Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ashalim: We Are All Children

I stepped off the bus and through a bright yellow gate that led to a sunny, colorful courtyard. To my left there were patches of magenta and purple flowers and to my right, beyond the fragmented stone walk I saw half a tire waiting to be jumped on, some bright pink creaky swings, a large plastic truck with oversized wheels, and a cute little table covered with piles of cookies and juice. Through the window of the carefully painted plaster walls I could hear the unmistakable chatter and hum of little voices, happily playing and shouting. As I stepped over the slightly raised frame of the one room building’s door I was greeted by more delighted screams and a quick blur of pink sweatpants chased by a light brown ponytail clipped up by a blue plastic bow. Once all of us had gathered, the thirty or so children broke into such a delightful and cheery song that smiles instantly sprung up in rapid succession throughout our circle of onlookers. They were singing us a greeting and welcome, complete with careful hand motions and tushy shakes. As one little guy twirled his hand in the air on cue he crashed into the chocolate skinned child to his side, causing his little black hat to fall to the floor. With little pudgy hands he quickly swept the embroidered velvet back onto his head and grinned as he spun around. The chocolate skinned child’s smile shone back as they grabbed each other’s shoulders and swayed to the rhythm of the song.  After the song ended to a thunderous applause the children scattered around the room, choosing to either paint, play house, work with clay, eat breakfast, color, or put together a puzzle. A small group were ushered into an adjacent room where they invented their very own life-size game board and began to practice their literacy skills.

The magic of this visit is that I could have been describing either one of the two vibrant, progressive kindergarten programs I had the privilege to visit last week as part of a Next Gen Young Professionals trip organized by JDC. One of the sites was a PACT (Parents and Children Together) room, JDC’s Ethiopian Immigrant program focusing on early childhood education. The other was an ECHAD (Early Childhood Achievement and Development) room, a similar JDC program that focuses on Arab Israeli youth. 

In both these initiatives the goal is one in the same: to provide the best possible academic foundation for EVERY Israeli child. I walked around each room, marveling at displays of creative learning all around. There were interactive centers, paintings and literacy projects on the wall, baskets and baskets of foam, tissue paper, marbles, beads, ribbons, stencils, cones, dice, tops, paper dolls, yearn, buttons, and clay. Learning through music and dance, literacy through song. Hand motions and patterns, firm but very warm educators. In both places I could tell the focus was the child, from their emotions to cultural development to number sense to phonics skills--it was all there. Regardless of language, religion, race, or culture—every child is precious and deserves the same opportunities to grow and blossom. And through these initiatives, whole communities have the chance for a better future because of the education their children are getting. A child is a child is a child, and these wonderful programs are proof of the gains that can be made when one considers the potential of each smiling face.

A morning song from Arab-Israeli Kindergarteners.
A morning song from Ethiopian and Israeli Kindergarteners.

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