Friday, July 30, 2010

Early Childhood

Some schools have curricula that are like those that I inherited in a job in another city: basically a multipage list of discrete facts (you could call them factoids) that each student should know by the end of the year. This would be compatible with end-of-year testing (and it was in a state that is strongly into testing), but not everyone agrees that it should even be called a curriculum.

Most curricula describe goals and methods. This kind of curriculum could emphasize facts, skills, ideas, or any combination. A curriculum based on the principles of Understanding by Design would emphasize ideas and would describe the learning activities that should convey them.

Lately I've been writing a curriculum for an early-childhood class in a Jewish supplementary school. This came about because parents on the school board were concerned, basically, that their children weren't learning enough. (Every time parents have said that children weren't learning enough, anywhere I've worked, it was in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, or first grade. This doesn't mean that students in higher grades are learning enough.)

I thought that perhaps they meant that our pre-K class didn't have the kinds of goals that their children's weekday preschools had. I've worked around weekday preschools and I know that, although they don't have the kind of idea-based curriculum that I would want in a later grade, they have very clear goals for skills (motor and social as well as cognitive) and programs for achieving them. Those kinds of goals don't seem really appropriate for a Sunday school class.

My friend Nachama Skolnick Moskowitz had a different take on it. She suggested that the parents might be dismayed by the cycle of not-very-meaningful activities that is typical in a Sunday-school class like this. These are activities that are often sanctified by decades of use, but which either don't teach much of anything, or teach something that we don't really want to teach. For example, having children plant radish seeds in little pots at Tu Bishvat doesn't teach anything about trees, and Tu Bishvat isn't about vegetables.

When I asked in various online groups about curricula for a Sunday-school pre-kindergarten class, the replies surprised me. One colleague in a nearby (and larger) city asked why we have such a class at all and recommended family education instead. We have the class in response to demand, which exists because our community isn't large enough to have weekday Jewish preschool.

An early-childhood specialist at one of the national religious movements wrote that there is no such thing as a pre-kindergarten curriculum, because early childhood education is all about emergent curriculum – building the curriculum around the interests of the pupils. That's eminently feasible in a weekday preschool where there is no fixed list of topics that must be taught and teachers can respond promptly to whatever interests develop, not so feasible in a once-a-week class.

In the end we moved to a combined kindergarten and pre-kindergarten class with two teachers, and a curriculum called HaMakom, which means "the Place." In a religious setting, however, it denotes the place in which we find God, and may serve as a synonym for God.

Our idea is that the classroom itself should be HaMakom--an environment that models the best forms of contemporary Jewish life. We want it to be rich with Jewish symbols and objects and provide multiple opportunities for Jewish play. We also want it to be uncluttered and airy, which will be a challenge since the classroom is not large.

Part of the plan is to use the room decoration and various stations to engender interest in appropriate topics – a twist on emergent curriculum. These will include a holiday station – what class at this level doesn't study the Jewish holidays – as well as a Shabbat station, a Hebrew station, and so forth.

The full curriculum is here.