An Italian Import for Early Education Washington Preschool Adapts the Reggio Approach, Whereby Teachers Take Their Lead from Kids' Activities

Article excerpt

WHAT would preschoolers do if they suddenly found a plump, purple eggplant on the table? The staff at the Model Early Learning Center (MELC) in Washington, D.C., hoped they would dive for their crayons. Instead, the children barely glanced at the eggplant.

"Oh, they drew a bit, but there was no excitement around it," the head teacher, Sonya Shoptaugh, recalls. So the staff changed tack. Before school opened, they filled a bowl with lemons and hung three more from the ceiling.

That did it. The sight was both familiar and unusual enough to spur six three-to-five-year-olds to draw, paint, and reproduce the lemons in papier-mache; to smear them with paint and roll them over paper; to slice them, squeeze them, chop them; to raid the shelves for yellow objects and use them in collages; and finally, to scout the yard for a branch and decorate it with their artifacts.

The lemon-tree project is more than play: It illustrates an educational approach that has gained worldwide attention. Even before Newsweek magazine, in December 1991, chose a preschool in Reggio Emilia, Italy, as the best in the world, many progressive educators in the United States and Europe knew of the 32 preschools and infant-toddler centers in the northern Italian city.

They had also heard of their founder, Loris Malaguzzi, who received both the 1992 Lego Prize for his "tenacious, pioneering work" and, in April 1993, the Kohl International Teaching Award in Chicago.

In June, Mr. Malaguzzi came to the US again. "We choose an image of the child as strong, filled with resources," he told more than 400 people at a conference in Washington, many of whom are used to viewing children as fragile and at risk.

"I think he's probably right," says Fredericka Phelps, program specialist for early-childhood services for Fairfax County, Va. "We do so much for the child and then assume he's weak.... If we look at the child as strong, then we'll change our expectations."

Educating the child whom Malaguzzi postulates requires teachers who don't simply transfer knowledge and skills. These teachers fuel children's investigative impulses, allow them to explore, listen to their theories and encourage them to test them, and intervene only to introduce a new tool or challenge.

This is central to the Reggio "approach," which is different from a "model" or "method" such as that used in Montessori schools, says Carlina Rinaldi, who has worked with the Reggio schools since 1970 as an educational coordinator. She explains: "Montessori schools use identical materials and unchanging methods. We are conceptually different. Ours is an approach; it entails entering into an attitude toward life and relationships."

To Ann Lewin, the founder and director of MELC, this means that "at Reggio there's a true practice of theories we in America give a lot of lip service to. Specifically, the constructivist theory, which says we all construct our own intelligence; social constructivism, which holds that intelligence is constructed in a social setting; and multiple-intelligence theory, which says we have intellectual thumb prints as different as our physical thumb prints."

To live these theories, Reggio teachers rely primarily on practices they call "documentation" and "emergent curriculum." The latter is, Malaguzzi explains, "a curriculum that emerges from the children, allowing them to enter and become part of the process."

To build this curriculum, teachers listen, watch, transcribe children's conversations, videotape their activities, take endless photographs, place tape recorders in strategic locations.

Lest they misread a child's development, teachers work in teams and set aside time to review events. …

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