Why I Love My Son's Reggio-inspired PreschoolNaomi Odes
Before I get started on dissing Cassandra Barry’s post, let me just say that Cassandra and I are buds. We got drunk at the same parties in college, probably even kissed some of the same boys. Now we live at opposite ends of the same city, with kids that are close in age. However, we also seem to be at opposite ends of the pre-school philosphy spectrum.
Cassandra recently posted about her dislike (ahem, understatement) of the Reggio-Emilia educational philosophy. Shnook goes to a Reggio-Inspired preschool, and I’m here to say: Cassandra is somewhat misguided about this philosphy.
First of all, to be called a Reggio Emilia School, you have to actually BE in Reggio Emilia, Italy. This is why all the schools outside of the Northern Italian city are called Reggio Emilia -Inspired. It’s a legal issue. Of course, being once removed from the philosophy does invite more interpretation. I’m sure some schools are more true to the approach than others, so keep this in mind if you visit one.
Anyone who has taught before knows that the best way to engage children is by appealing to what they already know. Then, you build upon that knowledge by giving students the tools to explore the subject matter. This is how a Reggio classroom works. Teachers observe the students and fields of study ’emerge’ from conversations the children have with each other, and the teacher.
Cassandra’s idea that the loudest kid makes the whole class study whatever he wants is not exactly accurate. At Shnook’s school, there are currently three morning groups: the ‘color’ group, the ‘dinosaur’ group and the ‘movie’ group (I know, so Hollywood, right?). These groups were not formed when one obnoxious producer’s kid said “I want to make movies!” or “I went to the Natural History Museum and saw some dinosaurs!” or “Pink is my favorite color. I WANNA STUDY PINK!!!”
The teachers observe a growing intrigue in a certain subject and then gauge if there is enough interest by having an exploration group. If it seems like the kids are enthusiastic, a group forms. If a lot of kids expressed interest in ‘studying’ “The Transformers” at our school, the teachers would have found a way to focus on broader questions about robots, or maybe how toys are made. I assure you, a unit on “The Transformers” would not be about “The Transformers.” That being said, our school just screened a film for the parents called “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood” so my guess is that a unit on “The Transformers” would not be encouraged.
Here’s an excerpt of a classroom conversation from the group studying the human body.
As the Body Group completed Stan (a life-size skeleton made of wood and metal scraps) and finished up their study of the skeletal system, we began to discuss what other things the children were curious about. Many children expressed an interest in the brain and the nervous system, so it was decided to shift our focus on that. But before we could begin, we needed to gauge exactly where we were in our knowledge, so a question was posed: What is a brain?
Magda: “A brain is a squishy part of your body, and helps you remember and think about stuff.”
Alfred: “It’s something where you can think, and it’s really really soft.”
Callie: “The brain, it sends messages.”
Fiona: “It has eyes.”
Bella: “It sends messages through your body.”
Nathan: “You think about it when you’re inside your head. It’s in the skull.”
Patrick: “It’s something in your body that sends messages from the brain or sends messages to the brain, like to your muscles and glands in your body. A brain is like a transformer, it’s something like mechanical that tells your body stuff. It’s like a control.”
As the children shared this information with us, we asked where they felt we should start, and what material would be best. Patrick felt that wire for the nerves would be perfect, but that the brain would need to be made squishy. Bella suggested that use clay, but some of the other children were concerned that it’d be too hard when it was dry. We’re wondering what materials we might be able to use to convey the children’s ideas as well as create as accurate representation of a brain as we possibly can.
Did you notice Patrick’s use of the word “Transformer?” Huh. He’s four, by the by.
Now, let me ask you this: What would you rather do? Shake some fancy wooden rattles to find sounds that are alike for twenty minutes, or maybe pour some water in a bowl and stir?…or BUILD A BRAIN OUT OF SQUISHY STUFF?
In my opinion the three current groups have pretty varying concepts, I would think there is something for everyone. I could see my son thriving in any one of these groups. He selected the movie group despite the fact that he’s only seen one movie (The Muppets Take Manhattan on Netflix). Now, he comes home every day talking about the ‘script’ they are ‘writing.’ I’m not clear about exactly what’s happening, but there’s a giant, a knight, a princess, and something about a cookie that falls from the sky.
Yes, the idea of an emergent curriculum sounds like the teachers just wing it, right? Wrong. Here’s the thing that most parents don’t understand about teaching. When the students lead the curriculum, although it sounds like the teachers don’t have to do anything, it’s actually a lot more work for them than it is if they have, say, a prescribed list of activities for each child to do, like at a Montessori school. They have to give the students the tools they need to build on their prior knowledge. This involves lots of planning: finding age-appropriate books and representations, and preparing activities and lessons that will help them gain a better understanding of the topic of interest. But the bonus is that the kids are more invested in their learning and they love school. I’ve seen it happen, both at this school and in my own multi-ethnic, multi-income public school classroom.