Cathy Weisman Topal has been a visual arts educator at the preschool, elementary, middle school and college levels for over 40 years. She had a long career as a studio art teacher at the Center for Early Childhood Education at the Smith College Campus School in Northampton, Massachusetts and as a lecturer in Visual Arts Education in the Department of Education and Child Study at Smith College. She is also the author of six books that have grown from her explorations and exchanges with children, classroom teachers and in-service and pre-service teachers across the country.
Cathy’s grandson, Jacob, is a student in Covenant Award recipient Amy Meltzer’s Kindergarten classroom at the Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. In a very special conversation, Cathy and Amy discuss how children learn, how we can set up classrooms to best serve our youngest students, the value of “loose parts” and more.
AMY: Tell us about how young children learn.
CATHY: In watching children in early childhood settings, and now having the luxury of being a grandparent –which truly compels me to be fully present – I am convinced that young children learn through their explorations–touching, smelling, looking, listening, moving things, testing how things work; using all their senses as well as their intelligence.
My 4 _ year old grandson was outside my house the other day. He picked up a piece of birch bark from the ground. After holding this object carefully and really studying it for a while he said, “It’s from a tree.” Shortly after turning the bark over and around, he said, “It’s very colorful.” As he unrolled the bark and studied this new section, he said, “But not here.” His words caught me by surprise and made me step back and wonder too. How much we take for granted!
Watching my grandchildren, I notice that they might not talk for long stretches, but they are listening in their own way. It may not seem as if they are paying attention, but they are! Consequently, as parents, teachers and caregivers, we have to also listen with all of our senses in a deeper, empathetic way to really “hear,” and respond. By recording quotes and observations and then revisiting them with the child, we connect sensations and discoveries with language and understanding. We co-construct knowledge.
AM: Do children learn differently from adults? If so, how?
CT: After teaching groups of many different ages and stages, and often pondering that question, I don’t think it is all that different. As I have grown, over time, to be a better listener and documenter, I have come to see that often children’s ideas and explanations are much more thoughtful and sophisticated than we might assume. But we don’t hear those explanations if we are not paying attention and allowing time and space.
AM: How do you think this understanding impacts the choices we make when we are setting up learning opportunities?
CT: In working with young children I keep stepping back to look for ways to put the emphasis on wondering about and exploring materials, tools, processes, strategies and approaches. What is this material? How can we describe it? Let’s make a list of descriptive adjectives. What actions can we do to change it? Let’s make a list of verbs. Let’s play with testing out some of our ideas – the actions on our list. How could we hold a paintbrush, scissors, printing stamp, or crayon? Let’s experiment with different ways. How can we move this particular tool to make it work better? From where in our bodies (what muscles, joints, etc…) can we initiate movement? What parts of the body are we activating?
Projects grow from explorations and discoveries. All work with materials is physical and involves movement and the body. I always offer a few techniques to try out first as a way to get the experimentation going. After all, getting started is the toughest part. And then, stepping back from experiments to look as a group and to share and discuss discoveries is critical! That is when children see and realize their strengths as well as the strengths of their classmates.
AM: When we understand how children learn, how does that impact the choices we make in setting up classrooms and learning opportunities?
CT: When working on Beautiful Stuff: Learning with Found Materials, we did everything in the classroom of four and five year olds. We did not have a separate art studio.
Immediately we noticed that children just wanted to touch and wonder about individual objects. We found that we had to figure out how to allow time for them to do that without having to make anything. That was a huge learning moment for me. Now, I allow time for wondering, exploring, and experimenting with every material, tool, or process that I offer.
Sorting and organizing also became a very powerful way to explore, to get to know and to enjoy materials without having to make anything. Creating order is an aesthetic and satisfying experience. That was another important finding from Beautiful Stuff.
There are always a lot of preparations to make in teaching with materials, and especially with young children. But, we should always ask, “Would this work be better for the children to do? How could we set it up so that it becomes a learning experience for the children?”
AM: How do you get teachers to feel more comfortable with materials?
CT: Teachers need time to explore with open-ended materials! I’ve spent my whole career teaching–more than 40s years–and I still have to experiment and play with materials before I teach.
I don’t think preparation for teachers today includes much experience with studio materials. This is unfortunate; so many of the goals for learning grow out of exploring materials, tools, processes and approaches to communicating. I think teachers might not realize that active learning–with hands and minds–has the same importance as play in the life of children. And, by the way, teachers also need on-going support to grow and to try out new ways of working.
AM: How does the Reggio Emilia method inspire your teaching?
CT: When I went to [visit a Reggio Emilia school in Italy] for the first time it was truly overwhelming. The classrooms were so beautiful–not in a fancy or expensive way, but in how they were arranged and organized. I did not see plastic toys in red yellow and blue. I did not see posters with the letter A and a picture of an apple. I did not see cartoon characters on the wall. I did not see primary and contrasting colors everywhere. Everything was soft, neutral colors. The theory is that by using neutral colors in the classroom space, you allow the “color” of the children and their work to stand out.
AM: Not every center can send their teachers to Reggio. How can teachers try this approach even without visiting?
CT: Teachers need to play with materials and processes, to explore, experiment and acquaint themselves with materials. It is also important for teachers to work together, to build relationships with and through the materials, to reflect on their experiences and think about how they could apply what they’ve experienced, in their own settings.
AM: What do you wish every early childhood teacher knew?
CT: I wish they all knew how much more rewarding, satisfying and just plain fun teaching could be if they let explorations with open-ended materials, tools and processes guide them, rather than cutesy projects like snow people made with cotton balls that all look alike. I wish they realized that most of the standards, benchmarks, and goals of teaching could be met simply by observing and listening to children as they explore and problem-solve, recording significant words, and reflecting with the children.
I suggest using the lessons in Explorations in Art: Kindergarten as a way for teachers to explore together.
AM: This year, your grandchildren were enrolled in Jewish preschool and kindergarten. Can you talk a little bit about where your approach might fit in, in a Jewish space?
CT: Amy, your classroom offers an excellent example. You were not always so comfortable with materials. You have used and built upon the units in Explorations in Art: Kindergarten, and Beautiful Stuff, Learning with Found Materials and used them to make important concepts in Jewish education and teachings from the Torah come alive. For example, I loved how you used watercolor explorations to express the feeling of Shabbat. You definitely enriched the experience by adding this emotional aspect.
Another fantastic idea you implemented was making beautiful stuff–or loose parts–available for children to tell the story of creation. Breaking the story down so that the children could really think about each facet added complexity. Children also worked in pairs, exchanging ideas and solutions– adding another level of cooperation.
Sewing and decorating challah and matzah covers was another beautiful way to use new materials, tools and skills to further inspire the children. Bringing in a parent to work with the children on dying yarn and weaving certainly made the story of Joseph much more meaningful. It’s not easy, but making something real, overcoming problems, and getting good at the skills of sewing and weaving requires focus and attention. The fiber arts always seem to engage unexpected children–especially boys!
By using studio materials, tools and processes in teaching, you have made Torah come alive for your students, but also, you are deepening the way your students understand and apply these stories and lessons. And you are helping children turn these stories into memorable experiences.
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project