WHAT would preschoolers do if they suddenly found a plump, purple eggplant on the table? The staff at the Model Early Learning Center (MELC) in Washington, D.C., hoped they would dive for their crayons. Instead, the children barely glanced at the eggplant.
"Oh, they drew a bit, but there was no excitement around it," the head teacher, Sonya Shoptaugh, recalls. So the staff changed tack. Before school opened, they filled a bowl with lemons and hung three more from the ceiling.
That did it. The sight was both familiar and unusual enough to spur six three-to-five-year-olds to draw, paint, and reproduce the lemons in papier-mache; to smear them with paint and roll them over paper; to slice them, squeeze them, chop them; to raid the shelves for yellow objects and use them in collages; and finally, to scout the yard for a branch and decorate it with their artifacts.
The lemon-tree project is more than play: It illustrates an educational approach that has gained worldwide attention. Even before Newsweek magazine, in December 1991, chose a preschool in Reggio Emilia, Italy, as the best in the world, many progressive educators in the United States and Europe knew of the 32 preschools and infant-toddler centers in the northern Italian city.
They had also heard of their founder, Loris Malaguzzi, who received both the 1992 Lego Prize for his "tenacious, pioneering work" and, in April 1993, the Kohl International Teaching Award in Chicago.
In June, Mr. Malaguzzi came to the US again. "We choose an image of the child as strong, filled with resources," he told more than 400 people at a conference in Washington, many of whom are used to viewing children as fragile and at risk.
"I think he's probably right," says Fredericka Phelps, program specialist for early-childhood services for Fairfax County, Va. "We do so much for the child and then assume he's weak.... If we look at the child as strong, then we'll change our expectations."
Educating the child whom Malaguzzi postulates requires teachers who don't simply transfer knowledge and skills. These teachers fuel children's investigative impulses, allow them to explore, listen to their theories and encourage them to test them, and intervene only to introduce a new tool or challenge.
This is central to the Reggio "approach," which is different from a "model" or "method" such as that used in Montessori schools, says Carlina Rinaldi, who has worked with the Reggio schools since 1970 as an educational coordinator. She explains: "Montessori schools use identical materials and unchanging methods. We are conceptually different. Ours is an approach; it entails entering into an attitude toward life and relationships."
To Ann Lewin, the founder and director of MELC, this means that "at Reggio there's a true practice of theories we in America give a lot of lip service to. Specifically, the constructivist theory, which says we all construct our own intelligence; social constructivism, which holds that intelligence is constructed in a social setting; and multiple-intelligence theory, which says we have intellectual thumb prints as different as our physical thumb prints."
To live these theories, Reggio teachers rely primarily on practices they call "documentation" and "emergent curriculum." The latter is, Malaguzzi explains, "a curriculum that emerges from the children, allowing them to enter and become part of the process."
To build this curriculum, teachers listen, watch, transcribe children's conversations, videotape their activities, take endless photographs, place tape recorders in strategic locations.
Lest they misread a child's development, teachers work in teams and set aside time to review events. They examine their documentation, checking each other's interpretations. This enables teachers to wade through children's myriad questions, comments, and actions and pick out those that point to the next step in the "emergent curriculum."
This can be as simple as noticing a child's fascination with a lemon's texture and making sure there's enough material on hand to act on it. Or it might entail more elaborate preparations. Interest generated by newspaper articles led to a MELC field trip to see the Capitol dome before refurbishment workers temporarily removed its crowning statue. This inspired eight children to construct a model of the Capitol with blocks (scaffolding and pulleys included).
A second field trip prompted arguments over whether or not the 19-1/2-foot statue on the ground was the same doll-sized one they had earlier seen on top of the dome. At the end of the project, one preschooler drew a child towering over a tree. "The tree is tiny because it's far away," she explained.
Teachers summarize these projects in photos and text pasted on black art paper. Hung on school walls like leaves from a giant scrapbook, they enable teachers to walk children back through an activity or a decision as a way to encourage introspection and reflection.
WHEN Amelia Gambetti, who taught in Reggio for 25 years, introduced the approach in the Skinner Laboratory School in Amherst, Mass., last year, she used "scrapbooks" to personalize the classroom - "much like one needs photos of family to make a new apartment feel like home," she says.
They also provided the key to involving parents, who "discovered what their children were doing and learned to value their work," Ms. Gambetti says. In the same vein, such thoughtful recording sends children a powerful message: Your work and thoughts are worth documenting.
The Reggio approach has generated much enthusiasm in the US. "Perhaps too much," worries the current director of the Reggio schools, Sergio Spaggiari.
"It could result in a frenzy of actions, gestures, immediate translations, which risk burning out the process," Mr. Spaggiari cautions. "It takes time to digest concepts and practices."
The basic philosophy of the Reggio approach, he says, is of universal value and gives rise to different translations. "These translations have to adapt to and take into account a reality that is very different from ours," Spaggiari adds.
Some say American reality is so different from that in Italy that the Reggio approach may be impossible to implement in the US. Some American teachers regard their classroom as inviolable territory and would resist regular consultation with colleagues. Many facilities accommodate two shifts, others house children for up to 10 or 11 hours a day, and many record a high turnover of preschoolers during the year.
Nevertheless, some private and public schools are successfully trying the Reggio approach with racially and socio-economically diverse groups. Unlike the mostly middle-class children of many Reggio classrooms, MELC preschoolers come from households with a yearly income of less than $12,000, many are children of single parents, and many live in high-crime areas. Yet they seem to be flourishing, and parent involvement is growing: Parents recently stitched and raffled off a quilt to buy the school a video c amera.
It is too early to evaluate the American adaptation of the Reggio approach. Teachers are still struggling to understand it and to work in teams. Besides, the Reggio schools today are the product of decades of evolution. "I like to hope," Lewin says, "that we today are where they were 30 years ago."