“School stopped being a place you go. We became the school,” says ECC Assistant Director Melissa Hume. Last month, Melissa was among five educators who received the Jewish Education Project’s Young Pioneers Award for creating exceptional educational experiences for their students and their families during challenging times.
“We’re very proud of Melissa. It’s refreshing to see an early childhood educator recognized like this,” says our school’s director, Miriam Kalmar, who nominated Melissa for going above and beyond to make sure our ECC students could continue to learn even when our doors were closed. “Jewish identity starts here, with the youngest children. Sometimes that idea gets lost.”
“We thought we’d be closed for two weeks and then come back,” Melissa recalls. “We didn’t think we’d be going online — who does that with two-year-olds?” But when it became clear that the school had to figure it out, that’s exactly what Melissa and the rest of our ECC staff did.
“I remember one night sitting there with Zoom open on my computer, on my iPhone and on my iPad — so that I’d be able to help our teachers or parents with technical issues no matter what device they were using,” Melissa says. “At the end of the day, though, Zoom is just a tool. We needed to forget that we were on a computer.” Sometimes that meant building with blocks together. “We’d work in small groups and I’d spotlight different builders so the children could talk together about their work,” Melissa says.
During lockdown, our teachers tried to maintain one-on-one relationships with the children. Melissa found herself playing the keyboard for one child who really responded to music, and pretend-cooking with another who had a play kitchen. But she’s no stranger to finding deep and personal ways to connect with children; when Melissa was converting to Judaism through our Pathways program in 2015, she invited the entire school to explore what it really means to be Jewish — and celebrate the conversion with her. And she’s always made her presence felt outside the classroom: at Family Experiences, at Shabbat and b’nai mitzvah services, and even in Israel on one of our missions.
“This experience has broadened our understanding of community,” says Miriam. “We’ve been able to reach parents whose work schedules often kept them from doing daily drop-off or pick up and more parents felt able to participate in meetings and cocktail hours via Zoom since they didn’t need to worry about getting a babysitter.”
And since they’ve been back in the classroom, “there’s such a profound joy for just being together,” says Melissa. “This is where their friends are. This is how they learn.”