Taking a Deep Dive to Make the Implicit Explicit
By Regina and Andrea Lulka
How do our families, children and faculty engage with diverse groups of people in our Jewish schools and communities?
How can we, as educators, develop critical consciousness and an anti-bias, anti-racist outlook to cultivate informed, responsible and engaged young people willing and able to build a better future?
How can we be co-creators in this work?
There are, of course, no simple answers, and this work is ever evolving. There is much to learn and much to do, every day, as we work with grace and integrity, collaborating to do the big work and to make a difference.
Taking part in the Prizmah Race and School Culture series and coming together with other educators was both a privilege and an opportunity. Led by experts in the field, the sessions were informative, stimulating, thought-provoking and inspiring. Through breakout sessions we learned from others while engaging in introspection as we shared our own experiences.
Our small committee of eager participants met after every session and have continued to do so. We clarify for ourselves where we stand and what we aspire to as a community. We have come to realize and appreciate that we already have a strong foundation on which to build; we seek to expand upon that foundation by making the implicit explicit.
Our mission statement is a good start: “The Montessori Jewish Day School will inspire a lifetime love and excitement for learning in an environment that fosters a respect for oneself, for the community and for the world.” We are guided by Dr. Montessori, and her belief that “an education capable of saving humanity is no small undertaking; it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.”
As we started to explore formalizing and making the work we already do in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) explicit, we started by reviewing our guiding principles:
MJDS is an inclusive, pluralistic, egalitarian school dedicated to instilling respect for the individual and for the community. MJDS provides an engaging Jewish educational experience that embraces the diversity of Jewish practice, integrates Hebrew, and responds to a child’s natural search for spiritual and intellectual growth.
Who We Are
Our community is one of intentional intersectionality. In every classroom, Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israeli teachers work on Judaic and Hebrew language studies alongside Montessori guides, most of whom are not Jewish and are people of color. This presents unique challenges and opportunities. We have an ethnically, racially and religiously diverse faculty whose proud sharing of their culture, celebrations, and history with the children and each other is always welcome. Consulting them as we grow in this work validates their experience.
While our families are all Jewish, we have never been a homogeneous community. Families hail from diverse national, ethnic and racial backgrounds, have diverse makeups, and are always invited to share their customs and traditions. We are very proud of the neurodiversity present in our community, where every person is embraced for who they are.
What We Do
As a Montessori and a Jewish school we espouse shared values and principles, such respect and care for the earth and for each other, leading to sustainability and social justice. We have an open, adaptive curriculum that emphasizes social service, community work and connection to the local and world communities. As we celebrate the diversity in our community, the concept of mirrors, windows and sliding doors is also interwoven in our work: mirrors on which the children see themselves reflected, windows that give them glimpses into the lives and experiences of others in diverse communities, and sliding doors that allow children to immerse themselves in a range of different perspectives.
What We Know
We know that everyone learns better through relationships and caring, warm interactions. Montessori pedagogy is essentially a hands-on, developmental approach that enables the learners, and the adults that guide them, to make and derive meaning.
Beginning with Children
While keeping the board of directors abreast of the work that is to come, we made a conscious decision to start where we always start: with the children.
From a very young age, children are aware of racial, gender, physical and cultural differences. According to our pedagogical context and our experience, children can obtain the clearest understanding of abstract concepts and social constructs when they can relate to them through concrete experiences. As they get older they can manage a more complex understanding of interrelationships and interdependencies, which supports the exploration concepts of positionality and intersectionality.
In serving children from 18 months to grade 8, we tailor our approach and the content presented to each age group. We start with what children know, what is concrete and real, as the older children go on to learning and discussing abstract concepts of social justice, equity, sustainability and activism.
Across the school, this year we chose to deepen our learning and enhance our celebration of Jewish holidays through the lens of Global Jews and Black and Indigenous People of Color. Our emphasis is on the positive: culture, celebrations, contributions. Rather than “othering” differences we seek commonalities.
As experiential learners, toddlers enjoy a variety of books depicting children around the world.
At ages 3 to 6, children are presented with a range of books and images with diverse representation, including different kinds of families. They use the Montessori puzzle maps to place and identify where people around the world live, what they eat, what animals they see and how climate and geography impact everything. They were fascinated to learn that skin tone is determined by melanin and enthralled by videos of children dancing in the Momahill Montessori School in Lagos. The children were intrigued by the commonalities in the celebration of the Lunar New Year in China and Rosh HaShanah. They also enjoyed seeing the preparation of huevos haminados, Sephardic eggs, which they then got to enjoy.
At 6 to 9, the children researched the richness of Passover customs around the world. They then showcased their new knowledge during our online community celebration.
Led by one of our Black educators, they were immersed in the study of Africa, looking at contemporary culture as well as geographic zones. Their natural curiosity was fostered through honest discussions about concrete materialities such as skin tone, hair texture and styles as well as about thoughts and feelings around race.
Children ages 9 to 12 have been learning about Jews in Ethiopia, Uganda and India through cultural research, music arts and crafts. Their exploration included connecting to the agricultural nature of Shavuot through creating their own plant based pigments to use in the Indian art of Rangoli.
We have begun formal DEI work based on a Canadian resource: Choose Your Voice. Students learn about and speak out against racism, anti-Semitism, oppression and intolerance. Inspired by the poetry and style of Amanda Gorman, the children were interested in her early years and admired her strength in overcoming obstacles. This work extended to learning about the work of other Black women and their roles in society. The conversation turned to the contribution of Annamie Paul, the first Black Jewish woman to lead a political party in Canada, and culminated in inviting her to meet with their class.
Initial work with our faculty, Board of Directors and parents
Adult continuing education has always been a strong focus for us. Parents have been invited to share and learn through many of the activities described above and are kept informed of the activities in the classrooms.
Our staff have been watching and discussing webinars presented by anti-racist and anti-oppression educators. They are creating a working group that will focus on continuing to make the implicit more explicit.
We have invited Canadian diversity advocate Tema Smith to start us off on cross-cultural conversations about racially diverse Judaism, inclusion, social justice and intersectional work on identity, first with the staff and then by the board of directors and parents.
Our school community has always been proudly diverse, and our ethos is one of inclusion. We are committed and excited to actively engage, draw out and make explicit those implicit qualities. We know that by doing so we will reveal our own biases and blindspots, and can then work to realize the full vision of who we are as a Jewish and Montessori school. We aspire to sharing our learnings and experiences, and we look forward to collaborating with others on this challenging and essential project.
3-6 year old children making connections between the puzzle map of the planisphere and children in the Montessori school in Lagos Nigeria dancing in celebration.
An 8 year old child creates a plasticine map of Africa to consolidate his learning.
Hands on exploration and detailed work on the map of Africa by a 7 year old child.
A nine your old child’s completed study map of Africa.