By Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal and Cindy Grebow
We are in week two of our new normal, trying to balance supporting and engaging our community and adjusting to the realities of a synagogue taking place entirely online. One of the first questions we asked ourselves was, how would our Nursery School, which depends so much on interaction between students, teachers, administrators and parents, move to an all virtual platform? After only a week, we have some important lessons that are informing our planning going forward.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
- Interactive activities work best. Our most successful activities are ones where the kids can do things along with the teachers. For example, send a recipe and cook together, send a list of art supplies and do a craft project (and suggest substitutions for parents who don’t have specific ingredients or supplies on hand), do yoga or singing and encourage kids to move with you (although keep everyone on mute for the singing or it tips into chaos). Kids this age aren’t used to just sitting in front of a screen, so we have to find creative ways of making the kids feel connected to their classroom routines, even if they are in their living rooms. All of the sessions are recorded so kids can come back to them if they are interested in seeing them again.
- Rethink the role of the teachers. Some teachers thrive in front of the camera and some do not. Rehearsals help iron out technical glitches for everyone. There are many things that teachers can do behind the scenes to support the teachers in front of the camera. They can brainstorm ideas and prepare materials, communicate one-on-one with parents and students, and help gather and vet resources from inside and outside the community. If you are in zoom, they can use the chat function to communicate with the parents and students while another teacher is teaching, asking questions, giving tips or just saying a personal hello.
- Less is more. You don’t have to do everything all at once and many parents are overwhelmed with the overflowing number of options out there. We started with a few regular things, like music and some activities for the whole school, and are adding as we go. We have started including a daily morning meeting for each class and will add special activities, such as story time with our clergy and classes with our specialists, including library, science, and yoga.
- Morning messages are important. Every morning during our regular school year, teachers share a short morning message with the parents in each class. We have continued this tradition into our virtual classroom, but the messages now focus on the kids and include activities for kids to do at home. For example, a message might say, “the letter of the week is B. Find 10 things in your house that start with B.” Our director has also been sending home daily messages as a way to stay connected with the parents and address any questions that are coming up.
- Use social media. We have been posting resources and discussion questions in our parents Facebook group and asking kids to send in pictures of what they are doing at home in response to our morning message challenges and putting them on our Instagram. This allows our kids and families to stay connected to one another and it gives parents new ideas about how to engage their kids. All our social media is private, and we have permission from the parents to post the pictures.
- Teacher contact with the kids is really important. The kids miss their teachers, so they called each of them at the end of the first week, a practice we will continue.
- Care for the parents as much as for the kids. One of the first things we did was a session with a psychologist about how parents can care for themselves and parent in this time of deep uncertainty and anxiety. We are making calls to all the parents, not only to check in on the kids, but to see how the parents are holding up and putting in supports where we can. We are reminding parents that, even when we can’t be together in person, we are still their community, not just for their children but for them as well.
One of the best ways we can support our families at this time is by reminding them that they don’t have to run a full-fledged home Nursery School for their children. Children are different, and what feels right for one child and family at home may not be right for another. Children learn through play and exploration, so they are learning and growing every moment, and learning is not going to stop because we can’t be together physically in school right now. We are all adjusting to this new way of connecting and being in community and the most important message is that we are all in it together.
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is the Director of Youth and Family Education at Central Synagogue in New York City. Together with an incredible team, she oversees the May Family Nursery School of more than 100 students.
Cindy Grebow is the Early Childhood Director at Central Synagogue’s May Family Nursery School.