ECS Values: Inquiry

By Alicia Barta, 4s Program Lead (Room 101)

As I brainstormed ideas for this article, I decided to start by going to the best source for examining words. Merriam Webster defines the word “identity” like this:

  • 1a: sameness of essential or generic character in different instances
  • 1b: sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing (oneness)
  • 2a: the distinguishing character or personality of an individual (individuality)
  • 2b: the relation established by psychological identification
  • 3: the condition with being the same with something described or asserted


While looking at the definitions, a couple of things immediately became clear. First, identity is equal parts oneness and individuality. The 4-6 year olds who make up our pre-k classes spend this time in their life experiencing everything through the lens of sameness and difference. Second, identity is fundamental: if we are talking about “the objective reality of a thing,” there is nothing more meaningful to being a human than our inherent nature. During their time in ECS, your children spend a significant amount of time exploring their identity. Following are a few specific examples of ways that we scaffold that exploration in a pre-k classroom.

In every class, regardless of age, teachers strive to make children’s individual identities visible. This can take many forms, starting with something as simple as displaying a child’s photo in the classroom. As the children get older, the methods become more complex, including such things as the addition of the child’s name in text. When it becomes developmentally appropriate, children start doing self-portraits. These are a particularly useful window into the psyche of a child, as they help us track a variety of different factors. For instance, as children grow, the way they draw people can be tracked along a continuum. Major changes in a child’s growing sense of self match up with landmarks such as the shift from drawing arms coming out of the head to the creation of a separate body. We can also tell how the children’s priorities change over time: sometimes you will see a small body with huge hair, or a face that takes up a disproportionate amount of space. Perhaps a child’s glasses will be meticulously drawn while the rest of the image seems hurried. By being present with the children and asking open-ended questions while they work, we can figure out all sorts of useful information about how they see themselves, and only by knowing each child intimately can we hope to provide them with personalized educational experiences.

Due to the fact that ECS is a Reggio Emilia-inspired school, we are particularly well suited to a discussion of personal identity. There is no educational philosophy in existence that cherishes each child’s individual identity in the way Reggio does. At the very core of everything we do, and of utmost importance, is the concept of the whole child. Each child’s likes, dislikes, previous life experience, strengths, struggles, and learning style is taken into account as teachers design flexible exploration opportunities to help scaffold whatever learning the specific child is most interested in doing. As such, even if the children are not consciously aware of it, we are doing due diligence to ensure that the fundamental things that define each child are not merely protected, but respected.

For young children, while school friends may be important, at the center of their identity is their family. Each classroom’s inherent culture is founded on solid relationships with the people who know them best. We consider a child’s family their first and most important teacher! By fully understanding a child’s family culture, we can help bring that aspect of their identity to play in daily classroom life.

In my 5 years teaching for ECS, we have honored families in a variety of ways. A prominent example is the birthday poster we have asked parents to help their children make this year. On the day of a child’s birthday celebration, they get to share a poster that contains photos from every year of their life, as well as whatever aspects of their family life they would most like to share. This can include anything from grandparents and pets to favorite books and foods. Once the poster has been presented, the children get to ask questions about anything they don’t understand or would like to know more about. In this way, each child gets to own their family identity in a supported, public way.

Another way that Room 101 incorporates family into our weekly routine is through Weekend Reports. Each Monday morning, as children arrive in the classroom, they are encouraged to work with whoever drops them off to come up with one really important memory from the weekend. With their parents, grandparents, and nannies, children brainstorm fun stories and come up with specific details that will help them share their story with others. Then, when it’s their turn to come to the Literacy Station, they tell the story of a meaningful snippet of their family life, and this story is shared with their friends and their teachers.

Finally, we strive to incorporate questions into all of our activities that will allow children to make connections between their own family experience and the experiences of others. Recently, during Passover, we spent some time talking about the way Miriam helped her baby brother Moses when he was in danger. We encouraged the children to think about their own siblings, and to talk about the very nature of what it means to be a sister or brother. Big brothers, big sisters, little brothers, and little sisters all talked about their relationships with their siblings, and the children who shared a similar role got together to discuss similarities and differences. As a big sister, the kids even wanted to know about my experience, and seemed both surprised and gratified to know that adults have similar life experiences, too. We ended up doing a piece of documentation about our sibling discussions, and the children were excited to share what they had learned with their families at the end of the day.

By being a part of the larger JCC community, we are able to explore several additional layers of a child’s identity. Which classroom are they in? How does that classroom interact with other classrooms in the same age band? How is the child able to interact with older or younger siblings and their classrooms during the course of the day? What other family members might be present? There are a great many things about this learning environment that are unique and incredibly special. Some children’s grandparents attend classes or use the J’s facilities, and they will sometimes drop off, pick up, or pop in to say hello. Many of the children’s parents went to ECS when they were kids, which provides a really beautiful school-home connection that cannot be replicated under other circumstances. Finally, the teachers and children all share a very important aspect to our identity – our affinity for the universal Jewish values that guide everything we do here.

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ECS Faculty Conference Reflections

(L-R): Presenters Ivana Socini and Paola Cagliari with ECS faculty: Tara, Avital, Margaret, Carrie, Shayna, and Anna.

In March, our leadership team and a few faculty members attended the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance (NAREA) winter conference: “Constructing a Culture of Shared Values for Children and Childhood: Honoring Diversity, Differences, and Democracy.” The Alliance, a member of the Reggio Children International Network, is a diverse community of advocates and educators actively promoting and defending the rights of children, families, and teachers of all cultures through a collaboration of colleagues inspired by the Reggio Emilia experience.

The Wonder of Learning Exhibit was  great highlight of the conference, and it’s open to the public! Details for visiting the exhibit are on the Washington Collective website. We highly recommend it!

Below are some reflections about our experience and time with being at the conference.

Anna Koelle, Associate Director
It was exciting to listen and hear from the educators about some of their current thinking and projects. They talked about ‘participation’ as a concept—as a way of being and a way of being a part of something. Participation is activating a dialogue between the child, parents, educators, and the community. I loved learning how they approach this and make meaning of it in their schools. Asking the very simple and reflective question, “Participating in what?” has helped them to make real for everyone what it means to participate in an educational project. They also shared what it means for all participants (children, teachers, and families) to learn in a group and with the group. I appreciated listening to the process of how a project starts and takes shape, and where they go with it. I’m excited that this conference has given us new understandings and ways of being with children, families, and community.

Tara Bloomer, Associate Director
One of the many takeaways from the conference that’s in the forefront of my mind is the idea of the “voice of children.” How do we give voice to children? How do we give them opportunities to leave traces of themselves and how do we create context so they can do so? How do we, as educators, create journeys with children? One of the reoccurring threads throughout our three days together was how children construct knowledge and the importance of learning in groups and with groups. Being able to see the process of an initial interest and how it continued to evolve into a huge investigation appeared seamless for the children and teachers in Reggio Emilia. The children were constantly engaged in research, forming theories, challenging theories, etc. It makes me think of this wonderful quote from Ivana Soncini, who spoke at the conference: “When children have pleasure and satisfaction in the work they are doing, they are much more invested in the learning.” I am excited to see how this type of small group work can continue to develop in our own school and across all age groups!   

Shayna Medved, Associate Director
One concept that really stuck with me from our learning experiences at the NAREA Winter Conference was the shift in perspective from thinking about people as “human beings” to thinking of all people as “human becomings.” Paola Caligari, the Director of the Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centers Istituzione of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, explained that all people, both children and adults, are constantly evolving and constructing new knowledge about the world through our experiences. To accept this, we must first recognize that “knowledge” is something different than “facts.” “Knowledge” is a subjective construction, one that includes our individual contexts and the interpretations that each person uniquely brings to an experience.

Can you imagine what our world would be like if we honored the idea that knowledge is subjective for both children and adults? How much more open-minded would we be toward one another? How much easier would it be for us to take one another’s perspectives? How might we approach children’s learning differently?

Avital Erez, 2s Program Teacher
This conference connected the dots for me in many ways. I was moved and inspired by the power of a community that is standing behind the school and its professionals as one. When you have that, sky is the limit. You are able to share a common language, common goals, and common understanding. This benefits the children, empowers them, and enables them to become life-long curious learners. In the classroom, this translates into multi-phase and multi-disciplinary chapters of children learning about the world around them. It also helps create meaningful, hands-on, child-inspired (and, therefore, very diverse) scholarly experiences—the kind that build memories and knowledge.

Margaret Farlin-Forbes, 4s Program Teacher
I was fortunate to attend my first NAREA conference last month. Leading up to it I had an idea of how the experience would play out and what I would learn. Not surprisingly, the conference was everything I imagined and more! It was incredible to be in a room with hundreds of educators who believe in the rights of children and our philosophy. The lectures pushed my thinking and gave me a new lens to view my practice and my classroom. Throughout the conference I felt my mind buzzing with all of the new information and ideas I had for my current classroom and the years to come.

During my walk through the 100 Languages Exhibit, I noticed that there were many provocations using technology that beautifully supported and pushed the children’s learning and their explorations. Next year, I would love to implement more technology into the classroom and enrich the children’s experiences.

The NAREA conference was truly amazing. When the weekend concluded, I felt inspired and optimistic. Attending the NAREA was, without a doubt, career affirming.


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Infant Care & Beyond

infant careThe SJCC is so thrilled to start 2018 with our new Director, Early Childhood, Carrie Stull. Carrie comes to the J with more than 15 years of experience directing preschool and infant care programs in the Seattle area, including directing Minor Ave. Children’s House and building Evergreen Academy Montessori from the ground up.

Much of Carrie’s infant care and early childhood leadership experience is Montessori and play-based, which translates well to the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of our school.

Jewish Learning + Universal Values

Carrie and her family belong to Temple Beth Am in Seattle’s north end, and she has always been enthusiastic about Jewish education. “I love working with children and I’m passionate about Judaism, so I can’t think of a better job.”

Although our preschool is part of a Jewish Community Center, you don’t have to be Jewish to attend—families of all kinds are welcome. We do learn about and celebrate Jewish holidays, but in ways that resonate with children—whether that’s learning about taking care of the environment by visiting our garden or reading The Lorax on Tu B’Shevat (the new year of the trees), or singing songs about friendship and sharing meals every Friday on Shabbat.

infant care jewish valuesThe Jewish values that we incorporate into our classrooms aren’t focused on the religious aspect of Judaism so much as on the values of Jewish living. “You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the values of common courtesy, welcoming others, and community,” Carrie says. “Those are just some of the values we infuse into our classrooms, and they’re beneficial for preschoolers and adults alike, no matter your religious affiliation.”

To learn more about the J’s Early Childhood School, head here.

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Preschool is About More than Play

The SJCC Early Childhood School is different than most preschools. We embrace the Reggio Emilia philosophy, where children learn through real-life authentic experiences within a social context.

preschool reggio playWhat does that mean? It means we embrace wonder and discovery every day. Children may be in preschool, but they are still competent and capable protagonists in their own learning.

Our teachers educate children on social and emotional levels and empower them to embrace individuality. “Children are given independence and provocations to explore,” says Director, Early Childhood, Carrie Stull. “They’re encouraged to think for themselves.”

Documenting the Preschool Learning Process

One unique pillar of the Reggio-Emilia philosophy is daily documentation. At first glance, this may appear to simply be pictures of cute children having fun at school—but it’s much more than that.

preschool reggio play“Documentation is an explanation of learning,” Carrie says. “It’s not just playing with blocks, it’s about learning through play.”

At the end of the day, our school has three main goals, says Carrie. “We want the kids to be safe, to be loved, and to be learning. If we can ensure all that, we’re doing our jobs.”

To learn more about the J’s Early Childhood School, head here.

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