Posted by: jwhiff | July 2, 2011

Reggio Emilia and the Inlet Study

As I am heading to kindergarten next year (K/1 to be specific), my summer reading list includes a great deal of professional material.  I feel like I want to begin this journey armed with interesting educational theories, philosophies and research.  May sound a little dry, but I would really like to get this year right!  I have always had a great gut instinct, but I am less inclined than ever in my career to rely solely on it.

I dove into some of this material as soon as school let out on Thursday.  On my way out the door, my principal handed me a book called Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom (Carol Anne Wien).  Specifically, it deals with the Reggio Emilia approach, famous for seeing young children as protagonists in their own learning and teachers as willing private investigators, constantly looking for clues to what will capture the energy and imagination of their students.  The curriculum is “emergent” because it is not completely nailed down ahead of time.  Planning is based on predictions of the children’s thinking and interests–a set of multiple possibilities rather than a single path–and the curriculum emerges from there.

I zoomed through the book.  It was very readable and the classroom case studies were very compelling.  More than this, I was excited to recognize ideas that have emerged from my own thinking and learning on the Inlet Study this year.

Part way through the study this year, I realized that it had been silly of me to create the focus of inquiry (the mud) all on my own.  When I took the kids down to the inlet, it was obvious that they were curious about all kinds of things and that they simply needed a chance to explore and take it all in.  When I gave them this unstructured explore time in the highly engaging seashore environment, their interests began to emerge at different rates.  Some were taken in by watching and trying to identify the birds around them.  For others, it was the odd ceramic artifacts that they kept finding amongst the rocks.  Some were curious about plankton and crabs and the fine algae that grew like mats of Oscar the Grouch hair on certain parts of the beach.  Then, of course we had the ruins of the Old Mill Site that resembled something from the aftermath of World War 1.

Watching them, I knew that it made far more sense to let them decide what to engage with.  I just needed to give them the opportunity to get out there often enough that they could decide what to focus on.  That was the tricky part.  It was very difficult to coordinate enough parent drivers and volunteers to make the trip as often as was needed.  My solution was to take small groups out every Friday afternoon (since it was my day off).  Gradually, the focus of these trips became bird watching as so many students were eager to collect as many sightings of different birds as they possibly could.  And finally, I had my students select a single focus to research and observe as extensively as possible.

The path of this project had a distinct Reggio Emilia flavour.  In classic Reggio, the environment is the third teacher, often engaging kids without teacher intervention.  The teacher is in the environment, learning along with the students and listening/watching for signs of focused engagement.  I am hard pressed to think of an environment more naturally engaging than the seashore.  And I know that I payed more close attention to my students interests and thinking in this environment than at any time in the classroom.  I so badly wanted to have them find just the right fit!!

In the end, the project was an over-all success, simply because I tried!  In a perfect world, they would have had a chance to get out there more often, however.  I felt like I was rushing many students and pushing them to choose a focus before they were ready.  Those who were ready loved their projects and really took ownership.  Now that I have had a chance to read Emergent Curriculum in the Primary Classroom, I realize that I should have given them more options to express their learning (the “hundred languages of learning”)…not simply a tri-fold science project board with a set of arbitrary parameters (although these were much appreciated by parents).  Many students did much more than this (models, posters, books) and I willingly let them, but I didn’t think about extending the possibilities at the outset.

Anyway, all of this makes me feel…well, good.  It really has me thinking about what learning opportunities and environments that I am going to provide my young k’s and 1’s.  Plus, I know that I have the right mind set.  I have to keep on paying attention to my students, I have to give them time with all kinds of stimulating materials, and I have to think about how they might want to express their learning.

Sorry about the theoretical turn this blog is now taking!  It’s summer and now I’m getting all serious!  I am going to be reflecting on my reading pretty regularly over the summer.  Plus, I think I’m going to change the name of the blog to accommodate documentation of all kinds of interesting projects and learning over the coming year.  They all will have an environmental swing to them.  Ah…I don’t know though.  I’m kinda connected to the blog name.  Any thoughts out there?

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