Imagine a classroom where a cluster of three-year-olds mix colorful liquids at a potion station, while others play with robotic modules or experiment with construction materials at the invention table. A shelf of journey binders lines the wall, with photos of each child, samples of their classroom creations and teachers’ written observations about their growth and learning, for parents to peruse as they wish. There is no waiting for recess to get fresh air, as the classroom extends into the outdoors, with opportunities to garden, paint or play musical instruments outside throughout the day.
After dismissal, the teachers don’t pack their bags and head out. Instead, they sit together for an hour, reflecting on the day and what they might do differently tomorrow.
This is the sort of classroom that Diana Ganger dreams about, and is trying to make a reality within the Jewish community’s constellation of early childhood centers based in synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and day schools. As a school leader (director of the Moriah Early Childhood Center in Deerfield, Illinois), program director (at the influential though short-lived Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, or JECEI) and, now, independent consultant to communities and educators across the country, Ganger, a 2008 Covenant Award Recipient, has devoted her career to shifting the thinking around how the Jewish community welcomes families with young children.
While many institutions are inclined to treat early learning programs as a cash cow, generating funding to cover other expenses, Ganger sees them as a cornerstone of Jewish life, worthy of continual investment and deep consideration in their own right.
“This is not just about early childhood,” Ganger said. “This is the entry for families as they build their Jewish identity. It’s the first Jewish experience for many parents, after maybe having traumatic experiences growing up.”
By breathing new life into early childhood education and creating schools “that really embrace the whole family,” she said, “we can change how Judaism is lived in this country.”
Ganger traces her approach to her training as a social worker and her upbringing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, famous for its outsized population of psychologists and recognition, as a culture, that everyone could use a good therapist.
“You need to have a certain understanding of yourself before you can go out there and connect with others,” she said.
Ganger’s perspective was further shaped by her own two children’s earliest classroom experiences, first in St. Louis, Missouri, then in Chicago, where she still lives.
At one preschool, parents could peer into their children’s classroom through a one-way mirror — an incredible way, she marveled, to bring parents into the fold without disrupting their kids’ classroom experience.
At another school, she requested to meet with the principal after seeing something that concerned her. She was told she’d need to wait a month — a red flag, signaling the school wasn’t interested in what parents had to say.
Ganger loved the warm, nurturing feel of a third school. But she sensed that the teachers were burned out, and learned that they weren’t getting the training or development that all teachers need. “A culture of listening was not in place,” she added.
And so, when Ganger was offered a job as a teacher and assistant director at Moriah, she pounced. She stayed for two decades, including 18 years as director.
“The conversation at that time was only about children,” she said. “There wasn’t an understanding of the fact that children are embedded in families. To me, the family became the client. It was very important to begin to create and empower families to be a big part of the system.”
Ganger also sought to “transform the role of teacher,” from top-down instructor to facilitator of children’s innate interests and curiosities. “We need to change the way we listen, the way we connect, the way we observe,” she said.
In 1991, Ganger read a Newsweek article about Italy’s innovative Reggio Emilia schools, where classwork is organized around themes and projects, and where highly attuned teachers and parent volunteers recognize and nurture children’s differences. “A school needs to be a place for all children,” as the schools’ longtime director put it, “not based on the idea that they’re all the same, but that they’re all different.”
For Ganger, something clicked. “I thought, ‘This is it,’” she said. “This is my language.”
Ganger began thinking about ways to meld the Reggio Emilia approach with Jewish concepts. She developed a set of “lenses” through which early childhood centers might consider every aspect of their work: Masa (journey), representing reflection, return and renewal; B’rit (Covenant), representing belonging and commitment;
Tzelem Elohim (Divine Image), representing dignity and potential; K’dusha (Holiness), representing intentionality and presence; Hit’orerut (Awakening), representing amazement and gratitude; D’rash (Interpretation), representing inquiry, dialogue, and transmission; and Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World), representing responsibility.
The lenses are a way to achieve what Ganger calls “seamless Judaism,” saying, “Judaism needs to be lived. It’s not about, ‘now we’re doing something Jewish, now we’re not.’”
Similarly, Ganger warns against regimented block scheduling. If a music teacher comes into a classroom and some children are so immersed in their activities that they don’t want to switch gears, she believes they shouldn’t have to. Or what about carving off a couple of hours on Fridays for teachers to transform their classrooms into immersive experiences devoted to cooking, or science, or theater — and giving children the freedom to choose where they go?
“It’s empowering children to know how to make a choice and giving them time to linger in an experience that they find interesting, and it’s allowing the teachers to use their strengths to offer things that excite them,” Ganger said. “One of the big ideas about Shabbat is that it’s a day when you linger, a different day. This goes perfectly with that.”
“Children need time to process, to problem solve, to create, to imagine, and it takes an unrushed environment to be able to get there,” she said.
Beyond the challenges of creating such an environment, schools must bring on board a generation of parents riddled with anxiety about their children’s place in a fiercely competitive world.
“We need to take the parents away from the whole concept of academics to the concept of intellectual development, and that school is for life, school is not for the next grade,” Ganger said. “There’s an anxiety to put children in all kinds of learning opportunities that in the end do exactly the opposite. They need time to create, they need time to be, they need time to explore. Parents want to do what they think is best, and in the end they’re stealing childhood away from their children.”
In recent years, Ganger has seen Jewish early childhood centers across the country struggle to meet parents’ childcare needs by offering extended hours or taking younger and younger children.
“I’ve seen this happening everywhere,” she said. “Parents need it. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? That’s a good question. It’s a great thing when it’s done right.”
Doing it right, of course, is even trickier when the day is longer and resources are stretched to accommodate the unceasing demands of infants. And then there’s the issue that, Ganger said, causes her “huge anxiety”: teacher pay, which may drive potential superstars away from the field.
“We need to wake up,” she said.
Still, if she were given a single question to understand a school, it would not be about teacher’s paychecks, but about the time they spend in meetings with colleagues, supervisors and coaches, reflecting upon and honing their craft.
“Most schools do not have the money or the understanding that in order for teachers to be really present, they need to have time to move away from the work and reflect,” she said. “Look at Google. Twenty percent of Google employees’ time is spent sitting down and creating and playing with things and inventing and dreaming.”
These days, Ganger spends much of her time coaching school directors, mentoring emerging leaders in the field and building a national network of excellent coaches in partnership with the Paradigm Project, whose mission is “to multiply, nurture and network the seeds of excellence in Jewish early childhood education.”
“I believe in mentoring the future of this field,” she said. “That will be the group that takes it further.”
In her coaching and consulting work, Ganger makes clear that she doesn’t have all of the answers. Which is precisely the point.
“I’m hoping that schools will understand themselves as places for experimentation and learning, that people will try things and take risks,” she said. “I’m hoping that they will embrace not knowing, and not having to know everything.”
“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