Teaching teachers: Akiba staff talk Reggio-based education

By Rosie Bernstein
Special to the TJP

Walking down the hall of any preschool, one is likely to see bright colors and little feet. One is likely to hear giggles, nursery rhymes and gleeful songs. The most precious sight of all: that of teachers inspiring the curiosity of the blooming young minds in their classrooms and fostering the growth of the children. What is more unprecedented, however, is the sight of teachers teaching teachers. And walking down the hallway of the Akiba Academy of Dallas Early Childhood building over Presidents Day Weekend, that is precisely what was taking place.
Eight years ago, Rabbi Meir Muller, the head of school at the Cutler Jewish Day School, traveled to Dallas for a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference. Every year at the NAEYC conference, the National Jewish Early Childhood Network (NJECN) hosts its own conference simultaneously in the same city. As part of one of their events, NJECN toured the Akiba Academy campus with a special focus on the Early Childhood Program. Muller was one of about 100 educators who toured Akiba that day.
Four years later, Muller returned as an assessor for Akiba’s accreditation with the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI).
The Cutler Jewish Day School is a community school in South Carolina that offers dual-curriculum education to both non-Jewish and Jewish children of all denominations ranging from age 1 until fifth grade.
Reggio Emilia is an approach to early childhood education that influences both the program at Akiba and that of Cutler. The Reggio philosophy believes the child to be strong, capable and resilient, rich with wonder, curiosity and knowledge.

Akiba Academy Pre-Kindergarten teacher Gail Mabel explains the importance of classroom setup to teachers visiting from Cutler Jewish Day School.

Changes for Cutler

Cutler is currently preparing to add onto its building, and the staff is trying to find ways to renovate both the physical environment and enhance their teaching practices. Since Muller left Akiba in 2010, he planned for and thought about the day when he could return again with his staff at his side. Visiting Akiba was a two-year plan for Cutler, using professional development funds from both this year and last year to make the trip to Dallas happen.
“I was extremely impressed by the environment,” Muller recalls. “I have visited so many Jewish schools across the country; Akiba just stood out in my mind as a really wonderful early childhood model, and I wanted to share that with the teachers in South Carolina.”
The much-anticipated trip began Sunday, Feb. 14 with a full tour of the Akiba campus as an introduction to the events that were to come. Next, Gail Mabel, Kochava Malka, Lindsey Silvis, Marissa Caspary and Miriam Nelson, the Akiba teachers who participated in the day, gave various training sessions. They discussed long-term project work in early childhood, creating an art studio both in the classroom and as its own space and the intentionality behind how Akiba sets up its classroom environments. Some of the teachers from Cutler were interested in taking a closer look at some lower school classrooms as they teach kindergarten through fifth grade. Following the sessions, more in-depth tours were given of the early childhood environments. On Tuesday, the Cutler teachers saw the entire Akiba Early Childhood Program in action, as they observed a regular morning at Akiba and sat in the classrooms.
“At Akiba, we are very thoughtful and intentional with everything that we do, from setting up the environments as a third teacher to planning a curriculum that is designed to build on each child’s strengths and interests while supporting their growth and development,” Akiba Director of Early Childhood Jordana Bernstein explained. “We explore topics of interests through long-term project investigations and through hands-on experiences with a variety of interesting materials.  The teachers and children engage with one another as researchers, developing the confidence in the children to think critically, ask questions and continuously find the wonder and joy in their learning.”
Cutler was looking to learn from Akiba about how to better implement Reggio-inspired practices in the classroom. A few of the teachers from Cutler that visited had never even seen the environment working as the third teacher that the Reggio Emilia philosophy encourages. As they look forward to the new addition to their building, the Cutler staff seeks ways to utilize it in the most effective manner.
“Our philosophies of early childhood are very much the same: very nurturing, putting the children first, encouraging them to ask good questions. The difference is that Akiba has the space to grow and to allow the children to grow; the teachers have room to facilitate the learning and the best practices for young children. We are on the road to that, but we are not quite there,” Cutler Assistant Principal Kelly Stanton said.
The entire weekend was deemed very successful. Both Cutler and Akiba staffers learned valuable lessons that they will apply to their teaching going forward. Billie Green-Smith, a preschool floater from Cutler, and Becky Lourie, a Cutler kindergarten teacher, learned how to document the children’s work, something Green-Smith believed Cutler could do a better job of. Other reflections of the visit to Akiba included high admiration for Akiba’s use of the physical space.
After a full weekend of preparation and presentation, the Akiba Early Childhood staff gained more knowledge and pride in their program. Gail Mabel, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Akiba and a greeter and presenter during the weekend with Cutler, said she learned more about her program and the intentionality behind the environment she teaches in that she did not know or realize before; teaching other teachers helped her learn more about herself. Akiba’s other participants echoed similar feelings. Overall, an affirmation of pride in Akiba, specifically Akiba’s Early Childhood Program, is what the Akiba staff took away from this experience.
“What we do every single day has just become second nature to us, while it is just fascinating to other educators who are coming to observe our program,” Bernstein reflected. “Sometimes we take for granted the wonderful experience that we provide for the children and families in our program. I learned about the things that are exciting for an outsider looking in and about the amazing experience that is being a teacher of teachers.”

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