Imagine a classroom where a cluster of three-year-olds mix colorful liquids at a potion station, while others play with robotic modules or experiment with construction materials at the invention table. A shelf of journey binders lines the wall, with photos of each child, samples of their classroom creations and teachers’ written observations about their growth and learning, for parents to peruse as they wish. There is no waiting for recess to get fresh air, as the classroom extends into the outdoors, with opportunities to garden, paint or play musical instruments outside throughout the day.
After dismissal, the teachers don’t pack their bags and head out. Instead, they sit together for an hour, reflecting on the day and what they might do differently tomorrow.
This is the sort of classroom that Diana Ganger dreams about, and is trying to make a reality within the Jewish community’s constellation of early childhood centers based in synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and day schools. As a school leader (director of the Moriah Early Childhood Center in Deerfield, Illinois), program director (at the influential though short-lived Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, or JECEI) and, now, independent consultant to communities and educators across the country, Ganger, a 2008 Covenant Award Recipient, has devoted her career to shifting the thinking around how the Jewish community welcomes families with young children.
While many institutions are inclined to treat early learning programs as a cash cow, generating funding to cover other expenses, Ganger sees them as a cornerstone of Jewish life, worthy of continual investment and deep consideration in their own right.
“This is not just about early childhood,” Ganger said. “This is the entry for families as they build their Jewish identity. It’s the first Jewish experience for many parents, after maybe having traumatic experiences growing up.”
By breathing new life into early childhood education and creating schools “that really embrace the whole family,” she said, “we can change how Judaism is lived in this country.”
Ganger traces her approach to her training as a social worker and her upbringing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, famous for its outsized population of psychologists and recognition, as a culture, that everyone could use a good therapist.
“You need to have a certain understanding of yourself before you can go out there and connect with others,” she said.
Ganger’s perspective was further shaped by her own two children’s earliest classroom experiences, first in St. Louis, Missouri, then in Chicago, where she still lives.
At one preschool, parents could peer into their children’s classroom through a one-way mirror -- an incredible way, she marveled, to bring parents into the fold without disrupting their kids’ classroom experience.
At another school, she requested to meet with the principal after seeing something that concerned her. She was told she’d need to wait a month -- a red flag, signaling the school wasn’t interested in what parents had to say.
Ganger loved the warm, nurturing feel of a third school. But she sensed that the teachers were burned out, and learned that they weren’t getting the training or development that all teachers need. “A culture of listening was not in place,” she added.
And so, when Ganger was offered a job as a teacher and assistant director at Moriah, she pounced. She stayed for two decades, including 18 years as director.
“The conversation at that time was only about children,” she said. “There wasn’t an understanding of the fact that children are embedded in families. To me, the family became the client. It was very important to begin to create and empower families to be a big part of the system.”
Ganger also sought to “transform the role of teacher,” from top-down instructor to facilitator of children’s innate interests and curiosities. “We need to change the way we listen, the way we connect, the way we observe,” she said.
In 1991, Ganger read a Newsweek article about Italy’s innovative Reggio Emilia schools, where classwork is organized around themes and projects, and where highly attuned teachers and parent volunteers recognize and nurture children’s differences. “A school needs to be a place for all children," as the schools’ longtime director put it, "not based on the idea that they're all the same, but that they're all different."
For Ganger, something clicked. “I thought, ‘This is it,’” she said. “This is my language.”
Ganger began thinking about ways to meld the Reggio Emilia approach with Jewish concepts. She developed a set of “lenses” through which early childhood centers might consider every aspect of their work: Masa (journey), representing reflection, return and renewal; B’rit (Covenant), representing belonging and commitment;
Tzelem Elohim (Divine Image), representing dignity and potential; K’dusha (Holiness), representing intentionality and presence; Hit’orerut (Awakening), representing amazement and gratitude; D’rash (Interpretation), representing inquiry, dialogue, and transmission; and Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World), representing responsibility.
The lenses are a way to achieve what Ganger calls “seamless Judaism,” saying, “Judaism needs to be lived. It’s not about, ‘now we’re doing something Jewish, now we’re not.’”
Similarly, Ganger warns against regimented block scheduling. If a music teacher comes into a classroom and some children are so immersed in their activities that they don’t want to switch gears, she believes they shouldn’t have to. Or what about carving off a couple of hours on Fridays for teachers to transform their classrooms into immersive experiences devoted to cooking, or science, or theater -- and giving children the freedom to choose where they go?
“It’s empowering children to know how to make a choice and giving them time to linger in an experience that they find interesting, and it’s allowing the teachers to use their strengths to offer things that excite them,” Ganger said. “One of the big ideas about Shabbat is that it’s a day when you linger, a different day. This goes perfectly with that.”
“Children need time to process, to problem solve, to create, to imagine, and it takes an unrushed environment to be able to get there,” she said.
Beyond the challenges of creating such an environment, schools must bring on board a generation of parents riddled with anxiety about their children’s place in a fiercely competitive world.
“We need to take the parents away from the whole concept of academics to the concept of intellectual development, and that school is for life, school is not for the next grade,” Ganger said. “There’s an anxiety to put children in all kinds of learning opportunities that in the end do exactly the opposite. They need time to create, they need time to be, they need time to explore. Parents want to do what they think is best, and in the end they’re stealing childhood away from their children.”
In recent years, Ganger has seen Jewish early childhood centers across the country struggle to meet parents’ childcare needs by offering extended hours or taking younger and younger children.
“I’ve seen this happening everywhere,” she said. “Parents need it. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? That’s a good question. It’s a great thing when it’s done right.”
Doing it right, of course, is even trickier when the day is longer and resources are stretched to accommodate the unceasing demands of infants. And then there’s the issue that, Ganger said, causes her “huge anxiety”: teacher pay, which may drive potential superstars away from the field.
“We need to wake up,” she said.
Still, if she were given a single question to understand a school, it would not be about teacher’s paychecks, but about the time they spend in meetings with colleagues, supervisors and coaches, reflecting upon and honing their craft.
“Most schools do not have the money or the understanding that in order for teachers to be really present, they need to have time to move away from the work and reflect,” she said. “Look at Google. Twenty percent of Google employees’ time is spent sitting down and creating and playing with things and inventing and dreaming.”
These days, Ganger spends much of her time coaching school directors, mentoring emerging leaders in the field and building a national network of excellent coaches in partnership with the Paradigm Project, whose mission is “to multiply, nurture and network the seeds of excellence in Jewish early childhood education.”
“I believe in mentoring the future of this field,” she said. “That will be the group that takes it further.”
In her coaching and consulting work, Ganger makes clear that she doesn’t have all of the answers. Which is precisely the point.
“I’m hoping that schools will understand themselves as places for experimentation and learning, that people will try things and take risks,” she said. “I’m hoping that they will embrace not knowing, and not having to know everything.”