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.