Voices writer Smadar Goldstein, an online educator based in Jerusalem, has taught in over 20 schools on three continents. Her earlier Voices posts look at aspects of distance learning: How I Engage Students and Closer Than It Looks.

Gan Ilana

by Smadar Goldstein

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher is amazing. I have four children, and all of them attended the kindergarten of “Gan Ilana.” Israeli kindergartens are named by the first name of the teacher (Gan = kindergarten in Hebrew, and the teacher’s name is Ilana). My children have extremely different personalities, and with each one, I wondered “will Ilana be able to pull this off?” Will child #4 be as excited about her kindergarten as child 1, 2 and 3?

I’m happy to report that Ilana was successful every time. I’ve grown to respect her educational prowess a great deal, and more than that, I began to wonder: how can I mimic her fabulous teaching methods and tools in distance learning environment? I categorized what I thought some of her successes were, then reflected on how they could be transferred to my online teaching.

1. Include some big learning events.

Ilana always has a BIG EVENT planned. Furniture building, Seashell Collections, birthday and holiday parties, school trips. The children work on these activities both in groups, and individually, and they speak about it before, during and after the event. The excitement is palpable from day 1 of kindergarten to the last.

Online application: Why can’t we have memorable online events? I taught an online class called Contemporary Jewish Issues to 15 ninth graders in a Los Angeles Jewish high school a few years ago. I’d been teaching online enrichment classes for 8 years, always once or twice a week, with good results. But this school asked for daily synchronous classes. Boy, was I nervous. How would I maintain their interest? Wouldn’t they get sick of learning online every day?

Then I thought of Ilana and her kindergarten events. We could have events, too. I began the year with a project studying Land for Peace. After giving a few historical examples, each student had to research their own episode in Israeli history and present it to the class during an “event.” After that, we did a project on Jewish Medical Ethics, then another and another. This type of project-based, event-focused learning demanded participation and creativity from the students, heightened engagement, and gave us all days to look forward to.

2. Keep moving!

Ilana loves Israeli dancing, a popular pastime for many different ages and groups in Israel. She loves it so much that she teaches her kindergartners a variety of Israeli songs and involves them in dancing every week. When I came to visit her kindergarten before my first child, a boy, was due to attend, I told her, “That’s very sweet, but my son will never dance. He’s not that kind of kid.” Ilana smiled at me and said, “I’ve never had a boy who doesn’t dance. Maybe in the beginning of the year, they are reluctant, but by the middle, they all dance.” You’ll see,” she said confidently with a flick of her long blond hair.

I was extremely skeptical. My son, dance? Are you kidding? But, Ilana was right. By October, my son was dancing in circles, spinning and clapping his hands on cue along with the others (maybe with a head butt or two in between).

Online: How can I replicate this experience in an online environment? Part of me says “Are you crazy? You can’t.” Then I realize that I’m already replicating the idea behind Israeli dancing: Movement. Changing styles and directions. Keep up an active pace. In my online classes, my kids may not do a lot of physical movement (they are often attached to a headset and looking at a web camera), but during our learning activities, we do “keep moving” by shifting styles and directions.

As we go from Lino Boards to wikis to group debate and discussions to chatting to using emoticons, vokis, voting and watching short educational videos, we perform our own choreographed online dance. And, I venture to say, even my male students enjoy this type of dance. (I should mention that when I teach younger students in a group, we usually play charades, or act out skits, so they move, too).

3. Teach with Passion

My daughter Aderet, myself, and Ilana

There is an old Jewish adage that you must live up to your potential — an idea found in Hassidic stories like Zusia, Why Weren’t You Zusia?. I believe Ilana was 100% intended to be a master kindergarten teacher. Her whole personality exudes the qualities necessary to organize, educate and encourage young social learning. She is passionate about what she does and how she does it. Her ability to challenge herself to stimulate her young students, develop their skills and help them learn to deal with struggles, come naturally to her. Her students thrive under her care and many absorb the concept of living a passionate, fulfilled life.

Online: In an online setting, it may seem difficult or impossible to convey a lot of passion and intensity at great physical differences. But we really must strive to achieve that goal. I enjoy being an educator. I love what I do. I believe in myself and in my profession. I let the passion I feel about who I am and what I do flow out over the wires to my students. It is easy to energize others when you are energized yourself.

4. Be Empathetic.

Ilana really understands what it’s like to be a five year old. The quarrels they have, what’s important to them, what they need intellectually, physically and emotionally. (She is particularly good at not stifling them — you rarely see her hug or kiss a child without receiving their permission to do so.) She has genuine empathy that helps guide her teaching practice.

Online: In graduate school, a professor once asked us: How will you know what it’s like to be a student if you aren’t enrolled in a course? How do you know what students are going through or how best to stimulate them to learn? A good teacher, he said, has to be a student.

I engage in online professional development opportunities, and take courses whenever I can. Never has this been easier than with the advent of the internet and social media. Powerful Learning Practice, Edutopia, CEET Network, and many others in my PLN (Personal Learning Network) allow me to learn from them and share with others via Twitter, blogging, Facebook and more. There are endless sources of people and networks that allow us to share our educational passions and helpful pointers. As we share our stories about our students’ lives and learning, we strengthen our empathy for our students and develop better educational programs for them.

I’m thankful for all I learned in kindergarten

I am eternally grateful to Ilana. This past June, the youngest of my four children ‘graduated’ from her class. I cried when I hugged her goodbye. She helped me raise my kids, encouraged me to point out their strengths and offered extremely helpful advice with their troubles. Not only did she help me raise my children, but she inadvertently modeled outstanding tips to educators everywhere. I’ve been able to share some of them with you.

Thanks to this wonderful kindergarten teacher, I’m better able to engage my online students, who hopefully will be as excited to log on to our virtual classroom as my children have been to skip through the gates of Gan Ilana.

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Smadar Goldstein

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