When teachers attend a workshop or take a course, they usually feel inspired to try new things they have just learned. Going to Italy to visit the schools for young children in Reggio Emilia was this type of experience, and then some! For a week, we were immersed in the philosophy and surrounded by examples of the world famous schools, known for their profound respect and admiration for young children as learners and citizens. We soaked it in for nearly twenty-four hours a day, eager to experience everything that the beautiful city and our gracious hosts had to offer. Shops closed for a few hours at midday, dinner started at eight in the evening, and the ancient history of the region was evident everywhere we looked. We visited schools which looked like glimpses of utopia. We saw groups of happy children busily engaged with beautiful materials, supported by keenly observant teachers ready to plan and adapt projects based on the children’s interests. We asked questions to figure out how it all flowed so smoothly, and how they incorporated families and the community in the school’s themes.
Soon, it came time to think about coming back to Vermont, and applying what we had learned within the context of our own community. As one participant noted, our challenge went beyond integrating a few new ideas. We had been “drinking from the fire hose,” and now faced the challenge of applying a Reggio inspired approach to our own individual settings. We felt that our FWSU schools have much to be proud of because we are already implementing similar approaches to those we had seen in Reggio Emilia’s schools for young children.
Leaving the Italian spring and returning to Vermont’s cold and snow was hard, but coming home to our own classrooms and students was exciting. We were eager to further develop a few threads that we had seen in the Reggio schools, and adapt them to our own students and settings. These threads are: the use of “loose parts” in the learning environment, using inquiry to initiate projects, and personalized learning.
Loose parts are materials that may be used and incorporated in whatever way the child imagines- they are open-ended rather than fixed. Examples might be collections of multi-colored stones, fabric swatches, bottle caps, tree branches, or cross sections of logs. We noted that the children in the schools we visited became deeply involved in designing arrangements and displays of these materials, as well as using them to invent their own creations. Here at FWSU, we use loose parts to pursue S.T.E.M. challenges, and solve math problems using manipulatives as we count, sort, or estimate. Loose parts enhance indoor and outdoor environments by stimulating social interaction and learning through play.
Providing enriching materials for children’s exploration is viewed as a “provocations” which invites children’s curiosity and inquiry. Reggio inspired us to continue offering provocations which interest children and encourage them to ask questions, spark new ideas, and test their theories.
“Creativity becomes more visible when adults try to be more attentive to the cognitive processes of children than to the results they achieve in various fields of doing and understanding”. -Loris Malaguzzi, Founder of Reggio Emilia approach to early education
The teachers we observed in the Reggio Emilia schools were masterful in their ability to help children formulate questions. Together, teachers and students find the answers to their questions, delighting in their shared learning without knowing exactly which direction their investigations would take them. Here at FWSU, we are learning to encourage inquiry in many different contexts, including the development of social as well as academic skills. The cycle of asking questions, identifying a problem or challenge, following up with a solution- and then asking how we could improve our solution is embedded in the S.T.E.M. model we are applying in all grades. Learning through asking rather than telling is a powerful shift, for both students and educators.
We learned from the Reggio Emilia teachers that small group and individualized instruction are keys to engaging all learners. In this way children can follow their interests and develop passions which then lead them to investigate their topics in depth. Our district is moving in this direction by developing personalized learning plans for all students. In this way each student’s interests, strengths, and community will be reflected in their learning process.
It is still impossible to convey all of the impressions and experiences we had during our trip to Italy. Surely, our perspectives have been broadened and our appreciation for different cultures has been heightened. However, from across the ocean as we thought about our own schools we realized that we had a lot to be proud of. Regularly, visitors from other countries visit us to observe and learn. Global awareness is becoming increasingly important for both students and teachers as we learn to help each other solve the problems and challenges that face all of us. Respecting differences yet celebrating what we have in common is a lesson we can learn through travel. Our experiences in Italy helped us to apply this awareness as we came home with both inspiration and appreciation.
This is Part 2 of reflections on Reggio Schools offered by Jenny Blackman and Nancy Hurt