Sunday, February 25, 2018


I joined Facebook about seven months ago.  I'm not sure what took me so long, but I'm very glad that I finally did.  Reconnecting with old friends is a priceless joy, and of course along with that re-connection come the memories of happy, younger days. I notice that many people post mementos of days gone by and I've been wondering about the role of nostalgia in our lives.  Is it unhealthy to reminisce?  Can reliving happy memories make the present seem dull in comparison?  I actually think that the opposite is true.

Nostalgia is defined as sentimentality for the past, for a place or time with happy personal associations.  The word is derived from the Greek "nostos", which means "return home", most likely influenced by the travels of Odysseus and the memories of home that sustained him through his travels.  In this sense, visiting the past brings comfort, warm feelings, and hope.  Happy memories validate that we are loved, connected to others, and that our lives have meaning.  Nostalgia can alleviate feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and boredom. Happy memories are forever; they cannot be taken away from us.  As Humphrey Bogart said in "Casablanca", "We'll always have Paris."  We will always have the precious moments that live in our memories. No one can touch them.

Nostalgia can be painful if we use our memories to compare the past and the present.  Think of Stephen Still's line in "Suite:  Judy Blue Eyes", "Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now".  It's unproductive and untrue to think that things were so much better in "the good old days"; to regret our choices and think, "If only...".   Instead, we should derive strength from our memories, understanding that our personal history is what makes us who we are now.  We can make better choices today when we recognize and stay true to the sense of self that continues to live in our memories.

I am particularly fascinated with the role of music in our memories.  I recently read that the music we love from the ages of twelve to twenty-two gets permanently wired into our brains and becomes "the soundtrack of our lives".   It is at this stage of life that our self-identity emerges.  Our hormones heighten our emotions dramatically, and the music we enjoy infuses the most momentous years of our lives. Our favorite music is tightly connected with our memories, and its relevance to us does not weaken as we age.  No matter how many years have gone by, certain songs can make us  relive the feelings we had when we first heard them.  The opening licks of Eric Clapton's "Layla" still pull at my heart, and bring me back to my days in the college pub (my favorite hangout).  I know that my thirty-something daughter's heart still beats a little faster when she hears Hanson's "Um Bop".

A few days ago, I was feeling sad about the horrors in Florida, as well as missing my sister, who would have celebrated her birthday last week.  I posted Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted", which I have been singing to myself relentlessly for days.  It seemed very cool to me that the people who responded to the post were friends of mine from junior high school, when that song came out.  We all loved Motown (and still do) and I remember us singing together.  I know that these friends could absolutely relate to my feelings through this song, even though I didn't verbalize them.  We will always share that musical / nostalgic connection.

I read somewhere else that children as young as seven can feel nostalgic, particularly as they recall holidays and other celebrations.  We cannot tell which particular events will make their way into our children's memories.  All we can do is to make each day as positive and wonderful as we can. And listening to their memories as they grow may give us a better view into the personal history they are creating for themselves. 

So as important as it is to live in the present, an occasional trip down memory lane has definite benefits. Joni Mitchell sings, "We can't return we can only look behind from where we came".  Happy memories, a strong sense of self to make good choices now; a full life.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Early Childhood Education: A Teacher's Role

In "Early Childhood:  A Plea from the Field" , I wrote about the importance of the early learning years, and how early childhood educators are so often misunderstood and under-appreciated.  It's harder to measure learning in early childhood because there are no products to assess achievement; no tests, quizzes, homework, etc.  The early childhood curriculum is more focused on building developmental skills.  It's about process, not content.  And since children learn through play, an outsider to the field may not understand the teacher's role in the classroom.  What does the teacher do while the children play?

I began to understand how children learn through play when I was an undergraduate doing field work for a developmental psychology course.  I was volunteering at an inner city nursery school in Binghamton, NY.  One day I was playing catch with a three year old boy.  As we played, the teacher said to me, "Use language, Georgia."  So I started labeling what we were doing:  "Catch the ball.  Good catch.  Now throw it to me.  I missed! ", on and on, adding new words such as high, low, far, close, etc. in the context of our play.  Aha! That's how you learn through play.  Not only did the child have words to put to our actions, but he learned about the effects of his muscles on the trajectory of the ball.

Children learn enormous amounts about the world around them through play.  A gifted, qualified teacher can help her students rack up major educational advantages. Early childhood professionals understand the continuum of child development.  They know the steps needed to achieve goals. Through observations and interactions, they determine each child's place on that developmental continuum and create an environment for optimal learning.  

Let's think about learning to read for example. Learning to read is a process that begins at birth and is not completed until the college years.  Since reading is a form of communication, it is intimately connected to the other components of language:  listening, speaking, and writing.  So the first step in learning to read is to build a rich vocabulary of spoken words.  A baby listens to the sounds around her and begins to connect them with things and actions.  As a socially motivated being, she coos and babbles in an attempt to become  a communicative partner.  When paired with a responsive adult, she learns the meaning of words and eventually tries them out on her own.  

This is the very beginning, the foundation of reading.  A skilled early childhood teacher creates a literacy enriched environment that can maximize her students' potential for language acquisition.  She listens to the children's conversations and imaginative play roles, and introduces words and opportunities for extending learning.  If children are playing doctor for example, the teacher can add props such as a stethoscope, band-aids, mini flashlight.  She can give the children a clipboard and notepad for prescriptions, maybe an eye chart or xrays.  She can transcribe the children's role-playing ideas and encourage them to dictate stories.  She can include books about doctor visits in the class library and read them at story time. She can invite a doctor to visit the class, and encourage children to ask questions.  

The doctor scenario is a rough outline of how children's play can be enriched to promote their emerging literacy skills.  Meaningful vocabulary, concepts, and experiences with print are naturally woven into the children's self-directed activities.  Early childhood teachers have an arsenal of such activities to promote every aspect of developmental learning, including math, science, social studies, art, music, and social-emotional skills.  Every corner of the classroom, and every minute of the day, is carefully and intentionally planned to promote learning that is fun, active, and appropriate to the students.

It might be important to point out what the teacher has not done.  She hasn't ignored the children's play.  She hasn't given the children worksheets, coloring sheets, or other two dimensional pencil and paper tasks.  She hasn't lectured, or followed up a book with closed-ended questions.  She hasn't limited the children's experiences to conform with what she knows and thinks.  She isn't "playing school", watering down elementary curriculum to fit younger children.

An early childhood teacher is more of a facilitator of learning than a source and sharer of knowledge.  Her work is thoroughly connected to the children's current interests and developmental levels. Children and teachers are collaborators in uncovering lessons from classroom experiences.  The rewards can be remarkable:  a timid child gaining confidence; a pre-reading child dictating a detailed story, a child who has learned to use scissors, grasp a pencil, write his name.  There are also many intangible rewards, which may be hard to see. But we know that it is in the early childhood classroom that children learn about respect, responsibility, kindness and compassion.

No one enters the field of early childhood education to make a lot of money.  Teaching young children is as much a calling as it is a job, and early childhood educators are among the most committed, caring, hard-working and talented folks around.  Learning looks different in the early years, and it takes a qualified professional to understand that.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Kids Are People Too

Growing up, my favorite show to watch on TV was The Little Rascals.  I have a whole repertoire of quotes from those short movies, and to this day love watching them.  The Little Rascals are independent, resilient, resourceful, and really funny kids.  They made me feel like being a kid wasn't a handicap.  After all, kids don't have the freedoms, rights, and choices of adults.  Kids can feel powerless in a confusing world.  But the Little Rascals were not helpless.  In their world, kids could do and be and have just about anything.

Happily for me, my grandchildren are also fans of The Little Rascals. (Unhappily for my children, they're also quoting some of their favorite lines.) We watch episodes on youtube, and the kids laugh so hard they sometimes fall off the couch.  Recently, we watched a newer, color movie version which happened to be really good.  There were several cameos of famous people, such as Whoopi Goldberg as Buckwheat's mother.  In one scene, Spanky and some of the kids pretended to be adults so they could apply for a bank loan to rebuild their clubhouse.  The banker was played by Mel Brooks, and of course he saw through their disguise immediately.  As a busy banker, he was impatient and dismissive with them, and Spanky said, "Hey mister, you can't talk to people like that.".  And Brooks yelled back, "You're not people, you're a kid!".

Few of us would be rude enough to make that statement in real life, but the truth is that many of us convey that exact message to kids non-verbally.  And they get it.  For example, many adults seem to think it's okay to use swear words or hold adult conversations in the presence of small children because they assume that the kids don't understand.  Wrong.  Children are highly attuned to our tone, facial expressions, and body language, and even if they don't have a grasp of all the vocabulary we use, they understand what we are communicating.  Anyone who has learned a second language knows that sometimes you can get the gist of a conversation without grasping all the words.  Children have strong, innate communicative abilities.  Underestimating those abilities is disrespectful.  

Children entering toddler and early childhood programs are not empty buckets waiting to be filled up with knowledge.  Even our youngest students bring with them a world of experiences and understandings.   Ask any mother how quickly the first year of life goes by --zoom!  And in that time, our children are gathering tons of information about their bodies, about the people and things in their surroundings, and about communication.   Developmentally appropriate practice, which is the professionally accepted approach to early childhood education, means using the developmental levels of our students as a starting point for teaching.   Lesson plans are based on the children's interests and personal experiences.  So, let's say a holiday is coming up and we want to learn and celebrate in class.  The first step is to find out what the children already know about the holiday, what experiences they've had with it, and then develop activities to extend their knowledge.  All learning is about making connections between new concepts and prior knowledge.

It's important to be every bit as thoughtful in talking to children as we are when speaking to adults. We may never know the full impact of our words.  Once, at the beginning of a new school year, a four year old boy said to me, "My teacher last year said I was a tzaddik "(righteous person).  I answered him, "You're still a tzaddik".  To me, it was a nothing conversation.  Days later, his mother repeated it word for word.  She said that another adult might have paid little attention to him " That's nice"; but that my words touched him deeply.  Wow.

It's important to treat children as our conversational equals.  This will:  1) demonstrate that their thoughts and feelings have value; 2) build their self-confidence; and 3) strengthen their own communication skills.  Of course children deserve to be treated with respect.  They're people too!!

Saturday, February 10, 2018


I always have a song in my head.  Sometimes it's annoying because I can't get rid of it, but mostly I'm used to it.  Anything I see or hear can trigger a song.  For example, the other day my grand-kids were playing with play-doh, and my three year old asked his brother for the "roller" (rolling pin).  Immediately, Jim Morrison started singing in my head, "You gotta roll, roll, roll, you gotta thrill my soul, all right."  Years ago, I woke up with a song in my head that I didn't recognize.  It was a Friday morning, and I was facing an extremely busy, hectic day.  After awhile, I stopped whatever I was doing to listen to my own head and try to identify the tune.  It was the theme song from "Mission Impossible"!!

Music is a universal language that connects us to the world physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I read somewhere that the reason music affects us physically is because we subconsciously relate it to the natural rhythms of our body:  our heartbeat, our breath, and our walking patterns.  Music can give us goose bumps, calm us, or literally get us on our feet.   It changes our moods and emotions.  It speaks to something deep within us.  I've relied on music to help me through some of the toughest times in my life.  The greatest support for my young, broken heart was Eric Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues".  I listened to it almost constantly for weeks.  When I lost my family daycare business years later, I played the Grateful Dead's "Touch of Gray" over and over to give me strength.  After my sister died, I turned to Eitan Katz's "Gam Ki Eilech", playing it for months.  In fact, I sang Neshama Carlebach’s versiĆ³n to her at her deathbed and later at her funeral.  

Music is a spiritual connector.  King David served G-d with music, and Jews continue to use many traditional tunes in prayers.  Gospel music and hymns are part of church services, and Christmas carols are an intrinsic part of the holiday.   Music stirs our souls and focuses us on our intentions during prayer.  It inspires us to something greater than ourselves.  Think about national anthems and how they can stir our feelings of patriotism.

They say that music makes children smart, and I believe that is true.  Calming music, like many classical pieces, causes our bodies to relax, making it easier for our minds  to concentrate.  Playing soft background music in class during independent or small group work time can set a calm and productive environment for learning.  And using music or rhythmic chants as teaching tools will practically guarantee sustained learning.  Our minds naturally look for order and patterns to make sense of the world around us, and these are plentiful in music.  To this day, I only know how many months are in a year if I recite a poem that I learned in elementary school (30 days hath September...).  And how about the spelling rule, "i before e....".  

Music is an incredible memory aid.  Certain songs have the power to bring us back to specific times in our lives.  Don't you remember the songs of your childhood?  Do you still know the words to your favorite songs?  What we learn through music stays with us. Interestingly, studies have shown the amazing effects that music can have on Alzheimers patients.  When these patients hear music that is personally meaningful to them, it taps into their deep memories.  At these times, they feel like themselves again, can converse, and stay present.   

Music is thought to be a "soft" subject and is often quick to be cut in schools where funding is low.  But since the beginning of time, music has been an essential part of our human experience.  It's rhythms, patterns, and harmonies are closely correlated to mathematics, and make learning more accessible.  Music improves listening skills, attention skills and memory.  It  brings us peace and connects our inner selves to a higher power.  Play your favorite music often, and make sure to share it with your children.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Early Childhood Education: A Plea From The Field

Eighty percent of a child's brain development takes place by age three.  Early childhood, which is defined as birth through age eight, is the optimal time of life for building cognitive and social skills.  Teachers and parents can deliberately influence their children's intellectual and social development by creating rich learning environments.  When we combine an understanding of general child development with what we know about the particular temperaments and character traits of individual children, we can manipulate the physical, social, emotional and mental environments and capitalize on children’s readiness to learn.  Clearly, the most important element in this formidable task is the human one; the adults who interact with the child on a daily basis. So to a large extent, the present and future success of young children depends on the knowledge and commitment of their parents and teachers.

Why then are early childhood teachers the lowest paid and least respected in the field of education?  Unfortunately, few people  understand what early childhood education is all about.  Some consider it glorified babysitting that practically any warm body can do well.  Upsetting to me personally are the schools that do not hire professional teachers for their young students. These schools feed into and encourage this misconception.  At this most vulnerable time of life, children deserve well-educated and highly qualified teachers.  I know from experience that teaching preschool is just as complex, demanding, and important as teaching high school. 

What makes a quality early childhood teacher?  Someone with both good instincts and a good educational background.  Someone who grew up with a knack for interacting with young children, maybe working as a babysitter or camp counselor.  Someone who majored in education in college and took courses in developmental psychology, educational philosophy, and pedagogy.  A qualified early childhood educator would have completed a practicum or semester of student teaching.  She would be committed to ongoing professional development throughout her career.  She is someone who understands the range of child development.   She adapts the curriculum to each new class, as well as differentiates instruction according to the needs of individual students.  She identifies at-risk children and children with special needs and she advocates for best practice for all of her students.  ( I purposely used the feminine pronoun because the majority of early childhood teachers are female.  There is a real need for men to join this profession.)

A college background in education gives teachers a rich vocabulary and a grounding in academic subject areas.  Well qualified early childhood teachers tap into children's curiosity and current developmental levels to maximize and extend learning.  They know how children learn and see to it that lessons are active, hands-on, and primarily directed by the children themselves. Their classrooms are lively laboratories of  child exploration and experimentation, where learning is visible and expressed in multiple ways. Interestingly, the older grades are beginning to catch on to the value of early childhood practices.  Elementary and secondary school teachers are learning the benefits of active learning, project based learning, differentiated instruction, and teaching the whole child.  These educational approaches work for every age, and have been employed by early childhood teachers for decades.

Long term studies have demonstrated the lasting effects of quality early childhood education on adults, with higher rates of graduation and income.  Psychologically, we know that our adult behaviors have their roots in our early childhood experiences.  Young children are susceptible to the environments that we create.  They deserve the best teachers:  teachers who are well trained, well paid, and respected for the awesome work that they do.