Yonah Kirschner

Educator Spotlight: Teaching Tzedakah at Dunkin' Donuts with Katie Shea

Katie Shea was raised in Central Massachusetts in a home that was open to 100 + foster babies, gifting Katie with a passion for early childhood education. Katie has been teaching for over 10 years and earned her undergraduate degree from the Hartt School in music education and voice. She graduated from Bank Street College with Master’s degrees in Early Intervention, Infant and Family Development, and Early Childhood Special and General Education. Katie works at The Brotherhood Synagogue in New York City as 3s head teacher and music specialist.

When did you realize you wanted to work in education?

My parents were foster parents to over 100 newborns, so having all those babies come through my house, I always had a love for really young children. As an undergraduate, I was interested in singing and education, so I combined them through music education. I really wanted to nurture the parts of myself that could grow and change every day, just as kids do.

Can you tell me a little about your work at The Brotherhood Synagogue?

Our curriculum sees children as researchers and teachers as observers, so it is a co-constructed curriculum. The curriculum is also emergently based; we choose topics based on  what the children are interested in and how they approach it, and we follow that interest as a thread. Our rainbow theme led to a trip outdoors in the rain! I also ensure we include our own goals for the students, like what it means to be a strong community member, self-help skills, and collaboration.

What exactly does that look like?

This past year, I tried a new curriculum with our 2s/3s: for six months, we did nature walks and I observed all the things they pointed out -- nature, locks and keys, jobs, etc. Then we’d spend the entire morning investigating these in groups. The group interested in jobs practiced “investigating” with the synagogue’s executive director. After asking the basic “What’s your job?” question, they really surprised me with great follow up questions. They asked her “Why do you need a computer” and “Why do you talk on the phone all the time?”

Parents also joined us to document the students’ experiences with pictures and video. They got to see the world through their kid’s perspective. It was a shift in thinking about what children know.

Through student exploration, we’ve examined flowers using magnifying glasses and deconstructed them to arrange new designs with the petals, leaves and seeds. When we started learning about buildings we drew the Empire State Building and mapped our city. They made cardboard models with post offices and the Chrysler Building! Who knew 4 and 5 year olds could make a map? If you give the children the tools and the opportunity, they really, really shine.

What surprises have you encountered through this type of learning?

During the neighborhood walks, what surprised me most was that kids don’t see socioeconomic status. To them, everyone is important and that’s really nice to see. The janitor is just as important at the bank as the manager. The kids were so kind asking questions to everyone as if everyone was the same and equal.

Parents feel good when they see kids approaching people wholeheartedly. The neighborhood walks were also a success for me as a teacher. Outreach to parents can be hard but having parents join us was a great way to include everyone in the learning that happened on our trips.

I brought them to Dunkin Donuts, placed a pile of change in front of each child, and told them to ask the woman at the counter if they had enough money to buy a doughnut.

What’s one of your favorite lessons?

One day, a child came in wearing a shirt with doughnuts on it; naturally, we learned about doughnuts. Then a specialist came in and read a book about a bad day. One of the scenarios was being unable to afford something, but the kids didn’t know what that meant. I brought them to Dunkin Donuts across the street, placed a pile of change in front of each child, and told them to ask the woman at the counter if they had enough money to buy a doughnut. I said nothing and just observed. Some kids had enough money and others didn’t. They started talking to each other, saying “Oh you still don’t have enough, you can have some of mine. My extra wasn’t enough, maybe if you give your extra money, too, it will be enough.” The experience led to such rich tzedakah conversations about how to be a good community member.

What other Jewish topics have you explored with your students?

We built a Rosh Hashanah lesson by using apples as a provocation. The students touched, looked, smelled, and tasted. After two days of exploration one of the students said, “I like to dip my apples in peanut butter” and another said, “I dip mine in honey.” So we all tried apples in honey. We talked about the sweet honey and the tart apples. One of the kids went apple picking and brought apples to share with the class “for Rosh Hashanah,” he said. We then explored the connection between apples and Rosh Hashanah, and that the holiday isn’t just about apples. The student did a mitzvah by bringing in food to help celebrate the holiday. We talked about friends and helping each other and what it means to be a community. We spoke about being nice to others and using kind words. When a child offered to open everyone’s tupperware at lunch, the kids were all saying “You're doing a mitzvah. That is so kind that you’re helping us.”

Molding young minds is such an incredible responsibility and something I take very seriously.

You’re not Jewish. What has it been like to work in the field of Jewish education?

The truth is that Christianity is based on Judaism. Our Old Testament is your Torah. My dad is a deacon and I went to Catholic school my whole life, so I know all the Bible stories inside out. I can stand behind the values of mitzvot, doing good deeds, and the Ten Commandments because they’re the same as in Christianity. So it wasn’t hard for me foundationally. The Jewish values are easy to get behind -- be a good person, love God, love people, do good for the earth. Both Judaism and Christianity also share the focus on having a good soul, neshama in Hebrew. All the Jewish holiday celebrations are really fun. My director says it doesn’t matter that I’m not Jewish, and I feel very confident. The biggest challenge for me was learning Hebrew, but I’m actually a classical singer and had to sing in Italian and German, so languages come pretty easily to me. Now I lead seders and Shabbat services for toddlers and young adults. Parents hear my name and assume I converted and are surprised when I say I’m not Jewish. It’s so interesting!

You’ve been an active participant in The Jewish Education Project’s Project LEAD. How has this initiative helped your teaching?

We have an amazing coach, assigned to us through Project LEAD, who has worked with a Reggio Emilia educator every year. It’s been so beneficial to have the safe space to have the conversations that educators normally don’t want to have. Change is hard. Teachers are going to struggle, and it’s great to have this support system for leaders in the community. The professional learning is an incredible resource and forum, supporting you where you are and helping you bring your classroom to the next level. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

What has been most rewarding about teaching young learners at the synagogue?

Molding young minds is such an incredible responsibility and something I take very seriously. I get to come to a job every day and see the world through children’s eyes. I think if we could have all grownups do it, the world would be a better place. Children bring joy, wonder and curiosity everywhere they go. There’s something so magical and inspiring working with young children. People may never remember what we teach them, but they always remember how we made them feel. I always want them to feel better when they leave than when they got here. I want them to leave feeling that my classroom was full of kindness, joy, and love.

Yonah Kirschner, former Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications at The Jewish Education Project.

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