Ann Lewin-Benham Photo
Image has the words assessment, conversation,culture, documentation, family involvement, literacy, projects, and teachers's role

Look It Up!

Frequently Ann is asked questions about topics related to practices in the preschools of Reggio Emilia, the Model Early Learning Center (MELC), and schools inspired by the Reggio Approach.  Here she provides brief definitions, quotations, and images about assessment, conversation, culture, documentation, family involvement, literacy, projects, and the teacher's role. Page references enable you to find these topics easily in her books Possible Schools or Powerful Children.


Assesment is a formal means of keeping track of children’s progress. The means vary enormously -- from standardized forms of testing to teacher’s own note-taking.

“Young children’s development is unpredictable. Some aspects of development leap forward quickly; others emerge slowly. Therefore, they should be assessed over long time periods by their own teachers, at times they deem best, and as the children undertake their regular activities. As examples throughout this book testify, documentation is an assessment technique that showcases children’s evolving capacities.” – Powerful Children, Chapter 10, p. 168
See also in Powerful Children: 8, 11, 10-12, 16-17, 93, 112, 117-118, 120-122, 125-126, 128, 166, 168-169, 170, 181, 190

Son explaining a documentation panel to his fatherThere are many ways other than formal tests to assess children. One is asking them to tell a parent what they have done. Another is to engage children in dialogue about something they have done. These are particularly useful techniques before children know how to read.


Conversation is the sharing of ideas through a give and take of words with other people. Conversation is essential to children’s establishing spoken and written language. Facility in using words and sentences as part of one’s thought process begins in conversation.

“Holding conversations with young children requires technique and focus. You do not always understand what the child says, nor he you. Like playing ball with a baby who has to learn the process of back and forth, of rolling the ball in a particular direction, it is not easy for a teacher to keep a conversation focused. Nor is it easy to extract meaning from children’s words. . . . What really interests the children? How can we use their words to capture and expand these interests? Studying conversations is time consuming and exacting.” – Possible Schools, Chapter 4, pp. 44-45
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 53, 55, 56-57, 78, 102, 122, 140, 143-144

INSERT Conversation is the bedrock of literacy. Vocabulary, grammar, and self-expression develop through

IMAGE conversation as do the abilities to stay focused and on topic.

“If the focus of these young children [in the Model Early Learning Center] seems unusual, remember that conversations were held throughout each day. During the prior year, the teachers had learned how to hold conversations: to take notes while children spoke, analyze notes to find children’s real interests, ignore digressions, and keep the children focused.

Before and after each step in a project, teachers used the children’s own words and photographs to remind them what they’d asked, what they’d learned, how they’d reacted. This remembering spurred a project along. . . It [had taken] months to become focused in conversation . . . but the teachers [had] persisted, consistently encouraging the children to contrast, question, and attend to detail. (In Lewin-Benham, 2006, pp. 56-7). – Powerful Children, Chapter 7, p. 115
See also in Powerful Children: pp. 26, 29, 31, 32, 33-34, 39, 40, 41, 44-46, 49-50, 52-53, 58, 60-61, 63-64, 66-70, 72, 78, 83-84, 98, 99, 101, 103, 106-107, 113-115, 117, 119, 124, 129, 131-132, 134-139, 145, 147, 153-158, 160-161, 168-169, 174, 176


Culture surrounds us, is part of us, shapes us, like water and the fish. The relationship with a culture is always reciprocal: Humans become what is in their culture, they also make what is in their culture. This is as true of a school as of any other artifact, technology, or institution. The culture in Reggio-inspired schools involves dynamic interplay among children, teachers, and family members.

INSERT IMAGE "Values surrounding childhood, not those espoused but those actually practiced, impacted the [Model Early Learning Center - MELC]. In the small city of Reggio Emilia the high quality of its increasingly famous preschools is cause for celebration. In our large city of Washington, DC the MELC was scarcely noticed. Had it been, it might have been viewed with suspicion, a reception our culture sometimes gives to anything too far from middle of the road, whether excellent or deplorable. Moreover, our culture’s response to emerging research on young children has been, by and large, to productize childhood not to professionalize care giving. 'Cosmetologists must attend as much as 2000 hours of training before getting a license, but thirty states allow teachers in child care centers to work with children without any training in early childhood development (Children’s Defense Fund, 2002, page 55)'." – Possible Schools, Chapter 11, p. 154
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 1, 5-6, 8, 10, 11, 15-16, 17, 18, 20, 26, 27, 30, 34, 55, 59, 101, 103-104, 120, 127, 131, 135, 140-141, 147, 154-157


Documentation means making a large, visible record - called a panel - of a pivotal experience so that teachers and children can remember the experience by revisiting photos of themselves, their questions, conclusions, and activities. This remembering spurs them on to continue the activity or grow it in new directions.

“Documentation is integral to projects. Children have hundreds of ideas – a pivotal question, a flash of intuition, a poetic expression – but they are often fleeting. One moment a child may be consumed by a caterpillar, the next by something entirely different, the momentary passion abandoned. If teachers can catch children’s ideas on tape or preserve crucial moments in photos, if the child leaves a trace in a drawing or statement, if teachers can represent it on a panel, it gives the moment permanence, enabling the child to continue the thought process.” – Possible Schools, Chapter 9, p. 120
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 67, 85, 86, 93, 115, 119-123, 129, 134-135

INSERT Documentation is a powerful form of assessment that provides teachers, children, and parents a window into

IMAGE what has taken place. Teachers frequently revisit documentation with the children who were involved in the experience, so the children become very familiar with the stories of what they have done. Children's comments as they revisit show teachers what they have learned, and suggest next steps to build their understanding.

“Teacher/documenter means being in a situation and observing simultaneously. The documenter identifies pivotal moments – key questions, penetrating responses, on-target observations, skilled actions – which move projects forward. She captures such moments in words and photos, knowing she will mount them on a panel so that she and the children can reflect on what they are doing. Reflection is essential to thinking: Seeing photos and hearing words of what they’ve just done maintains children’s focus, aids their memory, and stimulates further thought.” – Powerful Children, Chapter 8, pp. 132-133
See also in Powerful Children: pp. 18, 20, 28, 52-54, 61, 63, 69, 71, 81-83, 87, 99-101, 107, 109, 112, 114, 116-118, 120-122, 124-127, 143

Family involvement

Family involvement is as important to a school as its facility, furniture, and curriculum. Yet, too often a we/they mentality keeps parents and teachers apart. Parents feel unwelcome and teachers feel threatened. When parents and teachers learn how to work together, family and school merge in powerful ways.

“Gradually as 1993-94 proceeded, and we communicated what was happening – through letters, memos, field trips, panels, the Parent Board – families became aware of the school, realized they could express their needs and desires, understood they had rights. It happened in little ways: Reginold’s father stood observing from the door to the Big Room. Later he told us how much he learned about discipline watching us handle the children. Derrick’s family asked to borrow the camera. Many parents brought extended family members to meetings or celebrations. Mrs. Dickerson volunteered to donate decorations for the holiday party. . . . Recalling the beginning of school year 1993-94, when the course was so unclear, we could see that, in fact, we had succeeded in exploring values, sharing resources, and fostering exchanges between home and school.” – Possible Schools, Chapter 9, p. 120
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 10-11, 69, 72-73, 78, 83-85, 90-91, 95, 101-105, 109,118, 129, 131-139, 145

INSERT Along with teachers parents made things for the school, here musical instruments from a great variety of found IMAGE objects, many from the children's homes.

“We had difficulty involving parents in the MELC. The first breakthrough came when we requested photos from home, recorded children’s stories about how the photos reflected their family, and had them draw what the photo meant. With the first photo, story, and drawing, we began a panel. That is, we laid out the material with no extraneous decoration on a large illustration board which we hung on the wall. Just seeing one family’s story immediately motivated others to send their photos. . . . Panels engaged families in emerging literacy activities: Children loved seeing themselves in the stories on the panels and the stories became a vehicle for the children to tell stories by 'reading' the panels to family members.” – Powerful Children, Chapter 1, p. 22
See also in Powerful Children: pp. 1, 8, 22, 44-45, 53, 55, 57, 69, 78, 83-84, 87-90, 92, 93, 95, 97, 99, 102, 104, 106-111, 117, 131, 146, 181


Literacy, in its narrow sense, means being able to read and write, two skills that are vitally important in a complex culture like the USA. In its broader sense literacy means skill at interpreting any of the vast and varied ways that humans use to organize and understand the world and to express themselves. Reggio educators call this having "100 languages."  In the following two excerpts the emphasis is on the narrow sense of literacy, and especially on ways to shape a preschool so that it encourages children to express themselves fluently using words.

“By far our most prevalent activities involved use of the English language – over a dozen distinct activities to build literacy, including regular use of Montessori sand paper letters and Movable Alphabet, time-proven materials with which writing is taught as a prelude to reading. In response to parents’ concerns, we focused extra attention on all language activities, especially conversation which builds pre-reading skills. We taught children through practice how the language works.” – Possible Schools, Chapter 8, p. 102
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 40-41, 55-56, 67-68, 83, 101-108, 109-112, 115, 120-121, 127, 129, 134, 137

INSERT A great spur to literacy and part of the Communication Center were the mailboxes where children sent and IMAGES received messages they made for one another.

“Teachers and children wrote a memo asking families to create a message with their child to send to school. On Monday, there was bustling activity as the children sought out one another’s mailboxes to deposit the messages. Some children wrote to one single friend, others to many. Tuesday at morning meeting long conversations ensued as the teachers read all the messages. Cemetria remarked: “If you write me, I’ll write you back!” She expressed what many children were coming to understand – the power of written communication to make something happen. . . . Children have an “aha” moment when they realize silent abstract shapes cause big actions. The significance is that they learn the function of writing, that their writing can make someone do something or feel better.” – Powerful Children, Chapter 6, pp. 99
See also in Powerful Children: pp. 4, 5, 7, 8, 22, 33-34, 36, 41-42, 44, 46, 48-53, 55, 58, 60-62, 67-69, 72-75, 78, 80-81, 84, 88-90, 92, 95-111, 114-117, 120, 125, 128-129, 131-133, 135-137, 143-146, 153, 170, 176-178


Projects are educational experiences in which children pursue interests or solve problems that demand a big effort and involve research and collaboration. Projects always require self-expression which may take the form of writing or drawing, but also could be scientific examination and record keeping, the construction of an elaborate mechanism, or the enactment and documentation of a new adventure. A teacher is always involved as partner, coach, and guide to help move the project toward a significant result.

INSERT An occasional project was one small group making a surprise for others, wrapping it, and hanging it from the IMAGE ceiling where it made a tantalizing package, heightening anticpation before the time to unwrap it.

“When teachers noticed, through their observations, notes, or recordings, that children were interested in something, they paid particular attention. That something could become the theme for a project! With a potential theme in mind they listened to the tapes and read their notes to determine if the theme were rich enough and the children’s interests strong enough to warrant following up. One such theme was photography. There had been a huge emphasis on photographs – requesting them from home, using them for the Families documentation panel, adding photos throughout the environment. The teachers decided there was enough interest, that photography would be a strong theme. Having made that decision, they next brainstormed all the directions the project might take. Drawing on their recordings of children’s conversations and daily notes, their brainstorming yielded this list: dark room, negatives, film, slides, camera, light, subjects, enlargements, prints, costumes, chemicals, props, shadows, where to get film, tripods, developing, video camera, mirrors, exhibition. Because of intense, simultaneous activity with letters, Sonya [teacher] and the group interested in photographs had the idea of photographing objects in the environment – at school or outside – that resembled letters. . . . The project was called Alphotography. . . . [It showed] that children could recognize letters in unusual contexts.” – Possible Schools, Chapter 9, p. 124
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 40, 46-47, 50-59, 69-72, 78, 82, 83-86, 89-91,94, 98, 110, 112-114, 116-118, 119-121, 124-129, 136, 137, 140-141, 143

INSERT Some projects extended over months or from one school year to another. The relationship with the turtle given 2 iMAGES to the MELC involved a long series of related projects. In one several children collaborated to produce a splendid 3' x 4' painting of the turtle. In another they made friends with the other wildlife at the pond where they eventually returned their turtle to its natural environment.

Teacher’s Role

The teacher’s role is complex in Reggio practices; it is different from the usual understanding that teachers “cover” a curriculum. Rather, teachers play many roles – researcher, designer, collaborator, orchestrator, mediator, documenter. The roles overlap. Current teacher education courses are not yet effective in training teachers to play the highly nuanced role which characterizes a Reggio teacher.

“American schools are schedule-driven so we find it difficult to grasp how to organize a day without lesson plans and objectives. We watch the clock; Reggio educators watch the children. They base planning on what they observe, not on pre-determined lessons. Often unexpected things happened. The MELC teachers would learn to plan for the unexpected.” – Possible Schools, Chapter 7, p. 94
See also in Possible Schools: pp. 12, 14-15, 16, 20, 21-22, 24, 26-27, 30, 35, 59, 60, 72, 74, 83, 87-88, 91,93, 94-95, 99-100, 101-102, 122, 124, 130-132, 137, 141, 144-145, 152-153, 155

INSERT The role of a Reggio-inspired teacher is complex. The is a researcher, designer, collaborator, orchestrator and IMAGE mediator working alongside the children to suggest, cajole, interpret, listen, document, and take part in children's mental life.

“Teachers are researchers who listen, observe, record, and hypothesize; designers who prepare an environment that fosters relationships among people and between people and materials; orchestrators who encourage relationships among time, space, materials, and people; collaborators who are children’s accomplices and assistants in realizing their plans; documenters who take notes, photos, and other evidence to use as the basis for reflection; and mediators who intervene with intention, energy, and emotion.  First I explain each of these aspects.  Tehn I describe four projets to show which aspect of the role characterizes teachers' mindsets at particular moments, and follow with a deeper analysis of each of the role's aspects.  (Caution: In practice, like the Reggio Approach itself, the role [of the teacher] cannot be disaggregated.  I do so only to explain the multi-faceted nature of this kind of teaching.)  Finally, I analyze the MELC teachers' early questions, which reveal how hard it was to learn such a complex role. ” – Powerful Children, Chapter 8, p. 130
See also in Powerful Children: pp. 8, 21-23, 27, 30, 37-38, 69, 76, 78-79, 94, 112-113, 130-138, 140-144, 146, 148, 150, 152, 155-157, 159-160, 164, 168, 170-171

Web Design: Gerardo Vargas