Our Families, Our Schools, Our Future

Photo credit: Alan Novick

By Veronica Maravankin

[Schools are] places of life for children, teachers, and familiesplaces not only to transmit culture and support the family, but to create new culture, the culture of childhood, the culture of the child; places in which we can offer to our society a new image of the child, a new image of childhood, a new image of the teacher, a new image of the family. ~Carlina Rinaldi

Long before the renowned educators of Reggio Emilia will tell you about their pedagogical practices, they will insist on talking about their image of the child – their view that children are capable, curious, and so much more. It is our beliefs about children, they insist, that inform all of the choices we make in setting up their lives and their schooling. What’s more, designer Anita Olds explains, “Our thoughts as reflected in our designs, in turn shape children’s beliefs about themselves and life.”

In this spirit, 265 Jewish early childhood educators gathered last month at the 5th Annual Paradigm Project Conference, to focus on the image of another key protagonist in education: Families. What IS our image of families, they wondered together – do we see families as meaningful partners? As positive contributors to our school cultures? As co-collaborators in building a shared future for children, our communities, and the world? Does our practice align with our beliefs? Or are we instead guilty of what Margie Carter calls “behaving one way but believing another”?

Through dialogue, laughter, play, and engagement with presenters such as Bruce Feiler, Wendy Mogel, and various physicians, researchers, artists, museum educators, PJ Library professionals, professors, comedians, and practitioner-researchers, #ParadigmShifters began imagining a new way to relate to families. Here are five new approaches they invite Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and organizations to consider in their planning:

  1. What if we take the time to get to know each family, its enormous potential and unique gifts, and trust that the family has the capacity to think, feel, reason, act, choose, and create? What if we would see the family as B’tzelem Elokim (created in God’s image)?
  2. What if we invite and embrace families’ questions, arguments, and interpretations, allowing them to give birth to new understandings and even new questions and challenges? These kinds of D’rash (conversations) are, indeed, essential elements of our growth and maturity as human beings; how can this process of engaged questioning nurture the growth of educators and families?
  3. What if we make ourselves available to each other and listen carefully to one another, engaging in covenantal relationships (B’rit) in which families feel a true sense of security; in which their individuality is honored; in which their opinions are heard; and in which their needs are considered?
  4. What if we support families so that they can be fully present? What if we could utilize an intention (Kavanah) to help us achieve this, such as invoking Kedusha (holiness) by creating environments that leave room for an encounter with the extraordinary and the sacred? Or invoking Hitorerut (awakening) by stimulating families’ sense of wonder, so that their experiences are elevated, their relationships enhanced, and their joy increased.
  5. What if we understand that each family is on its own journey (Masa), learning about and honoring the family’s past and giving the family permission to be in a state of becoming?

Each of these approaches offers a path toward changing hearts and practices. With new eyes, we can see the world as it is and also as it could be, and we can #ShifttheParadigm one family at a time. In this way, Jewish education is poised to solve a real need, for as Rinaldi writes, “All over the Western world, the family seems to feel alone from the moment of the birth of a child. The [school],” she proposes, “is a place that supports the family and the citizens of a new century, of a new future.

With the spiritual acuity of Jacob awakening from a dream, Jewish educational #ParadigmShifters can look with fresh eyes at the families in their midst. With the vision of Moses, we must all set oursights on a bold future. And with a network of warm-hearted, bold, and passionate colleagues, we have the power to develop and scale practices that will #MakeShiftHappen.

Veronica Maravankin is one of the founders of the Paradigm Project. The 2019 Paradigm Project Conference, with its special focus on families, was made possible by the generous support of the Covenant Foundation and the partnership of the Jewish United Fund. In 2020, the 6th Annual Paradigm Project conference will be held May 3-5 in Chicago, and Pop-Up Conferences will be held in Dallas (Jan. 5-7) and Tel Aviv (Feb. 10-11).