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.
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.
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.
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.
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.