Novice Teachers and Applications of Learnings from Reggio Emilia (Guest blogger: Dr. Stephanie Sanders-Smith)

Figure 1: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study group to Reggio Emilia, November 2016.

Last November (2016), a colleague and I took fourteen of our early childhood preservice teachers to Reggio Emilia. We spent a week at Centro Internazionale Loris Malaguzzi listening to lectures and exploring community ateliers. The students were able to visit four schools, one nido, two scuole dell’infanzia, and the primary school, la scuola Malaguzzi. The experience consisted of an almost exhausting amount of information for the students. I was informed on Friday that they had been tracking just how long they had been in lecture over the course of the week. It had been over twenty hours! And that was not including the atelier work or the school visits.

Figure 2: Students exploring methods of working with paper Remida Atelier at Centro Internazionale Loris Malaguzzi.

Because of the deep connections between the Reggio Emilia Approach and Italian culture, we stayed a second week in Italy. The goal for this part of the trip was to try to make sense of what we had seen in the schools in Reggio Emilia and what we had learned from teachers and pedagogistas, and how to make sense of these experience when applied to the context of our own work in American schools. To this end, we visited Venice for two days and then spent another four exploring art and architecture in Florence.

Figure 3: Viewing Botticelli’s La Primavera a the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

At the end of two weeks, we were all exhausted and ready to head home. The students’ travel journals (submitted for course credit!) revealed how much they enjoyed the trip and how much knowledge and understanding they gained – but also just how overwhelmed and tired they were. We all agreed that it had been a great experience. But, I wondered just how well they would be able to make connections between their experiences in Italy and their classroom practice. I was not expecting to find answers easily, as most of the students on the trip began student teaching in local elementary schools the following January and then graduated in the Spring. However, three of the students on the trip were juniors. This past semester, we had the opportunity to find out how these three were making sense of their experiences in Reggio Emilia during their fall semester placements in preschool classrooms.

The pedagogies we teach in our early childhood program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, unsurprisingly, are heavily influenced by Professor Emerita Lilian Katz. We teach students values from Reggio Emilia, such as learning to recognize children as current citizens and the subjects of rights, to provide multiple languages through which children can express knowledge, collaboration with parents, collaboration with children, etc. The inquiry-based teaching and learning present in the Reggio Approach, for us, is structured with Dr. Katz’s Project Approach. Thus, students in a preschool placement must find a topic of shared interest with the children and investigate together using the Project Approach. On the last day of class, all students share with their classmates (colleagues) their investigations with children.

Our three Reggio alumnae each presented interesting projects, each demonstrating deep thinking about children’s learning. Their thinking was not more complex than all of their colleagues projects, but it for nearly all. The first project built on a traditional fall visit to the pumpkin patch. The student recognized that there were things that children wished to do at the pumpkin patch that were not permitted and experiences that they wanted to revisit. Together with the children, she recreated parts of the pumpkin patch within her classroom (e.g., the shop, the pumpkin washing station) so that children could spend several weeks re-experiencing, testing hypotheses, and considering what they had (in Dr. Katz’s words) “found out” on their visit.

In the second project, the student recognized that the children were very interested in their own clothing. This launched an investigation of clothes, during which, the children were shocked to realize that they could make clothes themselves! Children spent a great deal of time designing and showcasing their work. The student expressed later that the project did not go at all as she was expecting it to, but it did go exactly as the children expected.

Figure 4: Making and designing clothing.

The student final project was about rainbows. The student and I had several conversations before the project began about how rainbows could be something that children could experience and re-experience during the course of the project. She was confident that it could be done, so I gave my blessing. The project began with children’s hypothesis that rainbows could be played upon and children could “slide down”. Children tested the hyothesis by using a CD to project a rainbow on the carpet. After some discussion with their student teacher, the realized that it is not possible to touch a rainbow. The project evolved to working with projections of light and colored lights. The student asked to borrow an old overhead projector from the university and she and the children spent the next few weeks contemplating projections of light, shadow, and color.

Figures 5 & 6: Experimentation with light and shadow.

These projects were still projects facilitated by novice teachers. They did not have the complexity indicative of project facilitated by more experienced teachers. But within the program, we noticed a deeper understanding of children born and more intentionality in observations, interactions, and presentation of possibilities for investigation than from projects in previous years and nearly all projects by other students. This was only our first trip to Reggio Emilia and only our first time seeing students continue to grapple with teachings from Reggio Children in their own practice. For us, this is a source of ongoing investigation into how novice teachers make sense of the Reggio Emilia Approach and how we can best support their abilities to take as much from learning experiences in Italy as possible.


Stephanie C. Sanders-Smith is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and the Yew Chung – Bernard Spodek Scholar of Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research considers early childhood pedagogies within a range of racial, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts.

Changing Times Call for Difficult Conversations (Guest blogger: Dr. Ty Jiles)

As a young child I used to think that shootings, killings, and other violent acts were related to gangs, drugs, and robberies. At the very least guns were used by perpetrators and others that were involved in unlawful acts. After all, they were the “bad guys, ” and that is the life that they choose “you do wrong, and it will follow you.” Sounds like a novel concept but it was my reality. If you don’t break the rules, you won’t be penalized!

Well, the times have changed! There is not a day that goes by where you will not read or hear about a person who has become a victim of gun violence or some other random hatred act. Young children are not exempt from these horrific incidents as the TV, Internet, and radio provide play-by-play coverage of shootings both locally and nationally. The shootings and killings that occur now are not like those of twenty years ago. Today’s acts of gun violence often involve innocent victims, implying that no one in our society is exempt from gun violence and or completely safe. This is the message that is being sent to young children all over the United States.

During early October immediately after the Las Vegas shootings, I held class, and at the start of the session, we sat in a circle and verbally touched on how this horrific and violent act made us feel like as adults. Then I posed the question to my class what would they do if they were already teachers and had their classrooms full of students? Classes filled with curious students with questions and concerns. Most of the students did not have much to say and admitted that speaking about this would be something that they were not comfortable with doing so. That moment of silence made me realize even more that our future teachers will need a set of simple core skills that will assist them in dealing with tragic situations like this.

How did we get to a place where gun violence is so prevalent? Who is responsible for controlling gun violence? Has the government or political powers that be lost control? These and many more questions linger in my mind. As I grapple with these issues, I further struggle with thoughts about our nation’s children and their future teachers. How do I as a teacher educator equip my students to take their next roles and not address this significant concern regarding safeness? I feel very strongly about ensuring that teachers are prepared and are equipped with skills that they can readily assist them in providing a warm and positive classroom climate.

While it is imperative that we do not emphasize sharing disastrous events with young students, they will often talk about the different things that they have heard. At this moment we can listen to our students and promote a feeling of safety in the classroom. Then we as teachers can provide options for students to find ways that they can help and make a difference. On a final note, it is essential that as teacher educators we discuss with our student’s ways to handle questions arising from the various tragedies that our society continues to encounter.

Dr. Ty Jiles is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Western Illinois University. Her research interests are effective professional development methods, parental involvement and teacher motivation