Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I learned at the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance Conference--Albuquerque, Summer, 2014

I won't go into the Reggio conference itself. Needless to say I heartily recommend doing one of these splendid conferences if not actually going to Reggio Emilia (I want to!). But after listening to these amazing master-teachers for three days I came back with a renewed confidence in the children's capacity to question, analyze, and discuss.

Here is a tiny example:

On our daily walk into our building the children had formed a habit of, after picking grass with "pom poms" at the top (their term), and placing the stems of these pom-poms into holes in the cinder block walls on the way to the bathroom. Now, as any preschool teacher can tell you, if you need to walk in a line with fours, and you want them to go to the bathroom before lunch, you need to keep the line moving. No matter how much we admonished them to stop picking the grasses that were growing from the cracks in the sidewalk or along the brick wall outside the school, they stooped quickly and swiped their prizes. Once we entered the building they fondled the soft ends of these treasures...

They were kind of like this, only more scraggly!

And gradually, over days, they began to place them in the little holes along the cinder block walls leading to the bathroom. I realized that part of listening to children, a core Reggio value, was watching them and validating their interests. So during small group time I took them outside to pick grass! They were ecstatic! It was like watching a game show where a person is given the choice of a TV or a trip to Bermuda! Then we took our grasses inside to create what I called an art installation. Because it was! They loved calling it art. They told all of the other children not to touch their art! The next day we went into the classroom and found holes, which led to conversations and questions about what a hole was. If it was square, was it still a hole? Was the top of an empty butter tub a hole? And what made the holes?

Here are some of their ideas on what made holes in the cinder block:

"Someone could have been picking at the walls.""Maybe a people got sharp thing and stick it in the walls.""Because maybe they want to put a design in the walls, they get like a knife…""It could be there from like electricity wires.""There might be a nail inside and someone was trying to drill it and they kind of got it wrong.""Maybe they put a screw in the wall and then try again to put it in a different place.""Maybe some bad guys came in the school at night and drilled holes in the wall."

This wasn't the conclusion of this line of inquiry, but a tiny sample. I want to demonstrate that something teachers often (not always) see as a nuisance or distraction may be something important to a young child, and a portal to inquiry. If we don't pay attention to their interests, how can we ask them to pay attention to ours?


An end of the year project: Child Care, Reggio-style.

Wall display of child-designed games

We have ended our school year at our Reggio-inspired Child Care center. Our last Pre-K project was about games. The children were indignant if we didn't put out board games with activities each day, So Sue and I asked them to design their own games. Which they did with gusto! Where do you begin? Where do you end? What is the objective of the player? What are the hazards and rewards? Actually, the children knew these questions before we asked because they had internalized the idea of what a children's board game is. After designing their own board, they decided on either a die or a spinner. Creating a die was chosen by only two children, the rest loved creating a spinner, with our help. Fashioning the playing pieces ("people" they called them) involved using differently shaped wood pieces, pom-poms, small marbles, and connecting them with white glue. The children glued their players together, and, after heart-breaking discoveries in the morning ("my pieces fell apart!"), I used a glue gun to repair them. 

Then came the game tournament! We turned activity time into a gaming festival (no electronics needed)! Children played their own, and each others games. Individually, they reflected about what they liked about their games, and what they might like to change (mostly nothing...they were delighted). Sue displayed the games in our stairwell, along with the baggies of playing pieces (the baggies didn't like being on the wall, so they fell). Parents and others coming up the long two flights of stairs could admire each game, and children could narrate the story line of each.

Enter emergent literacy! When I asked each child I worked with about their game, I prompted them to tell the "story" their games told. They seemed to understand that starting somewhere, overcoming obstacles, and finishing victorious (you get the lollipops, the cloud heaven, the rainbow, or the bad guys) was a story. Children understand such concepts in a general sense. One little girl told me only, "Well, you WIN!" That was enough for her!

If we'd done this project earlier in the year, I would like to have laminated the games. But it is the time for new beginnings. These children are going to kindergarten in two weeks! The "little kids" (their term) are coming over to our side of our huge, lively space, and even younger ones are coming up from the first floor. New projects are in the future