutral, non-distracting backdrop to showcase classroom happenings has changed the entire tone of our environment. We also used money raised at the benefit for a new PASECC art gallery in our lobby. We look forward to watching that space fill up with classroom displays illustrating units being studied throughout the school.
Our summer preparations for your children and families include training for returning and new staff. Malka and I are proud of the two-week orientation our staff experienced this year. Some of the many initiatives they learned about, which you will hear about in the course of the year, are Getting Ready to Write, Sustainable Art, Meeting Times with Children, and Integrating Technology in Early Childhood.

Our preparations also included safety and security training. David Boehm, CEO of Security USA, trained our staff in procedures that protect our students and our staff, including evacuation, lockdowns, and how to make quick decisions in intensive situations. While we all hope we will not have to put this preparation to use, we all welcomed the training and acknowledged the vital importance of being informed proactively. Rest assured that we review and reflect constantly on how to keep our school and your children safe, and we are prepared.

While we value our summer planning time and work hard on preparations, we are most thrilled to dive into the year. Now that the children are walking through the halls and filling the classrooms with chatter and giggles, we remember why we love doing what we do. Thank you for the extreme honor of leading this fine institution. I look forward to continuing to communicate through these reviews and in our daily interactions.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of May 16, 2016 / 8 Iyyar 5776

What Do Perseverance and Grit Mean in a Young Child?

Simply put, a lot. Educational buzzwords and trends come and go, but some tenets are timeless. Being resilient and persevering in the face of challenge are qualities that undoubtedly promote academic and personal success. Research over the last 25 years has repeatedly shown that children who are resilient are often born with a temperament and intelligence that predispose them to problem solve, develop interpersonal and meaningful relationships, meet developmental milestones, and be academically successful.

Parents often ask me to share ways that can help them determine whether or not their young child possesses this “grit” that researchers highlight. While I believe that many children are born with wiring that predisposes them to stick to a task longer, I also believe that this “grit” can be taught and molded.

Children who persevere in early childhood can also be thought of as resourceful. They are the ones that do not immediately ask for help when the stars don’t align either academically or socially. Instead, they problem solve.

This week I watched a number of three-year-olds attempt a challenging stegosaurus puzzle. I sat at the side of each child who came to the table, attempted to do the puzzle, and then left. Some left after the first hurdle, some stayed a bit longer. One stayed and solved the entire challenge. Sure, part of the success was due to a natural propensity for visual/spatial tasks, but part of it was perseverance and grit.

I encouraged the children who were struggling to stick with the task a bit longer than what felt comfortable to them, but I was not terribly successful. Nonetheless, the aggregate effect of receiving this type of encouragement is to promote the type of grit we want to see in our children.

I watched other examples of resilience this week. A child wearing an unwieldy sling after major surgery on his hand found a way to use the space between his arm and the sling as a water bottle holder; he walked by me sharing his invention with a smile. No scowl, no complaint, rather an optimistic outlook and a solution – true grit at its best. We see perseverance every day when children figure out ways to make their blocks balance after a structure has fallen for the “umpteenth” time, or a child turns an unintended mark in a drawing into something meaningful, or two children work out a conflict without needing a teacher to intervene. There are numerous ways early childhood students demonstrate and gain perseverance.

A wise friend once told me that with each struggle our children experience, their brain grows. It’s true. And the more we praise their struggle and acknowledge the process of trying and muddling through, the greater chance our children have of developing the ability to cope and manage. Note that the opposite is also true. The more we “sugar coat” difficulties or solve the problem for our children, the less likely they are to be able to deal when the “going gets tough.”

No questions, I know it is MUCH easier in the short run to do it for them, to take away their pain, to make it all easy and smooth. But doing that is a mistake and one that has a ripple effect on both their academic and personal success.

In sum, praise the struggle! Tell your child, “I see your brain growing!” when you see them frustrated. When they overcome an obstacle, point out the process that got them there rather than praising only the outcome. In doing so, you will be appropriately promoting grit.


Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of April 18, 2016 / 10 Nisan 5776

A Long Awaited Partnership

The PASECC parent committees formed by our leaders, PA Chairs Dena Klein and Jamie Bahar, are undoubtedly one of the reasons why our school is always in forward motion. With parents as our partners, we collaborate and integrate the many talents of our families to better our environment.

This year our PASECC Tikkun Olam committee (Lana Edelman, Jessica Cosloy, Nicole Cyrlin and Emeline Salama-Caro) was no exception. At the beginning of the year, we met to determine our initiatives: Tzedakah, Read Across America and Partnering with Israel. We accomplished the first two, and found the partnership more challenging than we expected.

This group simply did not give up! Thanks to their commitment to bringing Israel closer to our children to forge a more concrete connection, we have found our partner school: Gan Aluma on Kibbutz Afek in Israel.

This week, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting with Etti Shuscik and Efrat Srebro. Etti is the Director of Gan Aluma and Efrat is a master educator who works to help partner schools and build bridges between Israeli children and American children. They taught me about their remarkable school and, I immediately, envisioned the synergy to come. Then, I took Etti and Efrat on a tour of our school; they literally lit up! Both of these educators communicated that we were the partner they were looking for!

So, thanks to our parents and their determination to forge more connectivity to the land of Israel for our children, we met our partner. I am looking forward to the learning to come as we near Yom Ha’atzmaut and beyond.
 

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of April 11, 2016 / 3 Nisan 5776

Planting Seeds Leads to Endless Possibilities

In my close-to-two years as Director of the ECC, I have had the opportunity to plant virtual seeds, sow them, and watch them grow and develop. As you know, one of those seeds has been our Leadership Team. Now the Leadership Team has given our school the possibility of planting real seeds.

As one of their initiatives this year, the Leadership Team partnered with the Tikkun Olam committee of the synagogue, led by Elissa Drassinower and Limor Geller, to envision and execute a plan for a roof garden. While the ECC will house and care for the garden, the hope is that different departments in the synagogue will participate in planting and will enjoy the fruits of our collective labor.

The team and I felt a sense of satisfaction in achieving of our goal. However, I derived the greatest pleasure from our introduction of the garden to the children in the ECC. It reminded me of one of the reasons I love my job: the endless possibilities. We early childhood educators are presented with endless possibilities every day. It is a wondrous thing about working with young children that we can never predict how they will act or interact with the materials we provide.

On the windy morning of March 29, the children in the ECC came together on the roof to officially open our garden. Joined by Cantor Azi and Malka Lowenstein, said our morning prayers: the Sh’ma and Modeh Ani, and we recited the Sheheheyanu. Malka led us in a planting song. Each class got to enter the garden, look around, and wonder what will be possible there.

The children loved the addition to their school and the prospect of getting their hands “down and dirty” in the soil. A myriad of questions came pouring out of these 3-to-5-year-old children, from what kinds of tools will we need to what types of foods will we plant to when can they start? We were all excited to unveil the garden, but the children’s questions reminded us that our roof top garden offered endless possibilities for their future learning.

Our garden will lend itself to lessons involving science and math. Observing foods growing will inspire rich descriptive language and opportunities to build vocabulary. Digging and manipulating the seeds and dirt will work those small hands and build important musculature needed for writing. Children will sketch, paint, and color what they see in our garden. The list goes on and on.

Thank you to the maintenance staff, the Leadership Team and Elissa and Limor, who worked to make our garden grow and to provide us with another opportunity for endless possibilities.
 

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of March 21, 2016 / 11 Adar II 5776

 

Why teach values?

This week I spoke the PAS Young Couples Group on a topic dear to my heart: teaching young children Jewish values. When I reflected on what drives me to pursue this endeavor, I went back almost twenty years to my first experiences as a classroom teacher, teaching first grade. I remember making a conscious decision that I would be equally responsible for the education of my students’ hearts as for their brains.

In my classroom I established routines and responsibilities for the six-year-old children to ensure that they not only did daily jobs of washing tables and taking attendance, but that they felt equally responsible for protecting the feelings and emotions of their classroom community members.
It’s not as if the classroom was a utopian society. Children fought, there were conflicts, but there was an established set of expectations about how children would treat one another. When there was a problem, the children all had a sense of what behavior was and was not appropriate in their community.

Our new Jewish Life curriculum sets us on track to create the same kind of sensitivity in our ECC community. We have made a commitment that we are as invested in educating the hearts and souls of our children as their minds. Yes, we have always “grown mensches” here, but now we are all together in our mission and in our understanding of how we do this.

For children, their classroom is a microcosm of the world that they will eventually be part of. Regardless of where our children decide to learn or work, they will always need to treat others in a socially acceptable fashion. Each child comes from his/her own family background. Each family emphasizes different core values, and each family has its own way of dealing with emotions. Even in the most homogenous of situations, such as we have at PASECC, it is essential that we directly teach children to respect and deal with each other’s differences as a part of a community. We simply must teach this.

As parents we are most certainly also teachers. The Hebrew word for parents, horim, comes from the same root as the word for teachers, morim. We shape the actions and reactions of our children through the behavior we model and through the language that we use in challenging situations. Many of you know that my mantra with young children relates to honesty and accuracy. When your child acts kindly, call it what it is – kind. And when the opposite occurs, label that as well – unkind. Think deeply about which values your family espouses and ask yourself whether you have made them clear to your children.

How do you know whether you have achieved a values-based code of behavior in your family? I will share a personal experience. Recently, I received a call from my 10-year-old, who told me that she had forgotten her math book and therefore did not do her homework. She also shared that she had changed seats during lunch to sit next to a friend who was alone. Instead of harping on the missed homework, I praised her decision to be a good friend – to practice the value of haver tov. I was beyond proud.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of February 29, 2016 / 20 Adar I 5776

 

The PASECC celebrated Read Across America on Wednesday, March 2. Every aspect of the day demonstrated an element of a strong early childhood program.

• Children and teachers came to school in their pajamas – what fun! First and foremost, early childhood education should be engaging and fun.
Each child donated a pair of PJs and a book to children in need, putting into practice the values of tzedakah and hesed. For some of the children, it was not easy to part with a beloved book or a new pair of PJs, but they beamed when I thanked each of them and we celebrated their doing mitzvot. A good early childhood program connects to families, so I thank you all for your strong participation in this project.
• We spent the day celebrating the joy of reading. I read Because of a Sneeze by Bernice Myers to our younger children and An Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni to the older children. We spoke about how fortunate we are to be surrounded by books galore both at school and at home. The children loved the Dr. Seuss hat I wore and asked about it, so I shared that March 2 is Dr. Seuss’s birthday. The children were eager to talk about favorite titles like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. A strong early childhood program builds language skills and promotes literacy.

I hope you will ask your child about Read Across America day and talk about it together. As you snuggle up with a good book (in your pajamas), remind them just how fortunate we all are!

Happy reading!

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of February 8, 2016 / 29 Shevat 5776

How to Talk to Your Child About God: Tips from Rabbi Cosgrove

A side effect of our new Jewish Life curriculum in the ECC is that the children talk about God more often and ask many questions. Their interest stems in part from the prayers we say to welcome each day – Modeh Ani and Shema – as well as from the blessings we say before snack and lunch. To help parents answer their children’s questions, we had a workshop with Rabbi Cosgrove on February 4 about how to talk to your child about God.

To start the session, parents shared some of questions their children ask: Where is God? Am I touching God? Is God all over the earth? Is God touching everything? Does God know everything? Is God sitting on me? What does God look like? How do you find God? How do you talk to God? If God is real, why can’t I see God? These are just a sampling of the questions young children pose.

Rabbi Cosgrove assured us that children’s questions keep getting better and more sophisticated (harder to answer!) as the children grow and experience more advanced curriculum, real-life tragedies, and other perplexing events.

The rabbi then asked us to consider our own images of God. Responses ranged from “a man with a white beard” to “an amorphous blob.” The rabbi asked us to wonder, “Who gave us that image of God?”
He went on, “Is there a Jewish definition of God?” It would be easier for all of us if the answer were yes, but alas, the rabbi answered that there is no single conception of what God is. The good news is that there is no need to have a specific formulation. God is one, but can have multiple images. Each Jew has to grapple with God, Rabbi Cosgrove explained. The only authentic answer to a child who asks you to describe God is to allow yourself to say that you do not know how.

Rabbi Cosgrove encouraged us that when our children ask, “Where is God?” we meet them where they are. He cautioned us not to impose our own questions and ideas. He did share one description that he feels resonates with many: Think of an outstretched arm in a swimming pool with the water is all around; that water is like God.

If a child asks, “Is God inside of me?” the Rabbi offered, “Yes, humans are created in the image of God. Every human has a spark of God. It is our duty to find that spark within each individual.”

Rabbi Cosgrove also suggested that we do not necessarily need to talk to our children about God. Rather, he said that it is important to show our children our own relationship with God and to model for them by forming our own strong relationship with God.

In concluding, Rabbi Cosgrove talked about the Torah as our love letter from God. If children want to know how to talk to God or whether or not God talks to them, we can tell them that the way to talk to God is to pray. The way to hear God talk is to read the Torah or to hear the Torah read aloud.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of February 1, 2016 / 22 Shevat 5776

 

Aliza
When a new leader arrives, everyone is typically on edge. What if the newcomer changes everything we love about our school? What if she doesn’t understand us? If Aliza, our Assistant Director, ever felt any of these emotions, when I arrived at the PASECC, I certainly could not tell. Here she was, a 20-year veteran of the school, the person who knew this school better than anyone, standing with open arms ready to welcome me as Director.

And that is how it has been since day one. I love working with Aliza. She is bright, logical, and passionate about early childhood education. We complement each other perfectly, and I am going to miss her terribly.
When we say we like to “grow our professionals here,” Aliza is our poster child. She began at the ECC as a student teacher and grew into her position as Assistant Director, no small feat. Teachers rely on Aliza for her professional wisdom and her practical advice. As an administrator, Aliza loves spending time with our children and teachers hands-on, in the classrooms. I am sure that she was a fantastic teacher. Now Aliza has decided to move to New Jersey, where she will work, and she and her husband Michael will raise their lovely daughter, Arielle. Whatever institution is fortunate enough to welcome her next is truly a lucky one.

Aliza, by way of this review, I would like to thank you publicly for your dedication to the PASECC, to the children, the families and the teachers. And I thank you as well for your dedication to my success. I will miss you beyond words. I wish you all the best. Stay in touch.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of January 11, 2016 / Shevat 1 5776

 

Educational trends come and go, but the notion that play is a critical aspect of early learning is here to stay. I recently read an article that brought to light a new insight regarding the importance of play in early childhood. I am a committed advocate of play, but this article – “How Free Play Creates Emotionally Stable Children in an Unstable World” – made even me look at play with a new eye.

The article discusses children’s need to feel a sense of control over their life. This sounds counterintuitive given that we are always preaching about setting limits and making sure our children know that they are not in control, rather, that adults are. But the article refers to a specific aspect of control – the control a child feels during playtime.

We are constantly working to enhance children’s play by asking prompting questions and by expanding their answers. This article speaks to balance. It urges us to ensure that we also simply let our children be. Giving children time to play on their own, without interruption, with the ability to control the course of events, helps them to feel emotionally stable. I never thought about it, but it makes perfect sense.

I had never before thought of children’s play as being about control. After reading this article, I feel strongly that this is yet another reason why play is critical to early childhood development. Specifically, play that is open-ended that the child directs and navigates – play that occurs when a child is on his/her own.

When I thought about this research in relationship to my own five year old, it became so obvious that it’s embarrassing. He spends hours at school following directions; he listens to our rules about brushing teeth, eating meals, and doing homework; and he absolutely relishes his solitary play time. He has developed a whole imaginary world involving vehicles and sports, and it rarely involves a playmate. I have always listened in when he plays, and as an educator, I have assessed the quality of his expressive language. After reading this article, I think I will listen in less, leave him be, and understand that his solitary playtime is allowing him to establish a sense of control that is critical to emotional stability.

https://pjmedia.com/parenting/2015/09/09/how-free-play-creates-emotionally-stable-children-in-an-unstable-world/?singlepage=true

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of December 7, 2015 / 25 Kislev 5776

 

Making Tzedakah Meaningful to Young Children
All too often, educators present tzedakah projects to young children that are too abstract for the children to understand. Simply placing clothing, food, or toys in a bin does not help children know that they are giving to people who need those items. This year I have worked with the ECC Tikkum Olam Committee to choose tzedakah initiatives that are meaningful to our children because they are in a context that the children can see.

As I have written previously, our Jewish Life curriculum highlighted the value of tzedakah around the time of Hanukkah, when our children receive so much. Teachers discussed giving in preparation for Mitzvah Day, which was two weeks before Hanukkah, and classes came down to the lobby and added money to the large community tzedakah box. As a follow-up, each room now has a class tzedakah box so that children can continue giving tzedakah regularly.

Children are asked to put coins in the class tzedakah box every week, but they are not asked “Where should we give this tzedakah?” They cannot possibly generate a list of people or causes that need their money. Instead, we teamed with Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky and Director of Youth Engagement Hallie Chandler and decided that the money the ECC children collect will be used to purchase food for the weekly PAS Teen Food Pantry.

The older children – Blue, Green and Red Roomers – will collect the tzedakah money from all of the classroom tzedakah boxes. The children will take turns going in small groups to the Morton Williams store across the street to purchase food items that the teens will distribute to the people who come to the Food Pantry on Friday afternoons. Blue, Red and Green Roomers will talk to the younger children and tell them that their tzedakah money is being used to buy food for people who need it and do not have the money to buy it. The children will be able to see and understand how their money is spent and where the items they have bought are going. It is concrete and connected to their own firsthand experience.

I’m sure you will give your child coins to put in the class tzedakah box. Please also ask your child what happens to the coins at school and discuss the process of using tzedakah money to help people. Also talk about other giving your family does. Can you take your child along to deliver outgrown toys and clothes to a homeless shelter or involve your child in other ways in your family’s tzedakah? An appropriate level of transparency is important to helping young children learn about giving.

I encourage you to walk by Park Avenue Synagogue with your children on Friday afternoons around 4:00 pm. Point out the line of people waiting to pick up food and the people leaving the building with full shopping bags. Remind your child that their tzedakah money made a difference, because the teens used it to buy the food the people are taking home to share with their families.

Pamela B. Schwartz

 

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Week of November 16, 2015 / 4 Kislev 5776

Thanksgiving PASECC Style
Gone are the headbands with glued-on feathers. Gone are the vests cut out of brown grocery bags. The way children learn about Thanksgiving in the ECC is vastly different than the way I learned when I was growing up. And I believe it’s a change for the better.

With all of the controversy surrounding the traditional story of Thanksgiving, I gave the ECC teachers the option of telling their own version of the story or abandoning it entirely. I believe the important lesson for this time of year is to help children pause and think about what they are thankful for and why. Reflecting in this way is particularly challenging for young children. To begin with, young children are egocentric. This is not a negative comment, but a statement of fact. It is developmentally appropriate for a young child to be egocentric. But it means that for a young child to step outside of him- or herself and to think about who and what makes their life special or extraordinary is a challenging task.

When we ask children what they are thankful for, they tend to name a gift just received, a toy recently played with, or the last person they hugged. This is to be expected. To teach our “mensches in training” to notice more of the world outside themselves, we model appreciation by thanking them for their own acts of kindness. We also share what we as adults are thankful for. We try to concretize what otherwise feels abstract and distant to our young learners.

Telling the story of Abraham and Sarah and their tent that was open to all is another way we have shifted attention away from the traditional Thanksgiving story. We have taught the children that to welcome others and to help others makes us good people and good Jews. We have discussed that others feel thankful for us when we act in this way, and that we, in turn, can be thankful for others when they welcome us in and help us.

As we anticipate Thanksgiving Day next week, we have directed our children’s focus on what really counts: What really makes each one of us thankful in life? Remind your children how thankful you are for them each day as they are learning little by little to be thankful for you and for all that is around them.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of November 9, 2015 / 27 Cheshvan 5776

When a Plan Comes Together…
As you know, we worked last summer on writing a revised Jewish Life curriculum, a collaborative effort spearheaded by Rabbi Savenor. The first unit in our curriculum involves creating a Jewish space. From the start of the year, teachers introduced rituals and blessings that have become part of their daily classroom routines. All of the children in the ECC – from age 2 to age 5 – learned the Shema and learned that this prayer is one of the most important prayers to the Jewish people. Now, all of the children say the Shema each morning.

The children also learned that many Jewish spaces can be identified by a mezzuzah hung on the doorpost, and they learned that a mezzuzah is a small case containing a rolled up parchment with the Shema written on it. Children went on hunts around the school and the synagogue to count and observe different mezzuzot, and many classes made their own mezzuzah. Everything was introduced deliberately in a way that would connect each child to his/her Jewish identity in a concrete, developmentally appropriate fashion.

Last year on a visit to Israel, Rabbi Savenor purchased a rainbow-colored mezzuzah for the ECC. He and I envisioned hanging this mezzuzah on the doorpost of the big room, a place that all of the children enter and exit from each day, the hub of life in the ECC. But we only wanted to hang it when it would have meaning to the children.

After the children had learned about the Shema and the importance of a mezzuzah, it was time. Last Friday, the ECC came together for Rainbow Time – our special moment once or twice a month to learn, sing, and celebrate as an entire school community – and we hung our mezzuzah. Our music teacher, Eliana Light, led the children in a song she wrote about hanging a mezzuzah and kissing a mezuzah. We sang about coming together as friends. Malka Lowenstein, the new YFE Director, taught us a song about rainbows. Finally, it was time for Rabbi Charlie to hang that very special mezzuzah.

What happened next was magical. Children held hands, all in total awe because they understood what was happening. They were actively involved and connected to the moment. When Cantor Azi led us in the Shehehiyanu, all of the adults in the room knew that we were witnessing a moment when a plan truly came together. Stay tuned for more greatness.

Pamela B. Schwartz
 

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Week of October 26, 2015 / 13 Cheshvan 5776

Leadership
I have always been inclined to lead. It was like an inner fire that ignited from a young age and grew as I grew. I have always been passionate and outspoken, but I have also always learned best and worked best collaboratively. I never wanted to lead without the comradery of a team around me.

While I am proud to lead the ECC, I am most proud of what our ECC team has accomplished working together: teachers and administration, parents and administration, as well as teachers and parents. We have an extraordinary community filled with leaders who contribute every day.

Last spring, teachers applied to become part of a Leadership Team that would select initiatives to create both curricular and cultural change in our school. I got this idea from a colleague and was certain that it would benefit our school. We selected three teachers to be the first to serve on the team: Alissa Schulman, Danielle Serber and Lauren Vien.

This summer we met bi-weekly to choose initiatives for the upcoming school year. The first initiative the team chose: “Getting Ready to Write” has already made a huge impact on the way we approach building small motor skills with young children.. The team consulted occupational therapists, did independent research and polled other schools to choose a developmentally appropriate pre-writing skills curriculum. They ultimately chose to integrate Handwriting Without Tears into our school, as young as 2.

The way the team collaborated to achieve their first initiative exemplified leadership. They have worked with our staff to introduce a uniform font that mirrors the letter formation from Handwriting Without Tears. You may notice that the children see print in our environment that is printed in this universal font, Century Gothic. The team led during orientation, helping to guide teachers on what to include and what not to include in writing centers. Under their leadership, universal goals have been communicated. Most importantly, the team has taught us how being purposeful and deliberate in choosing manipulative and writing tools can dramatically impact a child’s readiness to write.

Change is hard, but with the proper leadership it can be exhilarating. I have always known that that type of leadership is not a solo act. I look forward to what our Leadership Team will achieve in the next two years for our school.

Pamela B. Schwartz

 

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Week of October 12, 2015 / 29 Tishrei 5776
 

Jewish Identity
Among the challenges of being an Early Childhood Center in a synagogue is how to create an identity as a Jewish school and how to help our children develop their identities as young Jews. All the more so when the synagogue is nationally recognized for its vibrant young family programming, exciting religious school, stimulating adult learning, and inspiring worship opportunities. I spent my first year at PAS observing the institutional culture and asking how the ECC can fit into the arc of learning that takes in everyone from our youngest to our most senior members. For a “doer” like myself, it was hard to hold back from jumping in to make changes, but the time spent watching and wondering was well spent.

Last spring we created our ECC Leadership Team of three teachers chosen both for their dedication and for their high level of performance, a team that will have a critical role in deciding how our school will move forward. (See my Director’s Review of May 11, 2015.) This summer we were ready to reconsider our goals and to begin new initiatives. Rabbi Charlie Savenor, Director of Congregational Education, has been an essential participant in this undertaking. He, too, invested much time carefully observing how our school operated. By the end of the school year, we were ready to talk about how young children identify with Judaism and how the ECC can provide an experience of Jewish life that will encourage that identification. Charlie invited other members of the PAS educational team into the conversation: Malka Lowenstein, our new Director of Young Family Education, and Jennifer Stern Granowitz, Director of the Congregational School. I also had the opportunity to compare ideas and experiences with early childhood educators from other institutions, including colleagues I met at the United Synagogue’s New Directors’ Institute at the Pearlstone Center outside Baltimore.

In the course of the summer, our discussions culminated in a new Jewish Life curriculum for the ECC. The curriculum is rooted in core Jewish values like being a good friend (haver tov), doing kind acts for other (hesed), giving to others (tzedakah), and caring for people who are injured or ill (bikur holim). Our school has always prided itself on “growing mensches.” ECC teachers have always recognized, highlighted, and encouraged moments when children behave generously, kindly and fairly. As Jews, we consider these values not only important, but also sacred. With the new curriculum we will identify menschlich acts with Hebrew value names as well as with English words, and we will acknowledge their significance in our Jewish identity.

ECC children have always said brakhot (blessings) before they eat, so they experience activities of daily living, like having a snack, as activities of Jewish living. In the new curriculum, children will also learn the Shema and will say Modeh ani, a daily prayer of thanks for waking up healthy and ready to begin a new day. Some values will be introduced at times of year when they are most relevant to children’s lives. At Thanksgiving chlldren will learn about hospitality (hakhnasat orhim) from the bibilical story of Abraham and Sarah whose tent was open on all sides so that they could easily welcome guests. At Hanukkah, children will learn about giving to others (tzedakah). Relationships with clergy have also been important in the ECC. The new Jewish Life curriculum provides for more clergy visits to the ECC – greeting children at arrival and dismissal, reading stories, and participating in daily prayer (tefillah) in the classrooms as well as joining in Shabbat and holiday celebrations.

I am very enthusiastic about our Jewish Life curriculum and the connections we have made between our goals and those of the YFE Department and the Congregational School. We want our students to feel proud of their identity as Jews. This curriculum helps us to achieve this goal. Look for more examples of how the new Jewish Life curriculum is integrated into the ECC in future installments of the Director’s Review.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of May 18, 2015 / 29 Iyar 5775

 

Love
After 20-plus years as an educator, I appreciate the blessing of being in a position where I can reflect and help others reflect. As Aliza and I meet with teachers for end-of-year evaluations, we listen to our staff reflect on the year. Whatever their specific insights, there is a common thread: love for teaching, love for children. As an administrator, I can say that an early childhood educator never loses this love for helping children learn and grow. In my experience, the love grows as I have had the opportunity to mentor others in their teaching and to work with all the families in a school, not only the ones in my own classes. I have loved working with, and I hope, helping all of you this year.

I am in awe as I observe our PASECC teachers conclude the school year. They each work tirelessly, hours and hours, to complete end of the year books to honor the growth each child has made over the course of the year. They take great care to ensure that each day that leads up to the last is spent respecting the children’s needs. They culminate a year of learning in thoughtful, measured ways, applying the same level of care and thought to the end as they did to the beginning. Again, this all reflects the love our teachers have for their profession and for the children who they reach.

I love teaching. I love teaching children and teachers. It brings me true joy and fulfillment. I have been so blessed to follow Carol in directing the ECC this year. Thank you for welcoming me, talking with me and sharing your children with me.

To those of you who are moving on in your journey, this is just the beginning. I want to let you know that I am always available as a sounding board, and I hope you will come and visit. For those of you continuing with us, I am excited for the continued excellence you will experience as we at PASECC continue to share our love of teaching and learning with you!

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of May 11, 2015 / 22 Iyar 5775

How to Properly Care for a Gemstone

At the conclusion of my first year as Director of the ECC, I pause to reflect and look forward to our future together.

I think about our school as a precious gem. Each child is a facet of our gem. Each one adds to the shine and the color of our stone. Like a gemstone, our school deserves appreciation and even awe. However, like a gemstone, it also needs specific care. Gemstones should not be exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations for they can begin to fracture. Similarly, I did not want to make major changes in my first year. In properly caring for this gem and ensuring its longevity, I wondered how I would take the school to the next level of excellence. How could I polish this stone?

My task is to help us value and maintain the traditions that make the PASECC excellent and, at the same time, change some of our practices to move our school in new and exciting directions. I could have simply dictated the path we will take and announced it. I have done that before. Whenever I have designed curricula for a classroom or a division in the past, it has come directly from me and my research. And, although I feel I have earned the trust of the ECC staff, it did not feel right just to dictate the way we would go.

Midyear, a colleague inspired me. I asked him how he was able to achieve great change and effective documentation of curricula at his school. His answer was simple. It did NOT come from him. Rather, he achieved change by involving teachers in the process. I loved the idea! I was convinced. This was the perfect way to polish our gem.

Our ECC was blessed this year with a large donation from an anonymous family. I needed to propose how the money could best be spent to benefit the school. I shared with Aliza my idea to create a Leadership Team of three teachers chosen both for their dedication and for their high level of performance. These teachers would have a critical role in deciding how our school would move forward.

Once Aliza and I crystalized the Leadership Team proposal, everyone involved in deciding how the money would be spent became equally excited! Teachers filled out applications to serve on the Leadership Team, and Aliza and I carefully deliberated. We selected three teachers to serve on the first PASECC Leadership Team.

This week, we met for the first time with the Leadership Team. The energy in the room was palpable. Together, we created a mile-long list of initiatives to evaluate and consider for implementation. Ideas ranged from curricular change to space considerations to striving towards more efficiency. I feel the momentum building.  Our Leadership Team will meet throughout the summer and biweekly next year. As we choose initiatives to develop, we will send communications to parents to keep you abreast of our progress.

This process of caring for our gem is a pleasure. I have loved getting to know all of the children in our school. Teaming with the teachers in planning curricula and learning about their students has reminded me why I love the field of education. I have also enjoyed meeting all of the families and helping you through your journey in the ECC. It is a precious journey, and it only happens once.

In taking stock of this school year, I feel we should all be proud of the investments we have all made -both big and small-to benefit our school. I know that the Leadership Team will enable us to preserve and polish our precious gem in the best way possible.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of April 27, 2015 / Iyar 8 5775

 

Being Jewish has been an important part of my life since I was very young. Growing up, I went with my family to shul on the High Holidays, and I went to Hebrew school. But I did not connect being Jewish to the Land of Israel until I was in my late 20s.

When I did, it changed me forever. I was no longer a Jew who read and imagined that land far, far away. I was a Jew who kissed the ground of that land and experienced the sights and smells of that land firsthand. I understood my Judaism in a different and more intimate way.
As a Jewish educator, I feel passionate about our students connecting their Jewish identity to the land of milk and honey well before their 20s. Yet it is a challenge to instill in very young children a love of a land that most children have never seen.

Before Yom HaAtzma’ut, our teaching teams came together to discuss how we would meet this challenge. We agreed that we wanted our lessons to give the children a heightened pride in being Jewish and in the land of Eretz Yisrael. How could we do it? By appealing to our children’s senses. We show them photographs of Israel, we cook Israeli foods, we sing songs in Hebrew, and we march and enthusiastically wave the flag of our homeland. And we give them the expectation that someday they will live these experiences in Israel themselves.

As we were planning for Yom HaAtzma’ut, something one teacher said stuck with me. She recalled that when the staff traveled to Israel together three years ago, Rabbi Zuckerman spoke about teaching about Israel to young children. He encouraged teachers instead of saying, “If you go to Israel…” to say, “When you go to Israel…”

Did we achieve our goals? I’ll tell you. You hear children saying that the water table is the Dead Sea; you see children using hollow blocks to build the Western Wall, and you discover children during free time in the park decorating a tree with blue and white chalk.

As we enter the final weeks of the school year, I ask that we keep Israel at the forefront of our children’s attention, not only on Yom HaAtzma’ut, but every day. Let your children know that one day they will experience the sights and sounds that many of us have relished. Point out photos of Israel, especially ones that you have taken yourself. Continue to taste Israeli foods and listen to Hebrew songs. Together we will teach our children to make our Promised Land a part of their Jewish identity.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of March 23, 2015 / Nissan 3 5775

 

Let’s face it. We have all – teachers and parents alike – come to the end of a day feeling that we could not possibly answer one more question. Our young learners seem to ask an infinite number of questions. But this endless questioning, which can leave us feeling “all tapped out,” reveals our children’s true learning. As we approach the holiday of Passover, I want to pause and celebrate this barrage of questions.

I also want to celebrate the answers. As adults, we’re prone to think there is a single correct answer to a question. Given the opportunity, young children will come up with a variety of answers to a question. At the ECC, we ask questions in a way that welcomes different answers, and we accept those answers without labeling them as right or wrong.

In the Yellow Room as the children were learning about the steps of the seder, a teacher asked why we dip karpas in saltwater. One child said, “Because of the sea water that split.” The adults in the room looked at each other and smiled. That explanation was not the traditional “right” answer. But it was a “right” answer in many wonderful ways. That child’s thinking reflected both familiarity with the story of Passover and an application of prior knowledge about sea water.

That child was thinking in precisely the way that children need in order to continue learning. For example, learning to read is not only about decoding words. Instead, even beginning readers are expected to pause, question, and actively think about what they are taking in. The question-and-answer experiences our students have in the ECC prepare them to become thinking readers in the future.

So in this Passover season, our first together, I ask that you resist grumbling when your child asks the 100th question of the day and instead cheer, and teach your children that this holiday is all about asking questions. Relish each question and encourage your child to think of what the answer might be.

I wish you a sweet and joyous Pesah, full of questions and answers!

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of March 16, 2015 / Adar 25 5775

Perhaps one of our loftiest goals as early childhood educators or parents of young children is to teach them the value of giving to those in need. At this stage of development, children are egocentric and, understandably, have a hard time acknowledging anything which does not relate to them directly. Nevertheless, I presented our Tikkun Olam parent committee with a challenge. I stood on my soapbox and declared that any drive that we would support in the ECC had to mean something to the children. However they could enter the experience, at whatever level, I wanted the children to know they were giving.

I am particularly proud of the initiatives our Tikkun Olam committee has introduced most recently: recycling and literacy. These projects stand out as highlights of my first year. Why? We all feel satisfaction when we tackle a challenge head-on and succeed. That is what we (the parents, the administration and the children) have done.

First, recycling. After Tu BiShvat, we thought about how to connect a recycling program to what the children had learned. The committee ordered the books Michael Recycle and The Adventures of a Plastic Bottle for the teachers to read and arranged for each classroom to receive two recycling bins which the children will label for plastic and paper. When children can connect tikkun olam experiences to concrete objects and visuals, they become more tangible and real. This week I heard two Blue Roomers talking about how they were going to reuse challah boxes to create Egyptian pyramids related to the story of Pesach. Reduce, reuse, recycle the Blue Room way. What is more meaningful than that?

Second, literacy. On March 2, children and teachers came to school in their PJs to celebrate the joy of reading. Each child also brought a favorite book to give to a child who does not have one. Each child had selected a book, carried it to school and then placed it in the donation box for Project Cicero. The children will never forget the novelty of being at school in their pajamas, and we hope that will help them always remember the joy of giving to other children.

So, how do we make giving meaningful to young children? The truth is, until they are old enough to see and understand that there are a huge number of people who do not enjoy the luxuries we all take for granted, it is challenging. Nevertheless, we apply all good practices of early childhood education: keep it concrete, keep it visual, let them touch it, and include them in the experience. Soon, they will begin to feel it in the hearts as well. That is what being part of lifelong learning and giving at PAS is all about.

While I’m talking about giving, I also want to say that the parents at our school never cease to amaze me. I am in awe of the hours you have devoted to sticking challah labels, planning for Mitzvah Day, thinking about our benefit from all angles, and stuffing Mishloach Manot. Another way we teach our children about giving is by modeling generosity, and you are certainly doing that. I especially want to acknowledge Tamara and Dena, our ECC PA chairs, two individuals who have not only guided me through my first year on this journey, but who are also fiercely devoted to this environment. Both of these women give their time and efforts wholeheartedly to our school. They are a blessing-every day.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of March 2, 2015 / 11 Adar 5775

 

Anything written about early childhood education highlights the importance of reading aloud to your children. Every educator in our school ensures that the students in their classroom hear stories read each day. On Monday March 2, we devoted an entire day to celebrating the joy of reading aloud to children.

Parents of young children are bombarded with messages to READ, READ, READ! Undoubtedly, reading aloud to your children builds all aspects of oral language, crucial to learning. I know what this looks like: 4-5 books piled up each night with your children clamoring for more. And your eyes held up by pins to stay engaged and focused. Controversial as it may sound, I am asking for less. Let me explain.

Throughout my time mentoring early childhood teachers, I have watched teachers infuse reading into the school day in many different ways: separate story times, quiet reading times, one-to-one reading opportunities during rest times. All of these experiences are valuable and integral to children’s growing as learners. What is essential is choosing pieces of literature in a mindful way and delivering the story as a vehicle for learning. Each time we read, we build a child’s repertoire of story grammar. When we read quality literature, we emphasize the structure of fiction stories and how they follow a predictable trajectory of character, setting, plot (including a problem) and a resolution. Teachers use story times to activate prior knowledge and build listening comprehension. Questions are carefully planned to inspire thinking skills. Unfamiliar vocabulary words are highlighted in context and brought back into the life of the classroom with the hope that they become part of our children’s lexicon – great fodder for later writing experiences in elementary school.

Why am I asking for less? To clarify, I am asking for fewer books, but higher quality. Children should always be surrounded by books and have ample opportunity to spend time with their books. However, I know that I myself am not able to read to my children every night. That may sound horrible to you, but despite that, both of my children have rich oral language skills with a solid ability to think and to both answer and ask questions. You may wonder how this happened even though they do not always have nightly read-alouds. It is a direct result of the quality of the time that we spend when we read. We choose a book together. I exercise veto power: no superheroes, no commercial literature (based on television shows or Disney characters). We choose one book. I spend time reading that one book. I can stay alert and focused on a single book, which I might not do with several books. I make sure to talk about the theme of the book before we read to give my children time to connect it to prior experiences or to ask questions. While I read, I take my time. I use my voice to emphasize character and dramatic moments. I ask questions and I welcome questions. When we are finished, I take time for my children to retell and review. Sometimes less is more.

And then it’s bedtime.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of February 2, 2015 / 13 Shevat 5775

 

Part of what I love about being on the staff in the Early Childhood Center is our role in creating an investment in lifelong learning. We all work to ensure that your children learn each day in the most dynamic, constructive manner, but we also are deeply devoted to our own learning. To be a “good” teacher is to understand that you always need to be taught. The best educators are ones that understand that there is more to learn and are passionately devoted to securing new knowledge and skills. Part of each week is our regular Friday meeting at 12:15 pm. We carve out this time to come together as a faculty team to learn from one another and to remind each other that we, as teachers, are also a community of learners.

As director, my responsibility to the staff is to learn with them. I strive to identify current and meaningful material to discuss and to integrate into our learning and into our school. I try to serve as a model for the staff by stressing that although I may be at the helm, I too, am always learning. In fact, as parents we can continue this role and benefit both our children and ourselves. The more we can model for our children that we are learning, the more learning feels natural and ongoing for them. Simply put, we want to establish that the process of learning never ends. I, try, when I am home, to point this out to my own children in a myriad of ways, both large and small. The more we take the time to point out our own learning moments, the more we dismantle the idea that we are omniscient and have stopped seeking new knowledge. This makes, our children more willing to embrace the type of lifelong learning we wish for them.

I thought you would appreciate a glimpse into our meeting this past Friday. We discussed an article that I had recent read about in Exchange (January/February 2015) entitled When a Child Doesn’t Play by Glenna Zeak. I encourage all of you to attend our upcoming workshop: at Early Childhood Education: Do our children just play all day? A primary goal of this workshop is to espouse the many reasons why we value play as a main vehicle to teach both cognitive and non-cognitive skills to our students. So, what happens when a child doesn’t play? In early childhood, this is what we refer to as a red flag.

The article we discussed enumerates multiple reasons why children don’t play from anxiety to aloofness. As a team, we discussed certain cases in our classroom when children wander or dabble, and we brainstormed ways to engage them more fully in the play experience. When we discuss these cases, of course we talk a bit about the child, but we talk a lot about us. We talk about how our environment is either enabling or disabling the growth of this learner. We talk about the materials we are providing to enhance the child’s experience and evaluate their effectiveness not only in general, but also for each child’s specific needs. We speak at length about our own role. What type of language are we using? Have we evaluated our own approach to this child, and how can we adapt our plans to embrace these children and help them develop?

The ability to play is an expectation that we have for all of our children in early childhood. It follows a developmental range and, therefore, is measured quite differently at each stage. However, learning how to play, teaching children to play and planning for play is at the heart of our program because it is so important to the developmental process.

I have the privilege at these meetings to present the challenge or the topic of focus and then to observe. What I can share with you all is the magic that I am honored take part in. The teachers think, talk, discuss, share and learn for their benefit as well as the benefit of your children. It is an ideal win-win situation.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of January 19, 2015 / 28 Tevet 5775

Something I want you to know about me is that I believe with all of my heart that every child is born with an infinite potential to learn. I have thought this for as long as I can remember. I remember spending recess inside during first and second grade playing teacher to my best friend at the time who had a terminal neuromuscular disease. He was beyond bright, and I know he proved my theory even at a young age. He certainly influenced the way I view young children and how they learn. Years and years later, I became passionate about teaching children with mild to moderate dyslexia. Despite their challenges to learn to read easily, all of these students possess the infinite potential to learn.

These stories give insight as to why I am passionate about the education of young children. They are at a stage of learning where every morsel of information is meaningful to them. Each word we say, each reaction we show, each story we read, and each song that we sing inspires an early childhood student. Think back to Jean Schreiber’s talk on how to answer the difficult questions children ask. What I believe is critical is that we DO answer. When we dodge and evade, I believe we are actually disrespecting the learning potential that I am referring to.

Recently, my 8 year-old daughter started watching the news. It’s interesting. It wasn’t as if one day my husband and I woke up and bestowed responsibility on her. It happened much more naturally. For years, she had seen my husband and me watching and apparently disregarded it because she was uninterested and it was “over her head.” At 8, however, she discovered that when she turned on the TV, the local news came on. Lo and behold, she was hooked. I noticed that when I left to catch the train, she was turning the channel and watching more national coverage. Inside, I was torn. “Should I be stopping this? Am I being irresponsible? Should I be mediating more?” In the end, as a busy working parent, I let it happen.

I was talking with my husband about Israel at dinner one night last week, and my daughter peeked out from her bedroom to ask, “Mommy, is it safe there now?” And you know what, I was proud. I realized I want her to know about the world. She has always been interested in geography, and now she is able to process and hear about both positive and negative events that happen in faraway places.

All this brings me to the conversations that transpired in the ECC over the past week. During team meetings with teachers, I began to inquire about what the children have been taught in the past about why we do not attend school on Martin Luther King Day. Let’s be honest. Talking about what transpired during the Civil Rights Movements, segregation, and racism are not typically favorite topics of early childhood educators. However, I found our teachers to be incredibly open to investigating this time in history. Conversations ensued about the way they had or had not broached this time of year in the past. Everyone was open to learning and exploring.

And, I started to wonder… “What kind of school are we?” I know we are and want to continue to be a school that considers the infinite potential children have to learn. In teaming with our staff, we all agreed that we also want to be the type of school that engages fully in teaching young children about peace and about the type of people who have led us towards peace in history. So, we delved in more.

In the Red and Blue Rooms, teachers posted photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and listened as children shared their prior knowledge and asked questions. They listened to stories and sang songs about peace and fairness; proving again that children have an infinite and unbiased potential to learn.
I invite you to come by and look at our display about Teaching Peace in the ECC. Ask your child about our recent Rainbow Time. We sang Hineh Matov and talked about Shalom, peace. Cantor Azi told a story about a school where children were not kind and did not treat each other nicely, and we echoed voices of the past in our own way by chanting, “Don’t be mean! Don’t be mean!” And our children, as young as 2, were together, united, and ready to embrace this concept on their level and on their terms.

 

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of December 15, 2014 / 23 Kislev 5775

When I think about the best teachers I know, I see educators who are lifelong learners themselves. One reason that I love being an educator myself is that I learn something new each day. Sometimes I learn from reading about educational principles and research, and some days I learn from listening to what a child shares. Our early childhood center promotes an inquiry-based approach to learning. Our students’ questions guide our teaching. At PASECC, we also promote lifelong learning in our staff in many ways.

Each week, Aliza and I sit at the round table in my office with each team. We talk about the curricular areas they are teaching or will be teaching and about the students in their class. As a team, we use all of the theories we have learned as well as our collective experiences as educators to strategize how best to meet children’s needs and how to enrich our learning environments. At times, we agree, and at times we debate, but we always learn from each other. Always. In my humble opinion, it is our commitment to learning together that inspires our students to become lifelong learners as well.

On Fridays, we meet as an entire staff. This time is not only a critical community-building opportunity but also a time when we learn together. We share what we have learned at workshops; we read current articles on topics pertinent to early childhood; and we use situations from our own classrooms as case studies to enhance our teaching. During this holiday season, we have discussed how we teach Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to ensure that there is continuity throughout a child’s years at our school. Taking this time to learn and reflect together enabled our staff to clarify shared goals of what children should learn about the holidays at each level of development.

As parents, we are also lifelong learners. Many of us joke that when you become a parent, no one hands you a Users’ Guide. Boy, would that have been helpful! Rather, you learn as you go along. You pool experiences, conversations with peers, and advice in books. Most of all, we hope that you ask questions. Your questions also guide us, letting us know what you want to learn more about.

Last week, we were fortunate to have Jean Schreiber, an early childhood consultant, talk to parents on how to answer the difficult questions that children ask. While we wholeheartedly encourage students to ask questions in order to seek information, we are not always equipped to answer each question. Jean encouraged us, as parents, to slow down and to feel measured in our responses. She empowered parents to turn our children’s questions back to them and to ask, “What do you think?” Most importantly, Schreiber insisted that we bring hope, reassurance, and comfort to our children by being honest. When we are asked questions from “Where do people go when they die?” to “How are babies born?” to “Will my sick grandfather ever get better?” to “Are you the tooth fairy?” honesty is always the best policy. Your child puts you on a pedestal, and it is your responsibility to be as honest as possible.

We hope that you join us on this journey of lifelong learning. Jean Schreiber will return for another parent workshop, and we look forward to seeing many of you there. Let us know topics that you are eager to learn about.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of December 1, 2014 / 9 Kislev 5775

 

My years as a learning specialist taught me the importance of the home-school connection. The time I spent studying and working with children who learn differently significantly influences the decisions I make as an administrator. When I worked in early childhood at the Heschel School, I put together packets for kindergarten children who needed review in areas of language, literacy and math. I recall groaning and grumbling over the hours it took to assemble these packets, each one with numerous pieces that all fit into a large blue Ziploc bag. But it was worth it. Parents knew that the bags gave them a gateway into their child’s learning. By playing the games and doing the activities and providing their children with feedback, parents became an intimate part of the learning team. While I have left behind the Ziplocs, I still hold by premise that education is not a drop-off activity. Children whose parents are involved in their learning learn better.

Here at the ECC we use our expert knowledge and our experience to help your children grow as learners, but it is you, their parents, who are their primary teachers. Knowing that, I dedicate myself and challenge our staff to give you VIP access into your children’s learning. We are constantly thinking about ways to include you in what happens at school.

Every other week teachers detail happenings in their classrooms for their Rainbow Reviews. We hope you are taking time to read them on our website. Those of you whose children reveal very little about their school day can use these reviews as a springboard for conversation. Read them to your child, ask prompting questions; crawl into their world. Each day, teachers write upcoming highlights on a whiteboard outside their classroom. Snap a photo (or ask a caregiver to do it), and read them! Use them to start conversations with your child at dinner or at bedtime. Or keep a list of them all week long, and discuss them on Shabbat. When we are on break later this month, look at some of the Rainbow Reviews and daily highlights from earlier this fall and see what your child remembers about these past events. This type of investment in your child’s time here will pay off in increased vocabulary and logical thinking.

You may have noticed that the walls in our lobby were bare for the first weeks of school. We waited until we could feature moments from each classroom to display and share with you. The lobby truly gives you a view of special moments in the classroom.

Our teachers are eager for you to visit your child’s classroom. They know that it is important for your child to see you in their school environment. Our students love to have parents and other family members volunteer during library time. Hearing a variety of voices reading stories enriches children’s experience of language, and having guests take time to spend with us strengthens our community. Whenever you come – for Shabbat, to cook, or to share any of your special talents or interests – you enhance our students’ learning experience.

Take time in the morning to stand in front of our screen and look at recent photos of our community. The children delight in seeing themselves and their friends, and the pictures give you a window into our life at school. Look at the announcements that we flash about events in our synagogue, and add them to your calendars. Read your emails from the ECC and from PAS. I know it takes time to keep up, and it can feel overwhelming in our fast, busy lives, but being informed of events past and future keeps you involved in your child’s life in school. It is precisely this type of involvement that promotes learning and the motivation to learn.

Finally, reach out! Connect with us. Tell us what is on your mind both positive and constructive. I truly believe it is through this home-school connection that we succeed and grow as a community.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of November 17, 2014 / 24 Heshvan 5775

 

On November 14, I was fortunate to attend the 8th annual 92nd St. Y Wonderplay conference along with three of our PASECC teachers. Together with over 1,000 early childhood educators, we listened to keynote speakers address the importance of learning in a child’s early years and how teachers can create “teaching conversations.” I do not address such large groups, but on tours of the ECC, I do have the opportunity to share with prospective families our school philosophy and how it aligns with my own philosophy of education. As current parents, most of you have not been on one of my tours, and while I extend the invitation to anyone who would like to come, I am using this Director’s Review to share with all of you some of what I say.

The wonder of play is evident each day in our ECC. While most of you don’t express it, I realize that many parents are skeptical about what children can truly learn when they are playing. I assure you, the answer is: everything and more. I admit, I once shared your skepticism. As a first grade classroom teacher who also worked individually with children as old as sixth grade, I doubted and questioned the value of play at the core of early childhood education. I couldn’t understand why teachers weren’t teaching discrete skills earlier. I thought if they had, it would have made my job so much easier! That was before I experienced and studied the wonder of play.

For sure, the cognitive skills that are taught throughout the journey of education are important, but so are the non-cognitive ones. Dr. Sam Meisels delineated these at the Wonderplay conference: confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, the capacity to communicate, and cooperation. Over the years, I have worked with many children who have strong cognitive skills, but who lack many of these non-cognitive skills, which are needed to take risks, to think, and to venture beyond factual information as it is presented. Meisels told us that a 4-year-old’s brain uses more energy than it ever will again. It is at this time, early childhood, when a child has the most neuroplasticity; beyond early childhood, neuroplasticity decreases with age.

Research indicates that all learning domains including¬ language, motor skills, reasoning, science, math and social emotional skills ¬ are taught and enhanced through play. Teaching a set of sequenced skills enables children to read, do arithmetic, and answer factual questions, but through play we teach and expand the non-cognitive skills which prepare children to answer questions that start with “Why?” and “What do you think?” During play, children are naturally subjected to moments of challenge and discomfort. By turning these episodes into teaching moments, we help them become able to manage and persevere during these inevitable moments of discomfort. Learning to share, to take turns, to make plans, and to adapt to changes in plans, role-playing and investigating subjects deeply, all of these skills also help children learn and ultimately grow. And that is the magic of early childhood.

So, to all of you doubters, and I know you are out there, I give you this challenge: Watch, listen, observe. As our ECC teachers mediate your children’s playtime, you will experience moments of surprise, questions, exploration, discovery, and most of all, wonder.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of November 3, 2014 / 10 Heshvan 5775

 

Teaching early childhood is more than imparting skills that make our students ready for reading, math and other subjects. It also involves teaching social skills that strengthen our children’s ability to live and succeed as valuable members of society. One of the most important of these skills is learning to be part of a community: living and working together for a common good.

Young children learn about being part of a community most genuinely by spending time with other children-children who are their same age as well as older children and younger children. We are blessed in the ECC that children have siblings, cousins and friends in other classes. We have made a commitment to have these children see each other on a regular basis. As educators, we know there is great value in bringing together all the children in our school to meet each other, sing, learn and celebrate as a community.

Last spring, I met with each faculty member of our school and heard about their experiences teaching and growing in the ECC. The faculty inspired my vision of our school: a rainbow! Each classroom is designated by a different color, but when we are all together, we form a beautiful rainbow. All of the teachers expressed a desire to work as a division and to congregate on a regular basis. This led to the idea of “Rainbow Time.”

Once or twice a month, we come together for a time when all of the children can share their experiences in the ECC: Rainbow Time. The hagim sped by in September and October filling our school days and also interrupting them! Our first Rainbow Time gave us time to reflect. We stopped, took a breath, and reviewed. We talked together about each holiday that had passed: Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Simhat Torah. We looked at ritual objects, sang and realized that although each class learned in their own classroom, we had all learned about the same holidays. We were a community. To celebrate, we paraded around the Big Room (and the older children paraded through the synagogue) waving our Israeli flags in solidarity and joy.

The children were joyous about celebrating the holidays, and they were also joyous about being together and beginning our journey as an ECC community. We look forward to our future Rainbow Times, when we will talk more about what we are learning in school including: holidays (both sacred and secular), units of study, new poems and songs, and stories. Most importantly, we look forward to spending more time as an ECC community.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of October 20, 2014 / 26
Tishrei 5775

During a recent meeting of parents who will be giving tours of our Early Childhood Center to prospective families, I asked the volunteers why each of them chose PASECC. One striking answer was: “They told us that you grow mensches here.”

I’ve been reflecting on what this answer means and how we are achieving this objective. Each week, the PASECC teaching teams meet with Aliza and me to talk about the children and the curriculum. Additionally, on their own, teachers meet as teams to plan. These group sessions help us ensure that we are meeting each child’s needs and differentiating instruction to fit each of their learning styles. What we don’t always verbalize is that our approach always considers the heart first.

What does it mean to teach to a person’s heart? Being a part of a classroom community in which each child is cared for and taught to consider others is at the center of all our curricular goals. We teach that there are consequences – both positive and negative – to our actions. Sometimes, we help a child simply by asking him to look at a friend’s face and to try to identify what the friend is feeling. As children get older, we help them learn the language they need to talk to their friends in a caring manner during both difficult and wonderful times. Simply put, we care as much about how a child responds to another child’s emotional needs and how a child sees her impact on others’ feelings as we do about fulfilling a lesson plan. A teacher may break from their lesson plan to highlight a spontaneous mitzvah that someone has done.

Our focus on”growing mensches” in our classroom communities extends to our teachers as well. Our teachers help each other daily by sharing ideas for art projects, favorite books, or a new manipulative to include in a math center. Teachers help each other hang bulletin boards, fix jammed copy machines and printers , and offer ideas to a writer who is stuck working on a review or a report.

Our PASECC community of parents also exemplifies menschlichkeit. Since July, I have witnessed our volunteers work to honor a recently retired teacher, to improve our school tours, to revamp our Tikkun Olam committee, and to reorganize our library. Acts of kindness, caring, and giving happen every day here at PASECC. Families reach out to other families when a loss occurs or a child is ill and also when a new baby is born. We teach the children to be mensches at school, and you are modeling what it means to be people of honor and integrity. And that model is vital to our mission and the growth of your children.

We are a community of mensches raising a future generation of mensches. It is what we are all doing here, why you send your children to PASECC, why we come to work each day, and why we are so blessed to have this opportunity to teach your children.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of September 29, 2014 / 5 Tishrei 5775

 

From years as a learning specialist, I know firsthand the importance of the home-school connection. This partnership enhances the learning that goes on each day in the classroom. I am thrilled with the positive feedback that you have been giving us about the Rainbow Review. Reading what transpires in the classroom can serve as a springboard for rich conversations with your children.

For my second review as Director of the ECC, I thought about a phone conversation I had with Aliza right before Rosh Hashanah. I was out on a school visit, and I asked her how the day ended before the holiday. In her words, “It felt good. It just felt good.” Reflecting on Aliza’s response, I thought over the holiday about why it felt so good. The first reason is easy: your children! They have all acclimated to school with great joy, from our youngest learners in the Orange room to our oldest Blue roomers. The second reason: our teachers! Not only are they devoted to your children, their students, but they are also devoted to being lifelong learners themselves. I see this at our weekly team meetings, and I look forward to these times when we reflect on our teaching and our own learning. Finally, I am certain that the good feeling Aliza sensed in the ECC was linked directly to the apples dipped in honey, the round shapes examined and discussed, conversations about newness, multiple songs sung and the sound of the shofar blasted in each classroom. The notion that it is the beginning of a new year and that we are all celebrating together as a community simply leaves everyone with a good feeling.

As a faculty, we are examining our curriculum and the ways we integrate Judaic and secular learning. We aim to make this integration natural by embedding Jewish life and Jewish identity throughout the classroom – not only on the holiday table which exhibits important ritual objects, but also in dramatic play, science, math and through language and literacy activities.

At their young age, our students do not necessarily distinguish between being Jewish and simply being. We are invested in helping them make being Jewish part of who they are all of the time. As educators, we know that this investment and their experiences are what leave us with that “good feeling” at the end of the day and at the beginning of this new year.

I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year, a year in which all of us – children, teachers and families – will grow together.

Pamela B. Schwartz

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Week of September 15, 2014 / 20 Elul 5774

 

I am both thrilled and honored to be writing my first Director’s Review to begin our PASECC Rainbow Review. These reviews will be posted biweekly on our website.

The image of the rainbow has helped me create a vision of the Early Childhood Center at PAS. Although each classroom teaches a different age group and is named for a different color of the rainbow, we are all one community making up one rainbow. That rainbow comes together to educate your children.

I hear there were some restless nights and lots and lots of excitement leading up to the first day of school. I could relate! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my summer. I met many of you, toured schools, worked on updating the look of our school, and ultimately, welcomed back our faculty. However, the most rewarding moment for me was when the first child got off the elevator. That was the minute I knew I belonged here.

Since that moment, I have been in awe. The teachers in the ECC, both seasoned and new, are truly committed to educating the whole child. Each teacher cares deeply about your child having a day filled with learning, but, more importantly, learning to love learning. And you, as parents, are also deeply committed both to providing all of your children with the most appropriate early childhood education and to making sure each one of your children feels happy and comfortable in our environment. This joint dedication contributes to the teamwork I know will occur between families and our school on behalf of our students.

As I close my first Review, I look forward to sharing big and small moments with you to keep you informed of the magic that happens on a daily basis in the ECC.

Pamela B. Schwartz