An Interview with Malka Greenblatt of the Netiv HaYeled School
Not everyone starts a school when they’re in a quandary searching for the best school for their children, but that’s what Ephraim and Malka Greenblatt did.
Malka has a wig business and her husband runs a naturally brewed beer and homemade sausage bar/restaurant in the Machaneh Yehuda Shuk. In their “spare” time they started Netiv HaYeled a few years ago which is billed as a Montessori based pre-school in the Givat HaMivtar neighborhood of Jerusalem, just down the block from where they live.
The school has been thriving and will be adding a kitah aleph this coming year. Misrad HaChinuch recently recognized their ground-breaking contribution to chareidi education by awarding them first prize in the annual “Oscars” for accomplishment in the field of education.
I recently met Malka Greenblatt in a downstairs teachers’ room,
where Malka shared her vision for the school and her hopes for its future.
VB: Would you say that the school you started with your husband is about revolutionizing education in the Chareidi community?
MG: That sounds a little too dramatic, and I wouldn’t necessarily use that word “revolution.” My bigger dream here is that we should be able to have a school, almost like a pilot school that teachers can come to as a resource, and we can say: “There’s more to education. How can we make education better today? How can you make education better today?”
It’s not that I can transform all the schools; that would never happen. What I want to have is on-site training for our teachers. And we would love that it’s built into the teachers’ job. One day a week they come for a couple of hours, just to train, and to learn, “How can we be doing this?”
VB: Who will be training them?
MG: We are constantly reaching out to people, and researching people who can help us with the training. Right now, our principal is amazing. Her name is Rivka Isaacs. We bought her in from America. She has about 40 years of teaching in Montessori and progressive schools and administrative leadership behind her. We’re really lucky to have her here.
Obviously, education, especially Montessori education, is limited in the Chareidi community. And the job as a Montessori teacher is a lot harder than most teachers are used to. It’s a lot harder and takes a lot of work outside school, and a lot of emotional presence inside school. Our teachers are not chatting with each other. They are present with the kids the whole day. It’s really a big deal.
And we’re really putting a lot of thought into the curriculum and we push them to create a curriculum every week that’s different.
VB: How do you see this adapted to a Jewish school, which has to teach Torah subjects?
MG: We have a lot of Yiddishkeit built into the curriculum. We have also been in touch a lot with Rabbi Rietti. He’s a Rav in America, and this is kind of like his life’s project. He’s been building Jewish curriculum for Montessori schools for 20 years. Our principal, Rivka Isaacs, was originally working with him when she first was working in a Montessori school, and helping him build curriculum.
We’ve been in touch with him already and he hopes to share that curriculum with us. And we incorporate as many of his suggestions as we can. We also have a Hebrew program. Something that’s unique about our school, and there’s no other school like it, is that we have a high-level English and Hebrew reading, writing, and speaking program.
That means that half of our teachers speak only in Hebrew and half speak only in English. We have an English curriculum. And there’s a woman who lives in Kadima who literally created a parallel curriculum in Hebrew and we got that curriculum from her. We have been working with her, trying to get as many resources as we can from her because she is someone who’s really building up Montessori in Israel.
That’s really unique and exciting because the gift of giving a child another language is really a big deal, really something that can help kids.
VB: Do you think your approach is good for all children, or is it specifically for children who don’t do well in the usual school system?
MG: First of all, it’s not specifically for children who don’t do well in the regular school system, at all. I’d say, l’hefech, the opposite. A lot of times kids that don’t do well won’t necessarily do well by us either. I look at Chinuch Miuchad, Special Education, and I say, “Wow! This is incredible! Look at how much you’re giving to these special needs kids.”
Then I look at Chinuch Ragil, the mainstream schools, and I say, “Wow! This is incredible! Look at how little you’re giving to regular kids! This is insane!”
Our school is for regular kids, and a lot of times I do have to interview the kids before and make sure they’re suitable for our school, because a lot of time the parents feel like, “Oh, my kid’s struggling in the regular system, great, Montessori will fix them.”
It’s not like that. We don’t take everybody. We can’t, because a lot of kids who come are thinking that this is going to fix their problems, but really they may need something else. They may need other kinds of intervention. We’re definitely amazing, but we’re amazing for regular kids. This is not a program for special kids.
We are, hopefully, planning next year, to take one or two kids per class who have a private shadow for whatever reason. We’ll take a Downs Syndrome kid and she’s going to have her own teacher with her and it’s a Downs Syndrome kid who really understands and she’s going to be able to grow with the class. She’s going to be a year older than the youngest kids, so she’ll be a little closer to where they’re holding because she’s a little bit behind.
But we feel like that that’s going to be an amazing shiluv for the regular kids and for her. It’s really going to help her, bring her way faster up to her level. Because if she’s in a group right now with kids that are at her level and less, she’s going to be growing at a very slow pace. So we’re looking for kids who are really matim. I’d say there’s regular, there’s special needs, and then there’s something in between. We would be doing a combination more with special needs kids that could adapt to our classroom.
There’s also something in between, but we can’t always help those kids. It depends.
VB: What is your maximum number of children in each class?
MG: Our maximum number is 25. Right now we have one class with 25 and our other class with 21 or 22 with three teachers for each class. We have a really long waiting list for the pre-school, and we’re not going to be able to take that many kids in the gan because we only have about eight or nine students graduating, and everyone pretty much stays on. That’s kind of the idea. They start at age three. Our deadline is a little different than a regular municipality deadline because the kids are not really ready to enter this classroom until they’re three years old.
Plus, next year, we’re doing a first grade. It’s really exciting. I’ve been in the municipality offices meeting with people from the Misrad HaChinuch the entire week. Boruch Hashem, they’re really interested in our idea. They see that this is something that can help the system.
Our school is giving children an opportunity to explore on a level where they can really feel confident in their own learning, and motivated by the things around them. Children who go to Montessori are life-long learners.
Confidence is a huge thing. And this confidence is really very different from what the mainstream thinks about confidence. They say, “Oh, I know how to make you confident…’You’re so amazing, you’re so incredible, I’m so proud of you, you’re a Tzadik, you’re a whatever…’”
That’s what they do. They think that the more compliments I tell them, the more they’re going to believe in themselves. It’s like getting dressed one day when you’re really tired, and you just throw on a sweatshirt and a slinky skirt. When someone comes to you and says, “Wow! You look incredible. You look like you’re ready to go to a ball,” you’re going stop taking those people seriously.
VB: How do you approach confidence building?
MG: By recognizing the child. That’s to say, “I want to see you in my life.” If my daughter draws a picture and she says, “Mom, what do you think?” I say, “Oh, I see that you used a red crayon. Is this a line? Is this a box? Is this maybe a house? Do you want to tell me about this picture?”
I’m able to feed her sense of self by saying, “I care about you. I see you,” without building up a false ego or a judgment, as in: “Oh, you’re such an amazing artist.” Let’s say she does a really good job, and I say, “Wow! You’re such an amazing artist.” She’s going to grow up according to that bar of “I have to be an amazing artist. My Mom said I’m an amazing artist. Everyone’s telling me that and I have to live up to that part.”
We’re not trying to create standards for children in their head, of “I need to live up to this.” We’re saying, “We see you. You’re good. You’re okay. If you want to explore, you’ll enjoy that. I’ll enjoy that with you.”
VB: What’s your approach to giving tests?
MG: We’re not sure exactly how it’s going to work for the first grade, but I can tell you that we’re very into children learning at their own pace. Every kid is different.
VB: Will you teach reading to everyone at the same time?
MG: No, not at the same time, each one at their level. That is to say that if there are three teachers in the classroom and 25 students, a teacher is going to keep notes on where every child is holding in every subject like math and English. She’s going to be working with the kids one-on-one. She takes them to the side, she teaches them how to do the work and then they can do it on their own. They don’t need her anymore. That’s why we have an extra teacher. One teacher is like the tone-keeper, making sure that everyone has what to do. Another teacher is teaching, and the assistants are also helping kids one-on-one.
As they’re ready for different things, they’re being taught. We do have circles, elements where they are together, for sure. The time for Montessori learning ranges from one to three hours, depending on the age of the group and where the group is holding.
And there are other scheduled activities like the circle time. Then there are group activities, depending on the other things you want to teach, as in social and emotional learning.
There’s also Executive Function which is a huge thing today. It’s about being able to see a task before you and being able to organize yourself in steps to get that done, to finish that project. It’s called Executive Function Skills, and it’s not Montessori. If you can teach children how to get those skills, they’re set up with an amazing skill for life.
VB: And creativity? What do you do for that? Isn’t that much more subtle?
MG: I can tell you about that. My daughter is really creative. Everyone’s creative in different ways, but she’s artsy creative. She always wants to be cutting and creating and whatever. The arts section is the place for that in the classroom with tons of different papers, different glues, and different projects so that they can create on their own.
I want to see kids develop themselves, not develop who you want them to be. We want to see them grow a circle for themselves, grow a sphere, whatever.
It’s about teaching kids to get into the process and not worry about what other people say about it. Product, at the end of the day, is nothing. If you work really hard at something and then you fail, and the product means everything to you, then you’re a failure.
If you work really hard at something and then you fail, you can say instead, “Okay. I’ll move on with my life.” And we tell people this all the time.
My husband owns a bar restaurant, and he is a self-taught brewer. I run a second-hand wig company which has really exploded in popularity. And we run this gan, and people ask, “How do you do it all?”
We push ourselves not to be afraid to fail. We’ve failed so much. This, of all of our projects, has been the hardest of everything we’ve ever done.
VB: Did you talk about making a school when you met each other?
MG: We definitely talked about our disappointment with current Jewish education. It was a dream for me and honestly, I never thought it would come true. Because as my life was progressing I saw myself getting into more business stuff and more art stuff or whatever, and I thought, I don’t have the skills to start a school. I don’t know how to start a school, and I don’t have the education.
VB: One of the disappointments I’ve had with my children’s schools is that they were taught Torah in such a dry way. What are you going to do?
MG: The way Torah is generally taught, it’s so not concrete, so not relevant. There are a couple of things. One is context. We’re very much into it, and we hope to incorporate it into the curriculum– a big context for what’s going on? What’s going on in the Chumash? Where are we in our life, and where is that? How can we see that? How can we see the picture of that?
So that’s one thing. And the other thing is teaching Yiddishkeit in a concrete way where the child can grown into their own Yiddishkeit, because if we develop it for the child and we hand it to them, they’re like, “I don’t know, I guess some of this works for me, or none of it works for me, or I can’t really relate to this because it’s not mine anyway.”
They’re making it small and it’s really giant. Generally, the schools are not giving the children the opportunity to create on their own.
For example, I was speaking to a teacher and she said, “I think maybe we should tell the children that they have to wear tzitzis or a yarmulke.” I want her to approach it a different way. I want her to explain it to the child in such a way that the child says: “This is a mitzvah that I want to do.”
How can we show the children how amazing this mitzvah is so that they can relate to it and they can build their own love for it? And I feel it’s like that with all our teaching about Yiddishkeit, and it’s something we talk to our teachers about. It’s so much on our radar. It’s such a big deal to try to treat things in a concrete way.
Let’s take ourselves seriously and let’s do something that’s going to make things better. Every child can do that, and if we give them the confidence and the skills and the wherewithal and we believe in them and we give them a little opportunity, they will do it. They will. They do it already. They can be responsible people. We have to just treat them like grown people and not like children.