Provocative Projects: Emergent Curriculum Practices in Jewish Early Childhood Education

GLEANINGS
Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School
Issue 1, Winter 2014

Lyndall Miller

Anyone who works in early childhood education is familiar with the words developmentally appropriate practice (DAP). This phrase implies that the mental tools with which children approach the world evolve with age and experience, and our educational practices need to match these expanding abilities. We know from research and experience that young children are not just inexperienced adults. We also know that a "developmentally appropriate curriculum" is what we should be using in the classroom.

However, there is a possibility that the familiar DAP phrase is being used as a label to promote curricular units rather than a dynamic, authentic, responsive, and exploratory approach to curriculum development. If we examine the vast numbers of the classroom units on the seasons, community helpers, transportation, animals—the many subjects we teach—we find that they require children to be sitting and listening to the teacher for most of the lesson. The children may be asked questions, but their answers are then labeled "right" or "wrong." Follow-up activities may include art projects, but these "creations" are virtually indistinguishable from each other. Sometimes, young children are given other follow-up activities in the form of worksheets—with colorful characters, perhaps, but which reinforce the search for the right answers of the teacher. It seems that "developmentally appropriate curriculum" can come to mean for us materials published for early childhood, or that we have in our files from previous years, or even from previous teachers—"appropriate" because we know that the children can do it, seem to enjoy it, and also seem to learn: they name the seasons or animals or put the coat and the mittens together, not the coat and the bathing suit (but wouldn't that be more interesting?).

What we miss with this practical approach, besides creative answers, is the true philosophy behind the words developmentally appropriate curriculum. This philosophy is based on the tenet that young children learn by openly encountering, not just by doing. Therefore, an appropriate curriculum is one that allows the complex process of learning to grow from the interaction between the child's thinking and his environment. Sitting and listening to us talk, making crafts, and certainly doing worksheets do not allow for this complex process to take place in a dynamic way. The child needs many chances to assess situations, choose his own actions, plan investigations and constructions, and learn from the results rather than always looking for someone else's right answer. If he doesn't get the opportunity now to experiment in a protected environment, how will he learn later to get the answers to his own most pressing questions? Will he still be looking to someone else to tell him what is right? We have such a wonderful opportunity to not only preserve but encourage the natural passionate enthusiasm in young children. They are inspiring to us. 

So—we want to be gentle guides as the children explore our world and forge their own understandings. Fortunately, an increasing number of secular publications come out every year to help us structure our classrooms so that this can happen. The Project Approach, promoted in the work of Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard, is a prominent example. But what about Jewish concepts and ideas? Do we dare take a chance on letting the children play out their explorations and investigations about Judaism? The answer is a resounding yes. The more opportunities we give them to use all their senses to perceive Jewish objects in many ways, to actually interact with authentic stories and concepts, and to explore and construct their own ideas about Judaism, the more they will weave it into the very patterns of who they are.

Having made this decision, how do we go about it? It is not easy finding good, truly developmentally appropriate curricula for the Jewish early childhood classroom. Many of the curricula published for introducing Jewish topics have the same difficulties mentioned at the beginning of this article—they use lessons that ask children primarily to sit and listen and respond with "right" answers, or to do crafts using templates and cutouts that all of the children use at the same time—with remarkably similar results. Other curricula, which are excellent, give broad general concepts, with only a few concrete examples of what to do in the classroom, and leave the rest up to us. 

And, of course, that is where the responsibility must ultimately rest. Education is the result of the intimate and intense interaction between each individual child and his or her learning environment. It's time for us to use our own senses as we observe our classroom children and see what interests them. We need to experiment with ways of helping them explore Jewish ideas—indeed, all ideas—in personal ways and on a daily basis. Only then will we know that we have done more than just add to their stores of knowledge, but instead have helped them grow according to the dictates of their own unique selves. Our tradition tells us that each person is a world unto himself or herself; it is our privilege as teachers of young children to be the observers of each child in the process of self-creation.

Lyndall Miller, MEd, MAJEd, MSEd, is the director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI), a collaborative effort between The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, in consultation with the Bank Street College of Education. JECELI is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.