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Excerpts from the books Possible Schools and Powerful Children

I have selected short passages from my 2 books on the Model Early Learning Center. Selections focus on the challenges in learning to adapt the Reggio Approach. Taken together these practices represent a new vision for early education. But, as described in my books, it is not easy to "do" Reggio in America.

Excerpts from Possible Schools

The following excerpt fosuces on a particular moment when teachers in the Model Early Learning Center were coming to grips with what it means to adapt Reggio practices in an American preschool.

Chapter 3, pp. 42-43:
Had we truly realized how much we had to learn, we would have been overwhelmed, but we were too unaware to be afraid. Many questions lay at the heart of what we had to learn: . . .

•  How do you engage in dialogue with a community in a way that validates the community?

  • How do you really listen and remember?
  • How do you figure out what it means so you know what the next steps are? As we began, several characteristics of the Reggio Approach seemed critical:
    • The ultimate attention paid to the environment’s every detail;
    • The huge effort to analyze what children say and do;
    • The partnership among teachers;
    • All adults’ equal engagement with the children;

The following excerpt from Possible Schools focuses on the difficulties in changing classroom practices and the elusive nature of change.

Chapter 4, pp. 60-61:
The MELC teachers had two daunting tasks: changing fundamental beliefs and doing so quickly, in months and two to three years, not over the decades in which Reggio practices evolved. They wanted to change and. . . had to have faith in children’s strength, which meant stifling their instinct to teach and relying instead on their responses to children’s actions, in effect throwing away lesson planning. They had to reorganize themselves to support small group work. They had to use feedback from their own observations. . .

Imagine a workman taking shovelfuls of sand from a pile. One day, as he removes a shovelful, the pile collapses. He did not expect this, and even if he had, there was no way to predict which shovelful would undermine the structure. Expressed differently, it requires a critical mass of sand to make a pile; below critical mass there is no pile. Tom Sayre, a young artist fascinated by such phenomena, shot over a hundred photographs of collapsing wooden fences. Some showed a standing fence, some a fallen heap of boards; most interesting were the ones where the form was still recognizable but hovered on collapse, the moment between fence and not fence, that split second before the loss of critical mass, the exquisite tension between is and is not.

Human formation involves the same exquisite tensions, but infinitely more complex. In human development we can neither set a time-table on which to provide experiences nor foresee which experiences will culminate in the critical mass essential to a specific behavior. The process of accumulating experience is so subtle, so intricate that whether or when something recognizable will emerge is unpredictable. This chapter has attempted to describe a few experiences in the emergence of Reggio practices in the MELC, the beginning steps of its teachers and children.

To purchase a copy of “Possible Schools”, follow this link.

Excerpts from Powerful Children

The following excerpt focuses on one aspect of the role of teachers who are trying to adpat Reggio practices -- listening to children by taking notes on what they say and using the notes as the basis for a project:.

Chapter 8, p. 131:
Teacher as Researcher
As researchers, teachers listen for children’s questions and ideas, observe their actions, and record what seems significant. Then, in after-school meetings they review their notes and hypothesize which questions and actions are rich enough to branch in diverse ways. Reading their notes to one another, teachers debate—heartily—exactly what the children meant. Once they home in and agree on a topic(s), they brainstorm, make a mind-map, or diagram how the topic(s) might branch. If the topic(s) seem rich and can translate into action, they review the children’s words with them, closely observing the children’s reactions as they—children and teachers—discuss together what the teachers have winnowed from their notes. There are no predetermined responses like the scripted dialogues in teacher guides. Rather, there is an exchange of ideas, debate, and negotiation among teachers and children. If conversation develops along the rich lines teachers brainstormed, there is a strong possibility a project will emerge, although, as in any research, the outcome is not certain. Who would have predicted a friendship between turtle and cat (Chapter 7)? or an interview of a letter carrier (Chapter 6)? or imaginative birthday gifts (Chapter 5)? It may take several days to home in on where to start because, when researchers are engaged with rich ideas that genuinely interest them, their minds keep pondering. Cuckoo Bird projects gelled quickly but projects like Turtle, Coco, and Messages evolved slowly after much conversation between teachers and children as well as among the teachers themselves.

The following excerpt from Powerful Children summarizes some of the challenges in adapting Reggio practices in American preschools.

Chapter 9, p. 165:
Creating Reggio-inspired practices requires support for teachers and a culture of enlightened leadership, penetrating scholarship, extraordinary dedication, and long hours. It requires financial support not usually available in America, and release from the constraints of the teach/test mentality currently driving policy. As long as these requirements run counter to the political will, Reggio-inspired schools will remain outside the mainstream, boutique instances with little effect on typical practices, and mainly disconnected from low-income families.

The MELC, with all its advantages, could not survive the political climate that was evolving during its existence. Hopefully, the superhuman efforts of those trying to run Reggio-inspired schools will prevail wherever they are. These pioneers, hopefully, will be inspired by these stories about the challenges and triumphs of MELC teachers, children, and families. Hopefully, the stories in this book will help bridge the cultural gap.

To purchase a copy of “Powerful Children”, follow this link.

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