My Reggio Classroom

My Reggio Classroom

This May I started working at a child care center coordinating their community youth programs. Among other things, I have a classroom of 14 first and second graders I work with every day after school.

My center enrolls about 40 kids in its after-school program. They’re split into 3 classrooms, and I run one of them. It was a pretty proud moment for me when my supervisor told me I’d have my own classroom. Not only did this affirm that I’m lead teacher material, it gave me an opportunity I’d been waiting for since I decided to become an educator.

I got to decorate my own classroom.

The room I was given hadn’t been used for much in a while. One of the other teachers had spent time over the summer reorganizing it, but I got to take it over from there. I had shelves, a rug, a couch, some tables, pictures, whiteboards, and a fake tree to work with.

My childcare center follows a particular philosophy of learning—the Reggio Emilia approach. The Reggio Emilia philosophy follows the belief that children aren’t empty sponges waiting for us to fill them—a popular belief in many settings—but that they’re sponges already full of knowledge, curiosity, and potential, and it’s out job as educators to coax that out and guide it.

Rather than teaching them curriculums and integrating structured learning, we set up an environment that’s natural for exploration and self-lead learning. We give them invitations—setting out materials that they can work with if they want; and provocations—laying out a challenge or asking a question that they can attempt to meet or answer.

The approach was developed in the 1970s, as educators in post-World War II Italy looked for new ways to teach their students. It is geared towards younger kids, which is a large portion of what our center focuses on. But we serve a good number of school-age youth as well, and Reggio methods are adapted in age-appropriate ways for the after-school program.

Loose parts are a huge part of Reggio. Loose parts can be almost anything—acorns, beads, pine cones, sticks, leaves, beans, pebbles, string, corks, rings, pop tabs, rocks. These items are traditionally arranged in baskets and laid out on tables or shelves. That’s part of the invitation. They’re always there, and the students are welcome to use and explore them. But there’s no pressure to do so, or to do so with a specific goal in mind. That way, discoveries occur naturally, and it’s a lot more satisfying and exciting for the student. I watch my kids every day as they take out the baskets, sort pieces, mix and match, build, create, and observe. They get so much more out of it than if I’d handed them a bunch of rocks and said “Build a tower!” or beads and said “Make a pattern!”

Blocks are also very versatile. My class has traditional wooden blocks, “natural” looking blocks, wooden train tracks, cut-up sponges, and cups. LOTS of cups. I gave them cups on a whim, looking to fill one of the empty compartments on my block shelf, and they ran with it. Almost every day now, I have multiple students building cup towers, making cup walls, sorting the cups based on size and color, and all sorts of things.

It’s so much more exciting than pre-designed Lego sets or puzzles.

The best things happen when the areas overlap. I’ve seen many glorious palaces built with a mixture of loose parts and blocks.

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The classroom layout and environment is also very important. According to Reggio, education consists of three teachers. First, the child; they lead themselves through life and are constantly showing us new things. Second, the traditional educator role: the responsible, trained adult in the room who can ensure safety and guide learning. And third, the classroom itself. Everything about the learning area influences the experiences had inside it.

I spent a lot of time arranging my classroom until it satisfied my needs. I wanted lots of options for play, but not so many they were overwhelming. I filled the shelves with items that got swapped out occasionally with others in the closet. I wanted the classroom to be open, to invite collaborative play and to let the students decide what the spaces would consist of. Wide open floor spaces make for awesome buildings. Putting the art table next to the “creation station” with no barrier left plenty of room for crossing over materials.

I wanted the room to have a natural feel. The art table went by the window to let the outside world and natural lighting inspire their work. The book nook went in a quiet corner, which I equipped with the couch, the rug, the tree, soft pillows and bean bags, a fish tank, and of course bookshelves. The book nook was closed off on one side but not all, so there could be some separation if quiet was needed, but it was not totally isolated, allowing for some versatility there as well.

I wanted the room to be inviting. The first few weeks the students were there, I lay out the invitation for the kids to make art to hang on the walls. I wanted them to feel like the room belonged to them—it wasn’t someone else’s room that they borrowed for a few hours each afternoon.

The walls were soon bedecked with their art: their hand prints, color patterns, abstract shapes, items of interest. The invitation is ongoing, and I still have some of them coming up to me with art asking if it can be put on the walls.

I’ve worked in programs before where we followed a specific schedule and lead curriculums. Those experiences were very rewarding, and I could see the benefits they had on the children I worked with in those settings. It was a huge change for me to arrive at a place where the emphasis was not on what I would be teaching the kids every day, but on what we could all learn together as a community.

I love watching my kids explore the materials laid out for them. I love seeing the amazing things they come up with in exploration and pretend play. I love being able to interact with them on a new level as I explore with them, sometimes sitting back and watching as they guide themselves through the day.

I do have one big thing in my classroom that is not Reggio: the job wheel. Though we don’t follow a specific agenda, each day brings a series of steps we need to follow. We walk from school, eat our snack, and clean up. During the first days, the kids fought over who would walk in front, and it often ended in tears. Some of them didn’t care, but for those that did, it was a pretty big deal.

The one it really mattered to had ADHD. That might have been the cause of the frustration, or it might have just exacerbated it. He would push and yell at others when they tried to walk in front, but didn’t seem to think it was unfair for him to walk in the front every single day. (For ease of reading, I’ll call him A.)

I’d tell him, “You can’t walk in front today, let someone else do it,” and be met with an indignant “Why?”

“Because it’s not fair.”

Why?

So, among other things, Line Leader became a job that switched every day. The first day I introduced the job wheel, when A pushed his way to the front, I said, “A, you’re not in the front today.”

I was met with his pout. “Why?”

“Because Line Leader is a job now, and today, it’s B’s job.”

“Oh. Okay.” And A walked to the back of the line.

It felt like a miracle.

The job wheel helps me so I don’t have to hand out plates and wipe the tables every day. But it’s also very important to A now, as well as the others in my class who have ADHD and other needs. For that reason, I’m not getting rid of it, even if it’s not Reggio.

I love my classroom. It’s a place where I can witness creativity, teamwork, struggles, resolutions, tears, laughter, growth, and learning every day. During my interview, my future supervisor could see me bouncing with excitement when she described the Reggio Emilia approach. I’d been trying to explain to people for years that kids come into this world equipped with everything they need, and in most cases, adults don’t build them up, we squish it all back down by convincing them they don’t know anything. If we’re teaching them stuff they already know, how is that going to make them feel? Bad? Wrong? Inadequate?

There are things like the alphabet and how to hold scissors that have to be taught. But a sense of curiosity, wonder, excitement, a love of nature, the drive to learn, a feeling of community, caring for others—that’s part of the package they walk into our lives with. Reggio Emilia takes for granted that all of that is there. It’s not our job to invent our students. It’s our job to meet them where they already are, and give them the chance to invent themselves.

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Find out more about the Reggio Emilia apprach here: 

https://www.reggioalliance.org/

http://www.reggiochildren.it/identita/reggio-emilia-approach/?lang=en

 

Summer Camp Speculations

Summer Camp Speculations

I just love kids so much. Honestly, sometimes just looking at a small child makes me want to cry, and I really don’t know why that is. I think part of it is because I so intensely want to believe in the amazing spirit of every single child I come across. I want to tell them how awesome they are, how super cool it is that they’re wearing a blue t-shirt, that they are holding their sibling’s hand, that they stop and take a picture of the sunset or a bug with their phone. I want to tell them how much of life they have to look forward to. I want to tell them to keep the positive attitude that they start off with, that conviction that they are perfect and cool and capable and life is just an adventure to live and learn from.

At what point does our society tell our kids that they’re not worth it? What eventually convinces kids that life is a drag, a trial to be tolerated until something better comes along? When do they lose their free spirit, their unshakable sense of self? Who comes up to them and tells them that all the cool things they like are dumb? When are they compelled to stop, look around, see what “everyone else” is doing, and drop what they really want to do just so they can be like “everyone else”?” When do they become convinced that it’s better to fit in with an unrealistic mold than it is to stay yourself?

Recently I’ve started to take a look back at my own life, and I wonder the same things about myself. I know I complain a lot about my family, but my experiences with them don’t begin to explain the intense feelings of self-hatred I experience. And I know from talking to my friends that I’m not the only one. There’s something fucked up about the younger generation, and it’s not our fault, and I’d give anything for this next generation of kids to not have to suffer through it.

I wonder every day what happens to 12-year-olds to make them want to kill themselves. I wonder what kind of hurt kids must have suffered through to become bullies. I wonder how many times it takes for a kid to be hurt before they shut down and are labeled with some kind of mental disorder. I wonder about all the creative minds we’re suppressing because they way they work doesn’t fit “the norm.” I wonder when it was decided that asking for help was a bad thing, so kids are forced to look stupid and adults don’t take the time to ask “Why?”, rather focusing on the “what”–what haven’t you done, what do you need to do to make up for it? I wonder what happened to make parents think that taking care of their kids is no longer a humane necessity but a duty that they perform out of free will and tolerance, and then hang this over their kids’ heads as some kind of threat. “We take care of you, but we don’t really have to, and you should be grateful we give you anything at all.” What is going on here?
All I wanted as a kid was for someone to tell me or show me that I was worth it. That I was worth believing in. It took me years to even realize that’s what I wanted, what I’ve been missing. And now that I’m in a new environment, surrounded by people who love me, support me, and believe in me, I can’t handle it. I don’t know what to do about it. I’m convinced that they must be wrong, that they must be lying to me. I’m so convinced I’m not worth anything that when someone tries to show me the contrary, I shut down, and sometimes start to avoid my closest friends just to get away from that confusing feeling. And the worst part of it is that I know I’m not the only one experiencing this. So many of the people I know are feeling these same feelings and harboring these same thoughts.

And they keep getting younger. One of my precollege girls–she could have only been 10 or 11–wrote a message on the white board at least four times during our 2-week class. “Life is not meaningful.” And she signed it with her name.
WHAT IS GOING ON IN OUR SOCIETY TO MAKE A FUCKING TEN YEAR OLD SAY THAT LIFE IS NOT MEANINGFUL?