I began my career as an assistant nursery school teacher when I graduated from college. My head teacher, Bernice Lieberman, was my mentor. She knew how to engage children with her story telling. She also managed to inspire children with an enthusiasm for learning. She challenged each child to develop his/her own individual skills. She focused on a child’s strengths and provided opportunities for each child to grow. I loved the way she was able to connect with children, and for me, she was the ideal role model.
Throughout my teaching career, I too have tried to connect with the children I teach. My goal is to reach every child, to stimulate their desire for learning, and to help them develop positive self esteem in a nurturing environment.
A secondary goal has emerged over the years as I witnessed the lack of knowledge among some parents of Jewish holidays and traditions. Many of these parents appear more knowledgeable about Christian holidays and encourage their children to participate in non-Jewish events like Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day. I saw children more excited about their Halloween costumes than the sukkah we built at school. Children discussed Christmas lights and decorations as well as visits to Santa but never mentioned Hanukkah. Parents wondered why we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day at school but never considered having their child give Shalach Manot to friends at Purim. Some children are more excited about wearing green on St Patrick’s Day than wearing a Purim Costume.
When I was teaching 2-year olds, many teachers felt that they were too young to learn about Jewish Holidays. I created short holiday rhymes for the children in my class and they thoroughly enjoyed them. Later, I began telling stories about a little spider who vicariously observes the Jewish holidays from the ceiling in the home where he lives and wishes he could participate in the celebrations. I hoped that Jewish children, like the little spider, would see the beauty in our holidays and take delight in celebrating them.
In my classroom, I teach the joy of Jewish holiday celebrations, as well as Jewish values, through stories, songs, and art experiences. I try to personally connect with each child, to stimulate their desire to learn and to encourage the development of a positive Jewish identity.
A Purim Classroom Activity: Shushan “Bird” Town
It was approaching the holiday of Purim, and Jacob’s mother brought in her collection of birdhouses. We lined them up for circle time. Jacob told his friends that his parents try to find birdhouses when they travel. I asked the children what they saw in the grouping of birdhouses. One child said, “They look like a choo-choo train.” Another added, “They look like a big bracelet.” A third child asked if he could make a bird house? When another added, “we could make a bird Shushan Town”, the circle of children all happily agreed that it was “a great idea!”
I asked, “Would you like to make birds into the Purim Characters?” “Yes!” they shouted. “Mordechai could be a blue jay.” Another said, “Haman could be a crow and King Ahasverosh a cardinal.” A third child said, “Vashti could be a robin or maybe a hummingbird.” One girl said, “I want to look at the bird book to see what Esther should be.” After studying the bird book, she proudly announced pointing to the picture, “I found a bird to be Queen Esther. It’s a flamingo!”