By Ilana Ruskay-Kidd

There are moments when I get a clear reminder of what it is that we are all doing at Shefa, when the lens zooms out and suddenly the forest emerges from the trees! Yesterday morning, I had one such experience. I was observing one of our teachers teaching a writing lesson to our Nitzanim (1st/2nd grade) students. These particular students all began at the Shefa School this September. These students arrived with minimal reading and writing skills and already quite a bit of negative school experience given their young age. As their teachers often joke, everything they teach feels like it is being taught for the first time to this group! The teachers began the year with the task of creating a new culture, as it was a new group of students to our school and our first time serving 1st graders. In the beginning, this classroom felt, in many ways, like an early childhood classroom. The teachers needed to explicitly teach the children how we work as a community, how we participate and engage in conversation as a class, how we raise our hands, sit at our desks, and line up – so many routines had to be established.  We also had to establish a culture within our classroom where our students would feel able to take risks, receive feedback and feel comfortable in the world of written letters and words.

But as I sat in the Nitzanim classroom yesterday, all of this hard work was seamlessly baked into the core of the culture. As I arrived, the students were completing a “brain break,” in which they moved their little bodies through a dance routine as a transition to the difficult work ahead, and then they quickly returned to their desks. The writing lesson began with the teacher’s asking, “why is it useful to expand our sentences?” Immediately hands shot up and the students answered, “to make them longer,” “to make them better,” and “to make them more interesting.” The lesson proceeded with the students’ talking about ways one can expand a sentence by incorporating the answers to questions like who, what, when and why. The students easily added detail to the sentences they read on the smartboard, connecting sentence fragments to create more complex sentences and discussing the relative merits of a variety of ways one might construct a sentence. Then, the teacher put up a passage on the smartboard. It was about 18 sentences long, and I gasped thinking to myself, “This is too long! Won’t our students be overwhelmed by all this text?” I looked around the room at the children’s expressions and noticed that they did not seem stressed. To my surprise and delight, when the teacher asked, “Would anyone like to read the first two lines?” the entire class raised their hands! Sure enough, our students confidently moved through this long passage, taking turns, answering questions that communicated their comprehension, and making minimal errors as they read.

While I see our students at work each day, taking the steps that are required to evolve as confident readers, writers and students, there are also those moments when I have the privilege to see it all come together! I had chills as I looked at each of these young faces and realized what it means for each of these children to have entered the world of print – to have begun to crack the code, to know that sounds are connected to symbols, and to grasp some predictable patterns that can be used to decipher our complex English language. I felt privileged to witness this gifted set of teachers and their amazing students working together on this monumental journey.

As parents and as educators, we see our children every day, and sometimes it is hard to see the small steps that our children take. And then, when they go away to sleepaway camp or on a school break – or sometimes one morning when they simply walk into our kitchens – we recognize that they seem more grown up, more mature, perhaps suddenly taller. When our children are struggling, sometimes it is hard to remember that these baby steps will indeed take our children slowly along their journey. It is our job as parents and as educators to hold the faith that they will continue to take steps forward and to cheer them on, assisting when necessary, but also to give them space to try and sometimes to falter along the road.

At this time of year, as the flowers literally bloom in front of us, it is a great privilege to watch our children in full bloom, as well.

Ilana has been serving the Jewish educational community in New York City in multiple capacities for the past fifteen years. She is the Founder and Head of the Shefa School, a pluralistic Jewish day school that serves children with language-based learning disabilities. Before founding the Shefa School, she served as the Director of The Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School at the JCC in Manhattan. Prior to being named to this position in 2006, she worked at the JCC as Director of Young Families and then as Senior Director of Family Life, supervising programs serving families and children from birth to eighteen years old. Ilana began her teaching career at the Central Park East school in Harlem and went on to become a founding teacher at the Ella Baker School, an alternative public school in Manhattan. She then worked as an Early Childhood Curriculum Consultant for the Children’s Aid Society where she developed curricula with directors and teachers in day care, Head Start and private nursery school programs throughout the city.

Ilana received her B.A. from Harvard College and a Master’s Degree in Education from Bank Street College. She was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now lives there with her husband and three children. Ilana was a recipient of the Covenant Award in 2016.

This article was originally posted in the Shefa School newsletter. It is shared with the author’s permission.