Last week, I was having dinner with a friend with whom I used to teach preschool. She was telling me about the work she was doing in her new classroom with her new teaching team. In case you aren’t aware, in many preschool programs across the US, teachers have a week or less (in this particular case, three days) without the children present to “transition” their classrooms. Also, somewhat unusually, at this school, teachers do not instruct the same class every year; the program enrolls children from three months to five years, and in the infant program, teachers have the option of moving with the children for up to three years. As a result, it’s highly unusual to have the exact same teaching team (three or four teachers depending on class size, ratio necessity, and age) for any classroom from one year to another.

Since I left the school, I’ve depended on this friend to keep me in the loop about the changes, struggles, and triumphs that come from working in this constantly revolving scenario. After she went home, having stuffed my little brain with plans for the new year, I was inspired to pull out one of the books I read back when I began teaching there.

She and I had both been hired the same summer, the year the school opened, and at that time, the center was hoping to practice a philosophy inspired by the work in Reggio Emilia, Italy. It’s a common misconception that the philosophy itself is called Reggio Emilia, but in fact, it’s the name of a town that happened to be the origin of some truly groundbreaking work with young children. The book, The Hundred Languages of Children, is a dense look the history and philosophy of teaching that has developed there and is probably not a strong choice for the casual reader. I know, however, that many of you are teachers who struggle to bring best practice to the students, families, and communities you work with. Even though this book is aimed at Early Childhood educators, it is an inspiring and fierce read for people who demand more from educational practices.

The history of Reggio Emilia is especially fascinating to me. This is an entire community that decided to work together to create a better education system. Who are these people? How did they get motivated to do this? In the book, it talks about the era of change that Italy went through – how the country was working diligently for the past forty-five years to establish better rights for working people, families, parents, and children (especially children with disabilities) – but how was it possible a single community managed focus enough to create the Reggio Emilia experience?

If this had been done in the United States, it would have been an elite program, open only to families that could afford the luxury of a top-notch education. Instead, in Reggio Emilia, the system was designed to be free and available to every member of the community, regardless of a child’s economic, religious, or developmental background. It was also created, through enormous struggle, by the community. This was not a school that dropped itself into the middle of a town and expected families to jump on board. The town went through an incredibly grueling process, together, of determining what they wanted and needed out of public education. This system required buy-in, and discussion, and disagreement. It was and is not always pretty (although as a teacher, swept away by what they have managed to do, it certainly seems absolutely remarkable from the outside).

The program the Italians have established relies almost entirely on documentation collected from classroom work with the children. The teachers record conversations with the children; they spend time note-taking and photographing the children’s work. They meet with other teachers to discuss what they have observed, and they do their best to share all of this with the wider community. Unlike in the US, where research must be disseminated by widely “reputable” sources before educational systems can even consider the information, this  style of data gathering has informed the entire system of pre-primary education.

This requires a huge amount of work, but it provides opportunities for a much greater range of people to have input (parents, teachers, administrators, interested citizens), which then leads to opportunities that would have not have been possible otherwise. It is also a reflection of the type of work these professionals seek to have the children do themselves – questioning, documenting, experimenting – and in practicing it themselves, they develop their own skills to scaffold the children’s investigations.

One of the things I remember wanting when I first read this book was more of the Italians’ notes and observations about the children’s work, especially when they were first starting out. To me, coming from a more traditional teaching environment, these new ideas were a thrill, but also proved daunting to execute. How was I to go about observing the children thoroughly enough to find the right topic, then create questions and hypotheses to move the curriculum forward with enthusiasm? I found myself grateful that at the end of one chapter, they emphasized how important small projects were to eventually having the ability to work with children on a deeper investigative level over the course of months.

When I went to the end of the year celebration in June of children I had worked with as infants (they were going off to kindergarten in the fall), we were treated to an amazing twenty-minute video presentation of the children’s investigations about space. The whole school was filled with the work they had done (all of it originally inspired by the flyover of the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September), and although all of it was impressive on its own, it was even more so when I heard, from their own mouths, the children’s discussions, questions, and conclusions over the course of nine months about the solar system and NASA’s role in space exploration. I was so proud of having been part of their very earliest experiences in education and yet also (blissfully) dumbfounded by what they were capable of doing and knowing at five years old as a result.

One of the most critical things I absorbed from this book is that the goal of teaching is not to indoctrinate children with the idea that every thought they have is perfect or to give them the false hope that every one will be successful.  Instead, the teacher’s role is to engage them in problem solving with their peers so that their work is meaningful to them.  Protecting them from failure was not my job.  Providing support when they felt sad, angry or frustrated was, of course, but that could be done in many ways.  This book revolutionized, for me, the belief that caring for children is not a separate idea from encouraging them to be competent, questioning individuals. This has been done magnificently in Italy, but it can be executed successfully on many levels anywhere people care enough to start asking questions.

For more information about the North American Reggio Emilia Association, go here. If you’re curious about the history and details of Reggio Emilia, the Wikipedia article here is a great place to start.

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