Instead of bringing home a Gucci handbag or a recipe for great risotto, Esther Elfenbaum returned from Italy with a host of bright, new ideas that could transform preschools as we know them.
Elfenbaum, head consultant for early childhood education at the Bureau of Jewish Education, was sent to the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia to study a school system that has been the talk of the educational community.
Ever since Newsweek proclaimed the city-run Reggio Emilia early childhood centers the world's best, educators from all over the world (including delegates from Israel's Ministry of Education) have been flocking to Italy to see what all the excitement is about.
The Reggio Emilia system, which has been evolving since the end of World War II, is based on a belief that young children are creative and intelligent.
In their classrooms (where they commonly have the same teacher for three years), they are often divided into small teams to explore in depth the ideas that interest them.
The system encourages debate, experiment and self-expression, leading to creative projects of the children's own design.
Elfenbaum watched youngsters use drawing and art materials to explore bicycle gears and the symphony orchestra; she saw an elaborate amusement park for birds that one classroom team had devised.
The Reggio Emilia schools are housed in beautiful, airy buildings that, says Elfenbaum, "give a message of how valued children are."
She admits that if the Reggio Emilia ideas are to be implemented in Los Angeles preschools, it will not be easy to replicate the aesthetic conditions she found in Italy.
Still, a number of directors at BJE early childhood centers have been meeting with Elfenbaum, striving to apply what she's learned to their own classrooms.
Dafna Presnell of Stephen S. Wise is one director who has already borrowed Reggio Emilia-style concepts to teach young children Judaica. The Stephen S. Wise "windows" project has proved to be a creative way for teachers to make Israel an ongoing part of their students' classroom experience.
According to Elfenbaum, preschool teachers across Los Angeles are "very excited" about jumping on the Reggio Emilia bandwagon: "They just need to know where to start." -- Beverly Gray, Education Editor
Teen Teacher Corps
In the summer of 1991, Sarah Tuttle-Singer spent eight weeks in Israel on the Los Angeles Ulpan Program for high school students. It was her parents' idea; at first, she wasn't sure she wanted to go. But that soon changed. Sarah now says, "I've fallen in love with Israel."
To keep teens such as Sarah connected with their new passion for Israel and the Jewish people, the Bureau of Jewish Education has devised its Teen Teacher Corps. For the past several years, teens who spend at least four weeks in a sanctioned Israel program have been returning to subsidized jobs as assistant teachers in the religious schools of their home synagogues.
During the past school year, Sarah assisted the fourth-grade class at Temple Akiba in Culver City. Thanks to a BJE subsidy on top of a Temple Akiba stipend, she earned $7.50 per session, and had the opportunity to share with youngsters her Israel experience. Now a senior, she looks forward to working at Temple Akiba again.
The BJE requires the teen teachers to attend three seminars, taught by some of Los Angeles' best Jewish educators, during the school year. Subjects range from practical advice on coping in the classroom to the exploration of one's personal Jewish identity. The seminars also provide a good chance for local teens of different backgrounds to meet and schmooze about their Israel adventures.
Arlene Agress, director of programs for the BJE, says, "This is a way to encourage [the teen teachers] to get into Jewish education and Jewish social work, because the community so badly needs them."
The program is currently in place at a variety of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues throughout the Southland. Last year, 42 teens participated, and the number is expected to increase in 1998-99.
High school students returning from Israel who are interested in getting involved should call Lori Strauss, the BJE's Israel and special teen programs coordinator, at (818) 464-3392. -- Beverly Gray, Education Editor