Posted on May 10, 2010
Outside my window, a breathtaking view of the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, and the bell tower of the Duomo. Each of these structures was built in the 12th century. Next to our hotel is the cloister of Ognissanti from which the bells peal in the morning, noon, and evening, but then again, the bell towers from surrounding cathedrals ring somewhat in unison, creating an echo effect. And then a horse-drawn carriage comes down the cobblestone street now and then. Today I did my stairmaster workout by climbing 135 steps at a steep vertical angle up to the cupola (dome) of the Duomo. It's one of those tourist experiences that you can forever claim -- I did it! These were the very steps that artists trudged up and down to complete the basilica. Tourists like myself climb the heights not only for a terrific view of the city of Firenze (Florence) outside the dome, but also to get an up-close view of the incredible ceiling frescoe began by Brunelleschi in the mid 1500s then completed by another artist named Vasari. The frescoe depicts the ascent from hell to heaven in the Last Judgment. My heightened, sensory awareness is a daily reminder that, yes, I am in Italy!
My visits to three Reggio Emilia preschools were amazing experiences. Early childhood schools run by the municipality of Reggio Emilia share some visible characteristics: a welcoming space, a central area (much like the concept of a piazza or meeting place), a transparency of space so that learning is made visible internally and externally via large windows and glass openings in walls, a fully-loaded kitchen, and a dining area for the children. Classrooms are airy and aesthetically pleasing. Materials such as construction blocks, recyclable items for art and play, and dramatic play are thoughtfully arranged. Evidence of student work is often left out so that when children return to school, they can continue their work. Documentation panels, which hang from ceilings or posted on walls, explain the children's learning processes. The notion of the environment as the "third teacher" readily comes to mind. Here at MPI, our preschool shares many of the same characteristics, particularly the thoughtful arrangement of furniture, the large windows that open to the environment, documentation panels, and the daily communication with parents. As inspiring as the physical environment and uses of space in Reggio Emilia were for me, even more impressive were the meetings with the teachers through skillful translators.
At each school, I learned about the history of the school from the pedagogista (akin to the director of the school or curriculum head). It's important to remember that the schools in Reggio Emilia were actually first organized and developed after World War II by women, many of them mothers, whose goal was to provide children with the best early childhood education in response to the political and social ills in Europe.
The most important concept is the image of the child -- a view of the child as a citizen from the very beginning, a "protagonist" who is capable of making choices and who is naturally predisposed to curiosity and to learning. School is regarded as a place for making connections and building relationships to others, that is, the interconnectedness between cognition and emotions. We also spoke with the atelieristi who are the art studio teachers and how they try to support students' thinking by providing various materials and experiences.
I was deeply impressed by the level of commitment of these teachers. They meet two to three times each week in the afternoons for three hours at a time to discuss the evidence of students' learning (e.g., drawings, sketches, structures, video, photos, etc.). Their meetings are intensive discussions full of speculations and possibilities about their interpretations of children's work. And I do mean they think deeply about learning.
All schools outside Reggio Emilia (Italy) that implement this approach are called "Reggio-inspired" schools. Hawaii has one Reggio-inspired school. Mid-Pacific Institute began its Reggio-inspired preschool five years ago, and I feel we've made significant progress in our journey towards creating a community and environment that values children as citizens, protagonists, decision-makers, and unique persons.
I know we've made progress because during my study tour in Reggio Emilia, there was so much that I felt we have implemented, discussed, are aware of, and are considering, given our context as a preschool within a larger independent school in Hawaii. The essential pieces are in place at Mid-Pacific. We have a pedagogista, atelierista, committed team of early childhood educators who mindset and attitude are as researchers, inviting spaces such as the atelier (art studio) and classrooms, and an approach based on the pedagogy of listening to children and having meaningful conversations with them. Other elements such as documenting learning and daily communication with parents are also practiced.
But we have not yet "arrived." As I learned from new friends at Reggio Emilia, our inspiration is an active process that is a continuous journey. We are learning how to identify possible learning projects based on our observations and documentation. We are learning how to think about children's thinking. We are learning how to talk with colleagues and talk with parents about the extraordinary learning in ordinary moments. As I said in last week's website letter, I am convinced that Mid-Pacific has chosen the best early childhood model of education to implement.
I was so pleased to be right there (virtually) in the gym on May 7 watching Motown in Manoa via Skype. It was 12:45am for me on Saturday morning when the program began with Chaplain Koyama and President Rice. I'm sure you've read your child's teacher's classroom weblog about the May Day program and viewed photos in the online gallery. Many thanks to Diane Koshi for creating a unique program that was a nostalgic experience for some of us in the audience who grew up with Motown hits and a grand dance party for the children. I enjoyed everything, especially the finale when everyone got on the floor and danced en masse. Kudos to our talented choreographer Noe Vitarelli. I'd like to also commend the many parents who volunteered several weekends to work on the glitzy set and the costumes. Truly a labor of love.
You're reminded that May 14, this Friday, there is no school. Teachers need the time to work on their assessments and evaluations of students and to prepare for the parent-student-teacher conferences, which have been scheduled next week, May 20-21.
Tomorrow I visit Sienna. Everytime I hear or see a child, I think of our children at MPI.
For our children,
Edna L. Hussey
Preschool and Elementary