Communities of Practice: Where Commencement is Really a Beginning

by Karee Bilsky and Jill Abbey-Clark

We held hands in a circle, reminiscent of our days at camp, and sang, “Lechi lach, on your journey I will bless you.” Sixteen Jewish Early Childhood Educators from around the country had just completed the fifteen-month Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI). We had engaged in intensive Jewish learning, inquiry and reflective practice, leadership development, and community building. The incredible learning experience was over and we sang these words in the hopes that the journey was not over, but rather just beginning.

The new task before us was to continue this meaningful experience by not only sharing our learning with our host institutions but also by deepening and strengthening the connections we had already formed. We were determined to continue our relationships, our community and our learning. We decided we would create for ourselves a COP (community of practice) among this tightly established group of educators that had formed in JECELI.

One year later, as we reap the rewards of the rigorous, relational, member-led Community of Practice we co-developed, we reflect on the key ingredients needed to create a successful online community of practice. We do this as we prepare to meet with JECELI’s new graduating cohort to assist them as they consider their own steps forward. Our message will be clear: this need only be the beginning. Here are the elements that catalyzed our success; we believe they offer a model for other cohorts seeking to continue meaningful work just when the formal program seems to be ending.

1. Commitment

The first step in the process was identifying those members who felt that our work together was not yet finished. Because success would require a strong commitment, we outlined our expectations and asked interested parties to sign on. We enlisted our participants by signing an actual B’rit (contract). This created a real sense of responsibility and also a tangible option not to join. Each participant (Fellow) was given the task to reflect on and write about the reasons why continuing her learning was a priority.

2. Shared leadership

Second, we had schools to run, classes to teach, and communities to support. It was impossible to organize a COP alone. Everyone was required to participate in some capacity; whether organizing the retreat, leading a text study, or presenting on a topic of expertise, all members took responsibility in the group. This group belonged to everyone and its success allowed no one to be a sideline participant. The signing of the B’rit created a safe environment in which to hold participants accountable when we were not meeting the assigned expectations. Never with judgment, only with encouragement and support.

3. Technology

Our COP covered sixteen cities, fifteen states, three-thousand miles, and four time zones. Convening regularly face-to-face would require far too much time and too many resources. We needed to connect regularly, effectively, and as a whole group. With one of the participants acting as technology consultant, all participants were trained to properly use the platforms that best fostered different aspects and tasks of distance learning. Through Facebook groups, listserv, and Google Hangout, we were able to learn together. When we had a pressing question that needed to be answered immediately, we sent it through the listserv. When we were reading a book together and wanted to discuss the chapter, we used our Facebook group. When we needed to “meet” to discuss a monthly topic with a professor, we used Google Hangout.

4. Reconnecting with teachers

After much thought, we decided that instead of reaching out to new teachers or professionals in the field of Early Childhood Education, we would tap those with whom we had already learned and established a relationship. This decision proved to be vital. As trust existed, we could continue discussions from the past and pick up where we left off. The work of establishing norms had already been done, so that the learning was the priority. Every month our group of Fellows participated in online professional development that deliberately inspired each individual to take the learning back to her institution. As such, our chosen teachers had the opportunity, in a sense, to share their knowledge with not only the group of Fellows, but a larger community of educators.

5. Reconnect in person

No one can deny the intensity of face-to-face learning. As much as Google and Facebook helped, they could offer only the aftertaste of togetherness; nothing can or should replace actual human contact. A two-day retreat culminated a year of distance learning that enabled the community to be together again. As a group, we decided on the agenda and enlisted specialists; participants had a chance to lead and share. The intensive time together reminded us of the power we have to learn from each other all while creating meaning and purpose in the lives of young Jewish children.

As we embark on our second year together, we are energized by our success. By setting up a clear structure that included commitment, shared leadership, technology, trusted teachers and retreat opportunities, we were able to establish a vibrant community of practice. We did so with relatively modest means – less than $5,000 in outside funding to support webinars and facilitation – filling in the costs of the retreat ($400 per person plus travel) either personally or through the generosity of our schools. Just as we had hoped when JECELI ended and we sang “You shall be a blessing, lechi lach,” our group continues to depend on one another for professional growth, moral support and inspiration.

Moving forward on our journey, may this COP continue to be a blessing for all who dedicate themselves to the field of Jewish Early Childhood Education. Perhaps there is a blessing in it for others on parallel journeys as well.

Karee Bilsky and Jill Abbey-Clark are the co-chairs of the JECELI Alumni Fellowship, facilitated by the Paradigm Project and made possible through funds granted by the Covenant Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Karee is the Director of Early Childhood at The Chava Center at Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL. Jill is the Director of Early Childhood Education at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA. JECELI is a joint program of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in consultation with Bank Street College, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation as part of its Education Initiative.