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Leveling the Playing Field: Building Forts and Building Friendships

by Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Play is universal. Play is natural. It is spontaneous, exploratory, and intrinsically motivated. Play for children and adults can alleviate anxieties, inhibition, and fear.

"I wait all day for recess," says one student, zipping up her jacket in a circle of friends.

Students rush out the door. Some flock to the soccer fields with white and black spotted balls. Others race to see who will be first down the slides.

At the other end of the playground, a dozen or so of the third and fourth graders dart in and out of the woods surrounding the playground. The area is dotted with structures built of teepee-like formations of sticks or stacks of thicker limbs and branches of pine piled one on top of the other. These forts have been built with love and creativity. Occasionally, a group knocks down a structure—just for the fun of it—and the woods echo with the enlongated cry of “tiiimmmmmber…”

Fort play emerges here at AJA naturally, without adult promotion, usually between late second through fourth grade—sometimes even into the fifth grade.

Forts are terrific opportunities for kids to have unstructured playtime. Fort play has also leveled the playing field when it comes to the natural social hierarchy created in the classroom.

The hard truth is that social stratification is a real thing. The research states that social stratification starts early, somewhere around age four, and happens everywhere…regardless of class, race, culture, or geography. In fact, researchers have found this same social hierarchy emerges in groups of children living not only in developed media-rich countries, but also in remote villages in third world countries around the globe.

Social relationship formation is also related to some aspects of playground design. In playgrounds dominated by fixed play structures, children tend to establish social hierarchy based on physical prowess, while in playgrounds with natural features and vegetation, social hierarchy is based more on communication skills and creativity. (Malone and Trant, 2003.)

One of my favorite books on this subject is Best Friends, Worst Enemies, by Michael Thompson, Ph.D. He breaks down the social hierarchy as follows:

  • For boys, dominance is based largely on physical ability. Who’s the fastest? The strongest? Who can do the most “epic” trick on a skateboard?

  • For girls, dominance is based on social skills. Who is the most persuasive? The funniest? The most confident? Who can draw other girls in, at the expense of their “old” friends?

Each step in the fort-building process reinforces the classroom and life skills we teach at AJA: planning, goal setting, interpersonal skills, hard work, perseverance, and pride in something bigger than oneself.

What I have witnessed is that fort building helps to encourage a greater feeling of healthy power and a sense of belonging in our students. On their own, our children have leveled the playing field by building forts and building friendships.

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Financial Literacy: How Will They Ever Know What to Do?

At this time of year, I am sure that many of you, like myself, are consumed with taxes and financial aid forms; and every year, I wonder how my children will learn and understand what to do when it is their turn. Setting up a budget with a cash flow, emergency savings, and retirement money is hard enough--and then we have to fill out all those obtuse forms for the government. OY!

More and more schools and businesses are recognizing the need for students to learn about finances in a formal way. In fact, President Obama proclaimed April as National Financial Capability Month, acknowledging that young adults must become financially literate in order to survive in the adult world. And in the spirit of early intervention, we must start teaching them at a young age.

In 2013, the Council on Economic Education released the National Standards for Financial Literacy for K-12. Developed by economists and educators, the benchmarks were developed to provide a framework of essential knowledge that will help students learn to be savvy financial consumers.  The standards cover six topics:

  1. Earning and Income;

  2. Buying Goods and Services;

  3. Using Credit;

  4. Saving;

  5. Financial Investing; and

  6. Protecting and Insuring.

We at AJA are joining that effort and declaring April as Financial Literacy Month! This will become an annual event to anticipate at AJA. The teachers have spent many months researching ideas and activities that will help accomplish these goals, and have developed developmentally appropriate programs to reinforce skills on each grade level. Here’s a look at the programs we’ve already implemented or have planned:

  • First Grade:  will design a business to earn money to go to the zoo.  Learning about wants and needs, inventory for a business, supply and demand and profit.

  • Second Grade: will create a restaurant where students order their meals, pay a bill (even calculate a tip) and get change.  They will also talk about food costs, quantity of food sold, and salaries paid to the restaurant workers.

  • Third Grade:  In their study of “Community,” they will learn about the role currency plays with regards to goods and services used in a community.

  • Fourth Grade:  will explore three categories related to money: coins, banks, and budgets. They will learn the history of money, how banks and credit cards work, and how to budget, save, and help those less fortunate along the way.

  • Fifth and Sixth Grades: will conduct an integrated Social Studies and Math unit focused on financial obligations and taxes.  The Judaics teachers will contribute to the unit by teaching about taxes in our Jewish texts and our obligation to give 10% of our income to tzedakah. One sixth-grade class is preparing for a day-long visit to a fully interactive town called Biztown on April 27th.

  • Seventh Grade:  One math class has already completed a project called "shopping spree," where they calculated the amount of money saved on items discounted by  5%,10%,15%, and 25% and computed sales tax while staying within a budget. In addition, they will be doing a project on the stock market. On April 21, they will be visiting the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Atlanta.

  • Eighth Grade: will learn about the risks and rewards of investing money in the stock market, culminating in a project which will include researching a company in which to invest, using an Excel spreadsheet, and computing the loss or gain of their investment.

I only wish my education included these topics when I was a kid. Maybe then I would be able to balance my checkbook….


Leah Summers

Associate Head, Atlanta Jewish Academy

Greenfield EC-MS


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Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Shares "Dear Parent: About THAT Kid..."

Here at Atlanta Jewish Academy, we know that our children walk through our doors carrying more than just books in those backpacks. Sometimes, those extra burdens can affect not only the children who bear them, but everyone around them. We at AJA feel that it is our calling to help all our children carry those backpacks.

I would like to share this essay with you, which I did not write, but which perfectly expresses the dilemma of helping "THAT kid." And please know that no matter what happens, we will continue to look for, and to find, the good, amazing, special, and wonderful things about your child and every child in our care.  

                                                  --Sylvia Miller, Director of Greenfield Lower School, Atlanta Jewish Academy


Dear Parent: About THAT kid…

 ON 10 NOVEMBER, 2014

Dear Parent:

I know. You’re worried. Every day, your child comes home with a story about THAT kid. The one who is always hitting shoving pinching scratching maybe even biting other children. The one who always has to hold my hand in the hallway. The one who has a special spot at the carpet, and sometimes sits on a chair rather than the floor. The one who had to leave the block centre because blocks are not for throwing. The one who climbed over the playground fence right exactly as I was telling her to stop. The one who poured his neighbour’s milk onto the floor in a fit of anger. On purpose. While I was watching.  And then, when I asked him to clean it up, emptied the ENTIRE paper towel dispenser. On purpose. While I was watching. The one who dropped the REAL ACTUAL F-word in gym class.

You’re worried that THAT child is detracting from your child’s learning experience. You’re worried that he takes up too much of my time and energy, and that your child won’t get his fair share. You’re worried that she is really going to hurt someone some day. You’re worried that “someone” might be your child. You’re worried that your child is going to start using aggression to get what she wants. You’re worried your child is going to fall behind academically because I might not notice that he is struggling to hold a pencil. I know.

Your child, this year, in this classroom, at this age, is not THAT child. Your child is not perfect, but she generally follows rules. He is able to share toys peaceably. She does not throw furniture. He raises his hand to speak. She works when it is time to work, and plays when it is time to play. He can be trusted to go straight to the bathroom and straight back again with no shenanigans. She thinks that the S-word is “stupid” and the C-word is “crap.” I know.

I know, and I am worried, too.

You see, I worry all the time. About ALL of them. I worry about your child’s pencil grip, and another child’s letter sounds, and that little tiny one’s shyness, and that other one’s chronically empty lunchbox. I worry that this one’s coat is not warm enough, and that one’s dad yells at her for printing the letter B backwards. Most of my car rides and showers are consumed with the worrying.

But I know, you want to talk about THAT child. Because a kid’s backward Bs are not going to give your child a black eye.

I want to talk about THAT child, too, but there are so many things I can’t tell you.

I can’t tell you that she was adopted from an orphanage at 18 months.

I can’t tell you that he is on an elimination diet for possible food allergies, and that he is therefore hungry ALL. THE. TIME.

I can’t tell you that her parents are in the middle of a horrendous divorce, and she has been staying with her grandma.

I can’t tell you that I’m starting to worry that grandma drinks…

I can’t tell you that his asthma medication makes him agitated.

I can’t tell you that her mom is a single parent, and so she (the child) is at school from the moment before-care opens, until the moment after-care closes, and then the drive between home and school takes 40 minutes, and so she (the child) is getting less sleep than most adults.

I can’t tell you that he has been a witness to domestic violence.

That’s okay, you say. You understand I can’t share personal or family information. You just want to know what I am DOING about That Child’s behaviour.

I would love to tell you. But I can’t.

I can’t tell you that she receives speech-language services, that an assessment showed a severe language delay, and that the therapist feels the aggression is linked to frustration about being unable to communicate.

I can’t tell you that I meet with his parents EVERY week, and that both of them usually cry at those meetings.

I can’t tell you that the child and I have a secret hand signal to tell me when she needs to sit by herself for a while.

I can’t tell you that he spends rest time curled in my lap because “it makes me feel better to hear your heart, Teacher.”

I can’t tell you that I have been meticulously tracking her aggressive incidents for 3 months, and that she has dropped from 5 incidents a day, to 5 incidents a week.

I can’t tell you that the school secretary has agreed that I can send him to the office to “help” when I can tell he needs a change of scenery.

I can’t tell you that I have stood up in a staff meeting and, with tears in my eyes, BEGGED my colleagues to keep an extra close eye on her, to be kind to her even when they are frustrated that she just punched someone AGAIN, and this time, RIGHT IN FRONT OF A TEACHER.

The thing is, there are SO MANY THINGS I can’t tell you about That Child. I can’t even tell you the good stuff.

I can’t tell you that his classroom job is to water the plants, and that he cried with heartbreak when one of the plants died over winter break.

I can’t tell you that she kisses her baby sister goodbye every morning, and whispers “You are my sunshine” before mom pushes the stroller away.

I can’t tell you that he knows more about thunderstorms than most meteorologists.

I can’t tell you that she often asks to help sharpen the pencils during playtime.

I can’t tell you that she strokes her best friend’s hair at rest time.

I can’t tell you that when a classmate is crying, he rushes over with his favourite stuffy from the story corner.


The thing is, dear parent, that I can only talk to you about YOUR child. So, what I can tell you is this:

If ever, at any point, YOUR child, or any of your children, becomes THAT child…

I will not share your personal family business with other parents in the classroom.

I will communicate with you frequently, clearly, and kindly.

I will make sure there are tissues nearby at all our meetings, and if you let me, I will hold your hand when you cry.

I will advocate for your child and family to receive the highest quality of specialist services, and I will cooperate with those professionals to the fullest possible extent.

I will make sure your child gets extra love and affection when she needs it most.

I will be a voice for your child in our school community.

I will, no matter what happens, continue to look for, and to find, the good, amazing, special, and wonderful things about your child.

I will remind him and YOU of those good amazing special wonderful things, over and over again.

And when another parent comes to me, with concerns about YOUR child…

I will tell them all of this, all over again.


With so much love;




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I was thinking...about merging two schools, by Leah Summers

The theme for our Staff Day this past Monday was "Am Echad, Lev Echad, One Nation, One Heart."

It was the first time that the entire AJA Upper School faculty and staff and the entire AJA Lower School faculty and staff had an opportunity to come together as a united group. Our goal was to begin the process of becoming "One Faculty with One Vision." 

The morning was spent in our separate groups, working on division-specific topics that each school needed to address. But the afternoon was spent together.  We spent time getting to know each other through a mix-it-up lunch and a Human Bingo. We also were privileged to study together with consultant Dr. Deena Pargman about how to have "crucial conversations" in order to move the relationship forward in a productive and constructive manner. It was powerful.

And I had an epiphany...I kept thinking about Shabbat. I was reminded that we welcome Shabbat on Friday night with the lighting of individual candles, representing the different experiences that we each lived through during the week.  However, on Saturday night, we then bid farewell to Shabbat by lighting a single Havdalah candle with intertwined wicks, representing our coming together as a community after having enjoyed shared experiences with family and friends.    

Yesterday, I felt that we started off the day as individual schools, with different histories and different stories; but we ended the day coming together as a unified force, with the energy and enthusiasm to create a new story together.   

Leah Summers, Associate Head of School

AJA Greenfield Early Childhood, Lower School, and Middle School 




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