Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part II

I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:

I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played¬†with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.

In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.

But is it that simple?

In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?

And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.

Here is another anecdote:

“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.

As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?

Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the¬†atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.

But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!

I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:

  • The townsfolk of Reggio Emilia specifically designed their approach “so that they’d never have to deal with fascism again”
  • The local municipality once considered cutting funding for the preschool programs, and the parents became hysterical and lobbied the government to maintain the spending
  • The head marm narrating in the video described the “citizenship” focus of the Reggio Emilia approach by citing the way townsfolk became engaged in local political debates at the town councils, where she emphasized “everyone was free to argue and disagree, but eventually they reached agreement”; she cited this as a really positive example of the civic-spirited genesis of the approach

Here is the video:

And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:

Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.

In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.

While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.

 

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Brief Thoughts On The Reggio Emilia Approach, Part I

A relative recently gave me a copy of Bringing Reggio Emilia Home and asked me for my thoughts. Having never heard of “the Reggio Emilia approach”, I initially thought the book title implied a character named Reggio Emilia who was returning from somewhere they had been taken. It was only after I started looking into it on the web that I realized it is an educational philosophy originating in northern Italy.

I cracked the book open today and read through the first chapter, which details the author’s move to Reggio Amelia with her family (a husband and two young sons, all American) to pursue a one year internship as an observer at a preschool in the town, along with some of her first impressions. I still don’t know where the story is going or what kind of scenes will take place. Right now I am just trying to read with an open mind and understand what the author thinks the virtues of this “approach” are from an educational standpoint and what problems it helps to solve. I also want to be aware of problems I see it creating without addressing, but so far there hasn’t been anything like that.

Without going into further detail for now, the author lists the following as the “fundamentals of the Reggio approach”:

  • the child as protagonist
  • the child as collaborator
  • the child as communicator
  • the environment as third teacher
  • the teacher as partner, nurturer and guide
  • the teacher as researcher
  • the documentation as communication
  • the parent as partner

Here are some impressions so far.

The school sounds small, both physically and in terms of student enrollment. I think the “approach” recommends smaller class sizes and smaller overall school enrollments (20-30 total) and that typically there are two teachers per class who work in a supportive team. This seems to be the case at the Diana School she is observing.

The school has a team of cooks who prepare fresh snacks and pranzo (lunch) for the students, teachers and themselves. I really like this. The children take a nap after lunch. I also like this. Paying attention to nutritional needs and making mealtime special is part of my ideal lifestyle. Listening to the body’s needs and relaxing all the way to napping when called for, especially in the case of small, growing children, makes a lot of sense to me. I wish that the teachers didn’t read “fairy tales” to the kids before they took their nap though– this tells me that being reality-oriented is not a high priority for the “approach.” I like that the teachers and cooks get together and share their meal while the children sleep and that they do this at a leisurely pace and focus on social topics rather than “their work” (ie, working lunch).

The lesson plan or day’s activities starts with a debrief between the teachers and the children. There appears to be a lot of questions from the teachers aimed at understanding the children’s priorities and interests to be explored throughout the day’s activities. The children are semi-organized– some pursue independent activities, some work together, some volunteer to assist the teachers in engaging with other, younger children.

The town of Reggio sounds pleasant. The author and her husband walk to their local cafe bar for their morning espresso. Their sons ride their bikes to school through the city streets. Their neighbors quickly “adopt” them and have them over for dinner and vice versa to teach them Italian cooking and traditions. Interestingly, I noticed that the parks and public places are described as having a variety of age groups using them simultaneously, including youngsters, “amorous teenage couples”, families and old people sitting around talking and getting fresh air. When I think about the public parks where I live, I notice there are never any old people about, and that families with small children only go to certain parks with playgrounds, and adults or individuals with pets go to separate parks or go at different times, and few people think of spontaneously meeting their neighbors or community members in the park, or scheduling a get together there with a friend or associate. This seems like a sign of beneficial urbanity in Reggio that is strangely missing from where I live, but which I have noticed in public places in big American cities and in other public parks around the world– though in the US and certain less wealthy countries I have visited, there is also a problem with vagrancy and other undesirables using these parks.