Italian import creates preschools where kids shape agenda

It's not unusual for a preschool class to stage an original play. But in most schools, the teacher would make the decision to produce a play, then write the show and direct it, too.

At the College School in this St. Louis suburb, things are a little different. Not only did students in this year's 4- and 5-year-old class come up with the idea to stage a play, the youngsters wrote it. They'll also be acting in it, and one of their own will direct it.

"Basically, I'm in charge of everything," explains director Ryan, interviewed on the set inside his classroom while wearing a costume consisting of a medieval collar, a cowboy vest and a camouflage hat.

Welcome to Reggio Emilia. The city in northern Italy has become a global model, and Mecca, for early childhood education. Following the devastation of World War II, townspeople decided to build preschools for their children that emphasized a new way of teaching and learning.

What came to be known as the Reggio Emilia approach soon spread beyond Italy's borders. It came to America in the early 1990s. One of the first locales to adopt it was St. Louis, where the College School and two other area schools form a Reggio cooperative.

For parents who resist the current push for more testing and a strict emphasis on basics, it's a natural alternative. According to one count by the Educational Resources Information Center at the University of Illinois, there are at least 22 schools in 15 states with fully integrated Reggio Emilia programs, plus many individual teachers who have adopted elements of the approach.

"It's spreading widely across the US in terms of people who are seeking to understand it or attempting to apply the concepts or ideas," says Brenda Fyfe, a professor of education at Webster University here and one of the leading researchers on Reggio Emilia in the United States.

Looking at children differently

Though the approach is meant to be highly dynamic, a number of elements are common to most Reggio programs: emphasis on a stimulating environment, including an atelier largely devoted to art; high level of parental involvement; two teachers per class; group projects as opposed to solitary learning; and documentation. Virtually everything is recorded in writing, on audio or video tape, or with a still camera as a way to review, share with parents, or simply imbue a child's expression with importance.

But the defining element is the image of the child it presupposes. Reggio views children as inherently curious and expressive in multiple ways. The latter capacity is known as the hundred languages of children, a metaphor for the infinite modes through which preschoolers express themselves, such as sculpture, photography and acting.

Ultimately, the normal classroom dynamic is turned on its head - instead of a reading circle and snack time at a certain hour, the approach is one of discovery, cued by the children. "You have to let the children know they have an active voice along with yours, and as soon as children realize they have a responsibility to be forming big ideas, they come up with more than we can ever explore," says Jennifer Strange, co-teacher of the 4- and 5-year-old class at the College School and a veteran of four study trips to Italy.

College School director Jan Philips recalls a group of preschoolers a few years ago becoming enamored of pirates. At first reluctant to turn high-seas scoundrels into a major subject of study, teachers eventually let the theme take root.

The classroom took on the trappings of a pirate's lair. The kids dressed up as pirates, painted pirate scenes, and dictated pirate stories. Parents even helped build the bow of a pirate ship in the school parking lot, complete with a mast and fluttering Jolly Roger - all imagined and designed by the students.

Critics complain that Reggio is too complex to implement. Indeed, it requires an enormous time commitment from teachers, since they design the curriculum as they go. The extra creativity and flexibility that's required may explain, in part, why Reggio is spreading deliberately rather than rapidly - and why it generally finds fertile ground more often in private schools.

Devlin - who taught a normal preschool curriculum for 10 years before getting involved with Reggio - thinks the approach may prevent teacher burnout. "For years, every other year, I did a dinosaur theme until it got to the point where I never wanted to see another dinosaur again," she says.

After Reggio was instituted, the students in her classes selected many themes, including dinosaurs. But they followed the themes several steps beyond checking out a library book: the kids built an enormous dinosaur in the parking lot, applying their own research, measurements and design.

Measuring the results

Because Reggio is still relatively new in the US, its long-term impact on children is difficult to gauge. Anecdotally, the College School had six National Merit Scholars last year out of a graduating eighth-grade class of 20, far ahead of the nationwide average of less than 1 percent. But the sample is so small - and the College School's own innovative techniques begin in kindergarten after preschool Reggio ends - that trying to isolate and measure a long-term effect is difficult at best.

The positive results are not lost on parents, even as they closely monitor the effort. "It's not a cutesy kind of preschool," says Skyler Harmann, a College School parent who currently has a daughter in the Reggio program. She worries about the kids missing out on traditional preschool activities, something as simple and fun as finger painting.

Overall, however, she is convinced of Reggio's long-lasting impact. "In my 10-year-old's class, there are probably five or six kids who started in the Reggio program, and their level of thinking is just incredible. They're studying colonialism - a typical fourth-grade theme - but they even carry it over to recess. They have created out of pine cones and other items an entire colonial village. For them to synthesize all of their knowledge and use their play time to create this little village, I think is remarkable."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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