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Educators Swap Secrets of the Trade

January 18, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman
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(From left) Stacey Katz and Norma Cahen gained classroom skills at a recent education conference.
The preschoolers in Robin Singer's Torah class on Fridays know that when they step into her classroom, they enter another world. Some days, it's the Garden of Eden, complete with construction-paper trees and green-streamer vines criss-crossing the room. Other days it's Noah's ark, and waves of bright-blue plastic "water" circle the room. But no matter the day, students seem to realize that they won't just be listening to stories from the Torah, they will be experiencing them as well.

This interactive approach to Torah was just one of numerous teaching techniques shared at the recent "Electrifying Jewish Early-Childhood Education," the seventh annual Early-Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism Conference. The assortment of workshops and speakers gave teachers of Jewish preschools the opportunity to come together and add innovative new methods to their pedagogical repertoire.

From Jan. 11-14, educators attended workshops at the Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia that discussed such topics as "Stages of Faith Development" and "The Israel Connection" to "Inviting God to Circle Time." Many directors of local preschools attended, as well as teachers and preschool directors from as far as away Texas, Ohio, Kansas and Florida.

"You always pick up new information and resources," said Andi Lieberman, director of the preschool at Temple Sholom in Broomall. "Even if you gain one idea, it's worth it."

Robbi Borine, director of the preschool at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, treasures the time spent with like-minded educators at the conference, which is sometimes a rarity in the field. "In early-childhood education, you don't often share with other adults what's going on," she said.

One workshop that offered a bevy of new ideas to teachers was "As the Torah Turns," a glimpse into the many artistic activities that teachers can utilize when teaching the Torah to their students. From puppets for storytelling to streamers and cardboard for set pieces, presenter Singer shared her artistic vision for teaching Torah.

In her classroom, she discussed the story of the flood by having the students make their own animals to put on the ark -- and not the old-standby cut-out lions and giraffes. They stretched their imaginations to create their own unique animals, an activity Singer described as giving the students a strong sense of pride in their work.

"They couldn't wait to tell their parents about the animals they'd made," she said, adding that it's not just teaching them Torah, it's teaching them self-expression.

But teaching Torah often involves careful planning for young children. "You have to pick through what works for your kids," she said. She stays away from the more abstract portions of the Torah dealing with laws and customs, subjects far too complicated for 3-year-olds to comprehend.

"The beginning of the Torah is really easy to do," she said. "There's so much that's visual" -- from the creation story to Noah's ark. "I want them to love the stories," she added.

The preschool age is when the foundation is set for a child's education and also for Jewish identity, many presenters at the conference made clear.

"We give them opportunities to learn values," said Lisa Rosenberg in her workshop, "Jewish Values Through Experiential Education."

As part of her workshop, Rosenberg distributed a list of 10 Jewish values, compiled by author Maxine Segal Handelman, which included mitzvot, shalom, tikkun olam and others. The teachers then broke into groups and brainstormed about different art, music, science and creative-movement activities that preschoolers could do to learn about that particular value -- from raising money for a local animal shelter, to learning about ecology and aiding in recycling drives.

Rosenberg said that by learning these values early, through personal experience, students develop the "idea that they have it within themselves to create this better world."

"What they're learning in the classroom," she said, "are the tools that they're going to refine for the rest of their lives."

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