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All I Really Need to Know About Teaching Children I Learned From the Haggadah

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I remember years ago in Teacher’s College reading a book titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum. Reading the Haggadah this Pesach, I began thinking that for us in early childhood education, someone should write a book called “All I Really Need to Know about Teaching Children I Learned from the Haggadah!” The Haggadah is the perfect blueprint for conscious meaningful education in the spirit and genre of what is attempted and accomplished at Stein Yeshiva.

The Seder. The overall structure of the Haggadah is that the Passover meal should be taught in a specific order, with specific goals and well-defined segments. This is arguably the most important key to successful teaching. It may look from the outside that all you need are some good books, crayons and a playground to have a great day with young children, but the meticulous planning and preparation of the school day is the essential ingredient to successful early childhood education. There is a direct correlation between the hours of preparation spent on detailed lesson plans, including timing and transitions, and a successful program that to the untrained eye looks mystifyingly orderly and seamless.

It is obvious at Stein Yeshiva in Yonkers, where I teach, that from the daycare though pre-1a the teachers work well beyond the typical school day in order to plan meaningful learning activities. Even the 3-year-olds’ teacher posts “educational intentions” outlining the activities and learning centers for the upcoming week so parents and co-teachers can see what is in store for the children. Materials are not only prepared and ready for use, but thoughtful attention is given to the developmental appropriateness and flexibility of each activity to allow for maximum expression and growth. For example, for the makah of tzfarde’a the children made frogs. There is such a temptation to put out shapes, paints and googly eyes and have each child essentially create somewhat identical art projects. But, it is much more meaningful and challenging for the teacher to let go of the “professionalism” of the end product and allow the child to choose from a variety of materials to engage in the experience of “frog.” One frog is made out of a cup and red string with green paper, another with green pompoms and red pipe cleaners. Not only does each child end up with a frog-like outcome, but the learning that has taken place is exponentially more valuable than its traditional counterpart. This type of planning and teaching is evident on a daily basis at Stein Yeshiva.

Kadesh tells us the order of things to come. We learn from this the importance of telling young children in advance what is coming up next. Knowing what to expect helps the child transition through the day, providing a sense of flow from one activity to the next. Kiddush also reminds us that there is kedusha present in Jewish education. These are beautiful neshamot that we are imbuing with Yiddishkeit and we, as teachers, feel privileged every day to teach Jewish kinderlach the love of Torah.

Walk into any classroom in Stein Yeshiva during davening and see teachers finding new ways to show the children that they are precious to Hashem—that they can feel kedusha through singing and davening to Hashem. Children are singing at the top of their lungs! Four-year-olds are holding up a large print “Shema” in lashon hakodesh and pointing out the words to their friends—leading the class in davening!

Urchatz/Karpas/Yachatz. Washing (tactile), tasting bitter herbs, hearing matzah snapping in half—all of it multisensory to the core. The Haggadah is showing us that in order to teach young children we must create ways to explore the content using all of the child’s senses. This is where thorough planning comes in. A teacher has to think in advance about how to expose a 2-year-old to a learning concept using all five senses. The color red can be seen, heard, tasted, felt and rolled over! Sensory bins, science exploration, scenic walks and silly songs—all are utilized to teach both in a developmentally and cognitively meaningful way. It was awe-inspiring to watch the preschoolers in the weeks leading up to Pesach searching for chametz down the hallways of the school, washing toys with soapy bubbles in large water-play bins, using peelers to cut and taste vegetables, counting to 18 and baking matzah. And so much more! Every concept thought through, explored, and every sense exploited for the best educational outcome.

Magid. Storytelling. Let me tell you a brief story: When I first started teaching at Stein Yeshiva, I was having my lunch break in the art room and I heard a terrible racket in the next classroom. What could it be?! The pre-1a rebbe was yelling at the top of his lungs! Why? I couldn’t contain myself, got up and peered through the window on the door to the classroom. The children were all sitting in a circle looking up at the rebbe, completely mesmerized and absorbed in the totally incredible, real and powerful story he was telling them—with voices and gesticulations, facial expressions and comedy! That retelling of the parsha deserved an academy award! Magid teaches us that there is telling a story… and there is telling a story!!

Ma Nishtana: Children get to ask the questions. Teachers should ask questions that lead to thought-provoking questions from the children, and they should manipulate the environment to encourage children to ask questions. The statement, “Wow! What a good question!” is the mantra of a good teacher. Ma Nishtana gives us insight into how to get young children to ask pointed questions—like—“Did the Chofetz Chaim really grow up from a little boy into a giant?” The Haggadah shows us that it is the unusual and different that stimulates the student to ask “Why?” So much of our role as good teachers is to think of ways to set up the classroom, the activities and manipulatives (building blocks, loose parts, craft materials) in ways that steer the young child to be curious. Then the learning can begin.

The Four Sons. This is the crux of the whole “Haggadah as a Model for Educational Pedagogy” thesis. Not only do we have at any given time at least four, if not 14, different types of children in our class, but each child has in them all of the sons depicted in the Haggadah. Each of us has our moments of brilliance, brashness, bashfulness and those times we are “not even on the bus!” This is why a strong educator community, administration and leadership are paramount in building a great school.

At Stein Yeshiva the world is turned upside-down for the benefit of one child: Teachers’ schedules and classes are switched, children split their time in different programs, and consultants are brought in to observe and help develop whatever program is necessary to provide for that child. Academically advanced children are challenged scholastically with age-appropriate activities. A 5-year-old is encouraged to read a chapter book to a friend. A 6-year-old utilizes his division prowess to evenly stack chairs into sets during end-of-day tidy-up. One child needs more sensory play—it is provided. Another needs the consistency of only dealing with one teacher over the course of the day; this is also provided. This incredible attitude toward the sanctity of the needs of each Jewish child comes right from the top of our pyramid—our menahel, Rabbi Cherns. He truly reaches out to all, and we all—children, parents and teachers alike—feel it.

I could go on, but since most young children fall asleep after Magid, I think I’ll stop the analogy here. The point has been made—the Haggadah is a great metaphor for effective early childhood education. In fact, I am sure it is a great metaphor for grade-school education as well, but I will leave it up to one of our awe-inspiring educators in our Stein Yeshiva Learning Pavilion (Grades 1 through 8) to continue the conversation. I can only attest as a parent of two children who attend the yeshiva that the inspiring model of education outlined here is indeed continued throughout the school. So, thank you to our menahel, Rabbi Cherns, our early childhood director, our rebbeim, morahs, support staff and our wonderful parents and students too!

By Rivka Leah Temple

Rivka Leah Temple began in early childhood education in 1987 with the opening of her preschool Gan Noam in Toronto, Ont. Mrs. Temple holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, education and applied behavioral science. Prior to teaching at Stein Yeshiva in Yonkers, Rivka Leah owned a dairy goat farm in Sullivan County New York.

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