By Suri Jacknis
This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to take advantage of an In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center in White Plains where Nancy Parkes is the educational director. This visit was organized Susan Ticker, educational consultant as part of her work with Congregational Learning and the Coalition of Innovating Congregations at The Jewish Education Project. We came to visit Shorashim, TIC’s innovative model for learners and their families in K-6.
Our visit to Shorashim took place on an ordinary Sunday, when learning was in full swing, but there was no special family learning program or large whole school event (which are frequent). So it was just an ordinary day that turned out to be extraordinary in so many ways – an extraordinary day of powerful learning that happens each and every week. How lucky I feel to have been a part of it for this one ordinary day.
What Stood Out for Me?
The atmosphere of intentionality and team. It is clear that the learning is designed with thought and care, the staff is well-prepared and the environment is set to support the learning that unfolds. Every educator had multiple colleagues to maximize the support for learning in every space. Each grade featured the presence of a caring lead educator, a co-educator or assistant teacher as well as three mature madrichim (teen leaders) who were invested and empowered to lead. There was a clear plan on the wall of every learning space that signaled what was to be expected. In one classroom I saw that the wall highlighted the ‘big idea’ for the learning of the day and displayed a student -generated web of concepts related to Pesach that was probably a diagnostic tool to assess what the students knew, what could be built on, and what would be the next steps. In addition, it was obvious that the learners were used to working in teams, to sharing responsibility, to giving everyone a role, and to listening to each other.
We saw the director as a teacher-facilitator sharing a classroom with a co-teacher who is a community educator, and with three madrichim just as the other educators were part of a teaching team. The director models the way of being a part of her educational team by putting herself in the middle of the action as an active facilitator and partner on the learning team.
The staffing structure supports Jewish Learning and in an Extraordinary way. Community Educators make an extraordinary impact on education at TIC. Young, dynamic, camp-counselor-type community educators are effective role models and educational leaders that build relationships and are truly present for the learners both during the formal learning times, and also on Shabbat and holidays, as well as at lifecycle and community events. They are part of the community and live Judaism as part of the daily lives of the families at TIC. They meet regularly as a team to plan learning that integrates with the whole of the Jewish journey and bring a level of creativity and positive energy to the community that cannot be underestimated. Nancy explained that moving from having part-time teachers to full-time community educators was a “budget neutral move” that has created a new reality and sense of possibility that is truly amazing.
There was an overwhelming presence of authentic materials of Jewish life and the invitation to explore and discover. The materials and supplies to enhance learning were evident in every space. The curricular materials, the ritual objects and, the art materials were in evidence everywhere. Most were authentic Jewish materials –as we were in the pre-Pesach period, there were Seder plates, Seder table items, photos of the 12 steps, Pesach foods and actual parsley, horseradish roots, etc… There were Humashim to find the story and Haggadot. There was activity and discovery at every turn. And there was conversation, and yes, it was not quiet… but it was purposeful and it was clear that learners were engaged, that their questions and interpretations were honored and encouraged. And that the center of learning was most clearly the learner.
The learning was largely experiential and featured opportunities to work in small groups, in pairs as well as in larger groupings or teams. Various groups of learners learned Torah in the Beit Midrash in small groups. On this day, learning conversations centered on appreciating the importance of numbers in the Jewish tradition as a whole as well as in the Pesach story. On other days, there is the experience of learning text in pairs or in small groups as our people have done for centuries as Hevruta learning.
We saw learners engaged in a Parasha scavenger hunt in teams and we saw learners have a chance to be up close and personal with a Torah Scroll in the sanctuary, guided by their teacher to appreciate the holiness of Torah. We saw kids who had just finished a unit on Shabbat that culminated in learning all about and making Challah— compare this Challah to Matzah and find as many similarities and differences that they could. We saw younger students engaged in learning the steps of the Seder by actually “doing the steps” and being photographed doing each step.
We noticed the flexible groupings of learners and noted that the typical ratio for learning was one facilitator for every 5-6 kids. We saw a lot of learning stations and coaching by facilitators in support of the learning. We also saw that there were learning materials that were well matched to the learning goals of each learning experience and that the learning experiences were all tied to the larger outcomes and big ideas that were posted on the walls.
There was a big emphasis on community and on spirituality in a Jewish context. The day began with a communal meeting for tefillah. We were warmly greeted upon entering a prayer space, whose walls were covered with Mishkan fabrics that had been designed by the learners. We sat in a circle to face each other and be part of the community. On our chairs were bracha stones that the kids had made to give them kavana. They had words, colors and images which helped the kids get ready to pray… and they were around to touch and hold onto to ground our prayers with meaning and stability. There was a lot of spirited singing, punctuated by prayers with motions and sign language. The team of prayer facilitators were the educational director, the full-time community educators, the teachers and the teen madrichm who sat scattered as role models and guides throughout the kahal. We had a Siddur to follow, but we also had an ashrei prayer supplement that showed a colorful picture/icon under words which were easily visualized. Davening the Ashrei from this visual tefillah allows the person praying to experience the words in new ways— no translation needed. The facilitator would offer occasional preview cues to create a framework of meaning for the coming prayer. There were moments of quiet for individual prayer and many moments of clapping and singing and moving. It was a prayerful start to our day.
It is obvious that spirituality and developing a relationship with God and prayer are part of this culture. We could see that by entering a classroom to see a small group of young learners clustered around a computer with the teacher at the keyboard typing learner responses to conversation starters about a time when they prayed and when they felt close to God.
The atmosphere was one of a purposeful and welcoming community. We learned from the director that a big theme of this year is welcoming and inclusion and that many learners with special needs are part of the community. We were introduced to the learning specialist who seemed so lovely, beloved and integrated into every part of the learning tapestry. We heard from Nancy Parkes about her building community by using the techniques from The Responsive Classroom, especially the welcoming circle where children learn to listen and tend to each other, to make eye contact, to ask appropriate follow-up questions, and to value and appreciate each other.
The physical environment was inviting and beautiful and supported the learning. We appreciated that the walls of the entire educational space (and this space was the best part of the three floors of the building) were “an educational tableau.” Nancy explained that the educational council had moved from prohibiting the hanging of things on walls to inviting the beautification of the walls as a rich opportunity to display deep learning and reflection. Indeed the walls are adorned with magnificent and well placed works of art that are culminating projects, learning benchmarks, and educational resources that are so engaging that they invite further learning and exploration and engender pride in this learning community.
The Day of Learning is bookended by set-induction/connection and reflection. Nancy mentioned to us that the practice of welcoming and beginning learning with a connection and a trigger that sets the learners up for a productive day of learning has become part of the way that all meetings in the synagogue community open. Similarly, the day of learning closes with multiple opportunities for reflection and processing the learning that happened that day. I witnessed reflection happening in small groups where the learners drew and wrote a comment about what stood out to them from that day and what they want to think more about. Learners wrote and drew with crayon on construction paper and the facilitator carefully collected and treasured each reflection. You could tell that the learners were used to meeting this challenge each time they met. Everyone sat quietly and wrote and drew something that was meaningful to them. The teaching team reviews these reflections and builds some mention of them into the next learning session.
I feel lucky to have visited Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim on an ordinary day. I will treasure my own powerful learning experience as an extraordinary opportunity to see learning that makes a positive difference in learner’s lives in a very Jewish context of everyday life. Thanks to Nancy Parkes, to Lisa Schwartz, to Michelle Steinhardt, to Amy Rosenbaum, Ilene Bloom Cohen, and Alex Schostak and to the entire staff at Temple Israel Center for their warm hospitality and amazing work!