November 17, 2018

Preschool education gets a new Italian accent

Aah, Italy.

The mere mention evokes images of lush Tuscan landscapes, museums filled with masterpieces and … pedagogy?

The land of Michelangelo and da Vinci is also known for a progressive approach to early childhood education named for the northern Italian town where it started — Reggio Emilia.

The child-centered philosophy has been adopted in schools around the world and drawn interest from such figures as former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who traveled to Italy during his tenure under the Clinton administration to see the approach in action.

Locally, it has attracted the attention of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE). In April, the BJE arranged for 22 educators from local Jewish preschools to travel to Italy for a six-day intensive introduction to the Reggio Emilia approach. Colleagues from Washington, D.C., and Israel joined the group for the program.

Initiated soon after World War II, Reggio emphasizes respect and regard for children, whose interests, input and comments help direct lessons, classroom activities and topics of exploration.

Esther Posin, a preschool teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood, was already using Reggio before joining the trip. She gave an example of a child using blocks to build castles to explain how it works.

“That led to a discussion about castles — who lived in them, how they lived and where they lived,” she said. “Then we moved into Judaica, talking about kings and queens [and people like] Pharaoh and Ahasuerus.”

Posin also described how a water bottle once generated a conversation among the children about how water got into the bottle. That, in turn, led to discussions about rain clouds, sewers, dams and pipes and how beavers build dams. The children created a dam using mud and twigs.

“A child is not a blank slate to be completely directed. Children are curious and thoughtful and able to acquire knowledge on their own without someone feeding it to them,” Posin said. “You can teach them a lot, but you do it by building on their curiosity, imagination and thoughts.”

Teacher anecdotes about the effectiveness of the Reggio approach have been reiterated by academics, among them Dr. Carolyn Pope Edwards, professor of psychology and child, youth and family studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She observed Chinese orphanages using the approach. Even in these institutional settings, she said, “The Reggio-inspired programs had wonderful effects on children across the board.”

Esther Elfenbaum, director of early childhood education services at the BJE, and her counterpart, Mara Bier from the Washington, D.C., area, spearheaded the Jewish educators’ trip to Italy. Elfenbaum had observed schools in Reggio Emilia about a decade earlier.

“It totally blew my mind. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my many years [in early education],” said Elfenbaum, who has been in the field for close to 40 years. “Three- and 4-year-olds could do an activity for an hour because they were so interested.”

Several years ago, Elfenbaum began offering a BJE-sponsored class on Reggio in collaboration with the Early Childhood Center at Stephen S. Wise Temple. But she wanted teachers and preschool directors to see the approach in practice.

Trip participants represented 12 schools, ranging from Orthodox to Reconstructionist. The six-day program included workshops at the Loris Malaguzzi International Center, as well as visits to Reggio schools. The group also convened separately to discuss and apply Jewish values to what they’d learned. Those who took part had to secure their own funding for travel and class expenses.

The group will continue to meet regularly to discuss the approach and how to apply it in the classroom. A listserve enables them to communicate with fellow participants from Washington and Israel.

Sherry Fredman, nursery school principal at Temple Israel of Hollywood, was impressed with Reggio’s approach to the concept of time.

“They don’t want the children to rush through their activities [or] have to transition every five minutes to a different activity,” Fredman said. “They really allow children to take their time to delve into the curriculum and … experience it with all their senses.”

Reggio’s emphasis on “documentation” calls for teachers to photograph the children in action, take extensive notes and interview the children about what they’re doing. Elaborate displays showcase children’s activities, allowing parents to see what happens in the classroom and children to revisit their ideas. They also demonstrate that the children’s work is valued. Parents, teachers and the community are all seen as stakeholders in the educational process.

Elfenbaum said she was attracted to Reggio because it echoed many Jewish concepts.

“The image of the child in Reggio is that of an intelligent, curious and capable being,” she said. “‘In The Wisdom of the Fathers [Pirke Avot], it says, ‘Each child brings his own blessing into the world’ and ‘Whenever children are learning, there dwells the Divine Presence.'”

She said Reggio and Judaism share many other principles, including the concepts of dialogue and discussion, collaboration and community, and an emphasis on lifelong learning.

Alexandra Kayman, preschool director of the Chabad Garden School in the Pico-Robertson area, said that because Reggio is a philosophy-based education, it “fits beautifully” with Chabad’s approach to educating children. Teachers can use the children’s interests as a springboard for connecting to the curriculum, she said.

Debi Chesler, director of the Temple Ahavat Shalom Early Childhood Center in Northridge, said that she is making a number of Reggio-inspired changes to the classrooms’ physical environment, including bringing in more light and color. The school is also producing more displays, “allowing children to use words and feelings and thoughts about the projects they are doing,” she said.

Those who traveled to Reggio Emilia consistently showed enthusiasm for the approach and its potential.

“This is going to improve and enrich our environment, our curriculum, our students’ lives, and our educators’ lives,” Temple Israel’s Fredman said.