ARTICLE Paradigm Shifters Start Shifting

It’s called the Hub, and true to its name, it’s become a virtual meeting point for Jewish Early Childhood educators looking to share ideas, camaraderie, and support.

Here on its user-generated, members-only Facebook page is everything from how to design a sensory table for two-year olds learning about Havdalah, to a discussion about creating a collaborative school culture that values Jewish Early Childhood Education (JECE).

The Hub is just one interactive manifestation of The Paradigm Project, an ambitious initiative that is engaging, equipping and empowering Jewish Early Childhood educators on the one hand, and by virtue of its existence, elevating the field on the other. On both counts, it is filling a need that is increasingly urgent.

“Children’s development in the early years is rapid and dramatic,” said Anna Hartman, Director of The Paradigm Project and one of its founders. “Just as they are growing during this period, so too are their families. And if families are exposed to a quality program, it opens their eyes to the possibilities of Jewish engagement and identity, especially if they have a neutral view of Jewish community and practice to begin with.

“If we can introduce, inspire or excite them through Judaism and meaningful education at that early point, then they have potential to be part of Jewish life very long term and it can transform the whole community.”

Often overlooked within education, viewed by some as organized babysitting, Early Childhood Education is beginning to garner the attention it deserves. Its value and priority on the secular side gets mentioned in State of the Union addresses, is being discussed in the presidential campaign, and municipalities are establishing guaranteed pre-K programs for families.

Advancing the Jewish take on all of this, The Paradigm Project was established just four years ago. It is the initiative of a small group of visionary and young Jewish Early Childhood Educators who recognized the importance of their work to children, families and community, but who felt generally constrained, even frustrated, by lack of Jewish communal support or attention to the field.

The founding group members were all alumni of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative Fellowship – supported by The Covenant Foundation – and emerged from it dedicated to creating a movement that would earn recognition for - and bolster - JECE.

What emerged is a robust and growing group of JECE educators leveraging the power of social media, specialized communities of practice, expert coaching and in-person conferences to redefine and refuel the field for the 21st century.

It is a group married to the notion of egalitarian, grassroots energy pushing ideas, forward-thinking pedagogies, and impact - the antithesis of a top-down hierarchy that founders believe would have squashed an emerging field, rather than nourishing it.

“In the absence of something, you create something,”said Ellen Dietrick, Director of Early Childhood Learning at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, and one of The Paradigm Project’s founders.

“As Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative Fellows, we had an experience that was transformational for us. We wanted to give that to other educators. No other platform existed for us. We created our own with our own stamp, approach and energy.”

That 21st century entrepreneurial spirit is driving this group to disrupt more traditional approaches to building and sustaining JECE and give it its place on the Jewish communal table.

By plugging powerfully into the connectivity of social media, for example, teachers who may be the sole advocates for JECE in their schools - isolated organizationally and even geographically - find common purpose. Sharing in and contributing to such channels as The Hub, and even Pinterest, JECE teachers are creating home and community.

Take Amy Meltzer, for example. The 2015 Covenant Award recipient, who teaches kindergarten at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA, is the only JECE teacher at her school and only two other JECE classrooms are within about a 60-mile radius. Active participation in The Paradigm Project has shattered a sense that she is going it alone, she said.

“I’ve been figuring things out all by myself,” she said, “so just being part of Facebook conversations alone and engaging in topics there is huge for me. It gives me exposures that are not available to me as a teacher in a small community. My practice is exponentially better when I can reflect in conversation with others.”

This very real and tangible sense of connection – this culture of sharing and support – that is facilitated by The Paradigm Project is proof positive that this sector of Jewish education is hungry, the Project’s founders said

In fact, teachers connected to the initiative are dubbed as “Paradigm Shifters,” emboldened through connection to stamp legitimacy, stature, and pride on the field.

“As we share our work and learn from each other, we are becoming advocates for the dignity and importance of our work,” said Hartman, a recipient of The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize for leadership and potential as a young Jewish educator. “The image of high-quality JECE is taking hold and spreading.”

The Paradigm Project convened its second, multi-day national conference for JECE teachers earlier this year near Washington, DC. The conference attracted 160 participants representing 84 schools from throughout 20 states.

The multiplying effect is huge. Knowledge, insights and approaches discussed and shared there continue to reach untold numbers of educators as participants, once home, spread the wealth with colleagues and inject their institutions with new focus and attention to JECE.

Jenna Kalkman-Turner, Director of Early Childhood Education at the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center near Milwaukee, said the influence of The Paradigm Project had infused nearly 75 educators there from the trickle-down effect of her active participation.

“We see lots of change at the JCC because of it,” she said. “Lay and executive leadership are giving us more of a platform, our educators are not seeing themselves so much in a vacuum, and lots of conversations are being started and continued here.”

With two major grants from The Covenant Foundation to support its establishment and work, and support from other Jewish organizations, as well, founders believe that the impact The Paradigm Project is having on JECE practices is getting noticed and being given weight.

“Our orientation is toward change,” Hartman said.“We are impatient in our desire to take agency, ownership and control and move forward. This is what propels us as a network. There is an opportunity to elevate this field and do even more incredible work and so we want to just do it and get it done.”

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