For a week in October, I joined the faculty of la Escuela de Campo Alegre, an amazing international school in Caracas, Venzuela. While there, I worked closely with the early childhood staff to help them develop their focus on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education. The week-long institute was an intense interactive experience that resulted in a great deal of learning and, I believe, a wonderful new set of colleagues.
I structured the institute based upon questions that the teachers had generated in group discussions during the early weeks of the fall semester with their pedagogista, the master teacher who had begun her work with them this year. This is the second year of ECA’s study of the Italian-based Reggio Emilia philosophy of education, considered by many to be the finest early childhood approach in the world. The school superintendent at ECA had provided an entire week to build a solid foundation for the teachers. It was a great opportunity, and I was eager to support the school in its work.
The five-day workshop was structured around a full day focus on each of five topics: the image of the child, the environment as a third teacher, emergent curriculum, early literacy development, and documenting growth. Each morning we spent three hours together in group study. I presented information about the topic and offered a tailored bibliography for individual extension of the topic with a library that I had brought along. The final hour of the morning involved group discussion on implementation at the school.
After we returned from lunch, we moved to the lovely atelier (art studio) where we spent an hour and a half exploring a broad variety of media to express ideas. During the studio time, we examined movement both of ribbons blowing in the wind and of the human body. The study was introduced with a poem I had written, entitled Ribbon Dance.
A summer breeze whooshes through the mountain pass
Ruffling my hair and setting my purple shirt dancing in the wind,
I am a ribbon today tossed high in the clear air,
I am a purple ribbon breathed life by the gentle wind
Dancing my ribbon dance with only the lizard to see me,
My feet melt into sunshine sliding over jagged rocks,
Light as the hawk feather, I slip among Gallo cactus,
Prickly thorns reach to scratch me, but I dance away,
Circling faster and faster, my arms spread wide, I dance,
Whirling high toward the top of the giant pine, then low
To the earth where the rattlesnake whispers approval,
I dance, gleaming hot orange on my silky edges,
Heated by the sun and my wild dancing,
A streak fallen from the rainbow to arch and stretch
And lap the breeze, to push against the earth and
Leap into air, alive in the magic of my moving body,
When the breeze grows quiet and shadows creep down the mountain,
I sink to the sand, slowly, slowly, curling against the old pinon,
Peaceful now, resting, waiting for tomorrow, waiting for another Dance.
Below is a video showing the teachers on the school’s soccer field exploring the movement of the ribbons and of their own bodies as they played in the Caracas sunshine. We took photographs, copied them, and teachers returned to the atelier to see how they could use gesture drawings and watercolors to capture movement. In the last part of the video, you see teachers exploring with paint and brush, at first tentatively, and then with increasing exuberance. In the following days, we played with pastels, clay, and wire, examining the depiction of movement and building our capacities with the various media.
During the studio time, teachers became increasingly confident in the use of art to express ideas and the importance of multiple iterations to develop understanding and skill.
The final section of the day was devoted to examining the classroom environments to see how they might be further shaped to support the work. Reggio philosophy suggests that the environment is the third teacher, and teachers began their study of their own environments with a questionnaire about what their classrooms were teaching. This meant looking to the accessibility for children of art materials; exploring how we were nurturing inquiry with provocations that prompted questions and further study; removing clutter so children had room to move, build and create; introducing natural elements to support a connection to the outdoors; finding ways to display student work in thoughtful, artistic ways; and nurturing the culture of Venezuela as well as the cultures of international students as significant elements of the classroom.
Each day teachers experimented with a part of their classrooms, and as they gained confidence, the classrooms blossomed.
Reggio Emilia early childhood programs capture so well the vibrant focus on children’s voices, their questions, and their modes of exploration that we believe are fundamental to transformative education. Reggio-inspired schools are exemplars of adults and students learning in a community steeped in deep respect for the human desire to learn and grow.
I am following up with the staff at ECA each month with a Skype conversation, and I could not be more pleased with their continued growth. They have ordered many of the books I introduced to them, and are referring to the resources as they build their understandings. More importantly, they are beginning to see their work as an opportunity to study children’s thinking and collaborate with their students in finding answers to their important questions.
If you would like more information about this institute, please contact us at the center’s email. Also look for Louise Cadwell’s amazing book, In the Spirit of the Studio, that will be coming out as a second edition in March. It is a terrific exploration of Reggio Emilia’s philosophy and practice.
For Additional Information on Reggio Emilia, visit http://www.reggiochildren.it/identita/reggio-emilia-approach/?lang=en