Monthly Archives: February 2013

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Discovering Reggio Emilia: The Meta

Reggio Emilia.jpgDespite how much I love the idea of the Reggio Emilia approach and how inspiring I find it, there are a couple quirks. The thing is, it’s called the “Reggio Emilia approach” for a reason. Everything I have found about Reggio, so far, is very big picture and theoretical; an exercise in thinking. It’s so meta, as the hipsters would say. There is very little nitty-gritty, this-is-how-you-apply-the-ideas kind of talk. There are no practical applications to curriculum or activities. Usually the explanation is that what the program will look like depends on the students and teachers and families.

On the one hand that really frees your thinking of what teaching and learning can be and truly allows you to follow your child’s interests. But on the other hand, when it’s 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday and you just need an activity, it’s just kind of frustrating. Skipping out on offering practical application, especially in education, just feels like a cop out to me. It makes it seem kind of half baked. Like they got too caught up in thinking about THE BIG PICTURE to bother coming up with some practical application ideas and places to start. And in some ways I see the Montessori Method as the practical application of the Reggio Emilia approach. I understand that isn’t exactly how it all fits together, but it certainly makes sense to me.

Another irritant for me is that Reggio experts claim that classrooms here in the U.S. (or anywhere other than Reggio Emilia) can only be “inspired” by the approach. Only schools in Reggio Emilia share the same culture (and presumably similar geographical coordinates) as the founders of the approach; only those schools are truly Reggio Emilia schools. This just doesn’t ring true for me. Since there is no actual curriculum, only BIG IDEAS, it’s all an approach to education, so of course it looks different in a different place. The thing is, it looks different in different schools even in Reggio Emilia, so why aren’t they “inspired” by the approach too? In the end that’s just an argument in semantics and has little bearing on any meaningful discussion of using the Reggio Emilia approach, but it just sounds so elitist to me.

Those two quirks aside, I think the underlying principles of the approach really tie in well with what I want for Cam in her education and the goals I laid out in my “manifesto”. And maybe in some ways I prefer not having a set of activities to cross off in the way the Montessori Method does, because I’m not convinced it’s how everyone would learn or teach.

Discovering Reggio Emilia: The Principles

Reggio Emilia.jpgI recently finished the book Authentic Childhood which was a discussion of what Reggio Emilia education is and how it can be applied in American classrooms. And it pretty much sold me on the Reggio Emilia approach to education. It shares a lot of principles and ideas with the Montessori method and I see them as complementary educational philosophies. The thing is Reggio Emilia has some quirks to it that make it both wonderful and frustrating at the same time. But before I follow that tangent let me give you a run down of the Reggio Emilia principles that I have gathered (based on Authentic Childhood and backed up by further research I have done online, in other books, and in discussing it with a Reggio inspired pre-k teacher).

  • Reggio Emilia is very child driven. Like the Montessori method, you allow the child to show you what they are interested in and what they want to learn about. When children show an interest in something you map out where that interest might lead. Birds to bird house or nests or a specific type of bird or habitats. You then provide the children with materials to see which of those ideas (if any) they want to further explore. And on and on. Unlike Montessori this does not apply to “sensitive periods”, a developmental/brain theory that is no longer widely accepted. There is no set curriculum or series of activities. The Reggio experience is different with each teacher, group of children, and environment.
  • Reggio doesn’t have a curriculum so much as it is project centered. Maybe “project” isn’t the correct word to use, but it indicates something that is in-depth and longer-lasting that focuses around a main subject. Students indicate what they are interested in and the teachers allow them to explore the topic(s) by providing materials. These materials should provoke the children to learn more, see connections, and exhaust their interest as they delve deeper and deeper into the topic. Materials should also encourage the children to linger on a topic and really explore it and approach it from many different angles. The curriculum should, however, still remain flexible and not get too caught up in a topic by making it last longer than the children’s interest. I think this also ties into the idea in the Montessori Method that credits children with the ability to maintain interest and focus for much longer than they are normally given credit for.
  • Reggio schools and proponents see children as capable (or strong, as they like to put it). This directly ties into the Montessori ideas that teach children to be independent. You have to see the child as strong in order to confidently let them take the lead on their learning. I think buy-in from children is really important for creating a love of learning and a set or imposed curriculum is much more difficult to get buy-in on.
  • The Reggio Emilia approach encourages collaboration. That happens between everyone. Teachers and teachers; students and teachers; teachers and the students’ families; students and their families; teachers and the broader community; students and the community.
  • Just like in the Montessori Method where you have the prepared environment, the Reggio approach sees the environment as a third teacher. It is very important to have an aesthetically pleasing, interesting, and provocative environment to engage the child. A lot of thought and care is put into designing and maintaining the classroom.
  • Another hallmark of the Reggio Emilia approach is the documentation. Teachers make a point of taking samples of work, recording conversations, taking photographs, etc. and putting it all together to present a picture of the learning process. Some people make posters and videos. I would imagine you could make blogs, vlogs, videos, and myriad other technological presentations to create documentation.
  • Reggio is also very focused on art. But this isn’t art that has an end product. It’s more art for the sake of expression and process than creating anything of artistic value. Which isn’t to say the children don’t produce anything of value or beauty, just that that is ancillary to them using art (in it’s many, many forms) to learn and also express what they have learned. In some ways it’s simliar to the Montessori idea of sensorial activities. Clay can help create a bird bath, but it’s also about the process of feeling the clay, manipulating it, and working in three dimensions instead of the two on paper. Sensorial activities, and the hundred languages in the Reggio approach, work to develop other intelligences and paths of communication (with the self and with the community).

 

Homeschool Manifesto: Afterword

Homeschool Manifesto BannerOne final, silly question.

How big is your ego?

I just had to tackle this question because it is one of my favorite absurd arguments against homeschooling.

Some detractors like to claim that homeschooling is just an ego trip of epic proportions for a mother (or father!). To which I would answer, so what? Maybe it is for me. Maybe it isn’t. Does it matter? I am very well educated. I am intelligent. I have teaching experience and have immersed myself in pedagogy. My child is going to get a phenomenal education from me. Far better than what she would get in any school. And in the end, no one is more invested and dedicated to ensuring she receives the best of anything than me.

 

So I should probably admit that this was as much for me as it was for the possibility of lending support to others going through the process of making this decision. In taking the time to write this it gave me food for thought, helped me codify some of my thoughts, and process through the uncertainty I had. As with anything my opinions and thoughts will evolve, but I’m glad to have committed this to paper (so to speak). If you have found even one little thing in here that helps you, so much the better.

Homeschool Manifesto: Question Four

Homeschool Manifesto BannerHow long will you homeschool for?

Okay this is probably not a question most people would think to ask. But it’s still a hard question for me to answer and I really wanted to force myself to reflect on it.

Ultimately the answer is, it depends. It depends on how long we can be without two incomes. It depends on how long I feel I can and want to be out of the library. It depends on if a job comes up that I can’t pass up. It depends on how Cam responds to homeschooling.

In an ideal situation I would like to homeschool her through middle school. Our schooling options open up a bit more once she reaches high school. Not to mention that is a long way off and a great number of things could change. I also think up to that point the content of what she learns is irrelevant so long as she gains some basic skills (literacy, basic math, etc.) and, most importantly, a love of learning. How much of that middle school science do you really remember and use?

My plan is to reassess at each natural entry point. So after preschool. After Kindergarten. After third grade. After fifth grade. After sixth grade. And finally after eighth grade. Although I suppose “after” isn’t really the correct word considering if we were to make a change and have Cam enter a new school we would need to apply before the traditional school year was out. Still I would like to homeschool her until high school.

Homeschool Manifesto: Question Three

Homeschool Manifesto BannerWhat about the socialization?

This is the most common question about homeschooling. And to me it stinks of the only-child debate.  There is very little, if any, real evidence that homeschooled children are less socially adept than their traditionally schooled peers. In fact, there is good evidence that they are better socialized. But somewhere along the line one study or one small group of outliers gave homeschool kids a reputation as weird and anti-social.

The thing is, homeschooling, if done right, does not mean locking your child in a room for 18 years with no contact with anyone. We already take Cam everywhere we go- vacation, museums, the library, the grocery store, the coffee shop, to work, restaurants. And we don’t intend to stop this practice. When we’re in these places Cam is watching us and listening to us and learning how to behave in a variety of situations. She also encounters a lot of people and we model how she should interact with them. So in essence she is doing and seeing the same kind of interacting with people and the world that she will be doing throughout her entire life.

Moreover, we have every intention of signing her up for a variety of activities. Art classes, trying out sports, camps, etc. So it’s not like she’ll only be with us and will never see other children her age. Whatever she’s interested in we’re happy to let her give it a try.

One argument against school socialization that homeschoolers like to use is the idea of forced peer group socialization. I don’t necessarily see it as a count against regular schools, but I think it is a point to consider. In school, children are surrounded by and interact with children who are primarily the same age as they are. Socialization across grades is frequently frowned upon too (or it was in the schools I worked in). But the reality of the world is that you don’t only work with or even necessarily socialize with people who are exactly your age. Workplaces, social circles, clubs, and the like are composed of people of all ages. So, in essence, traditional schools are not realistically socializing their students. But like I said, I don’t think it’s a count against schools. I just think that homeschooled children, when they go out into their communities and get involved in activities tend to have more realistic socialization experience than the kids in schools.

Homeschool Manifesto: Question Two

Homeschool Manifesto BannerThis next question is very closely tied to the previous one, but I think it has some unique answers too, so I included it.

What’s the advantage?

Probably the most obvious advantage of homeschooling is tailoring the curriculum to your child. This certainly ties in with the educational philosophies I prefer where the teacher follows the child’s lead on what to study and this is far and away the most important advantage to my mind.

Having only one student (or two or three if you have multiple children) is also a great advantage. Schools are always trying to tout their low student-teacher ratios and it doesn’t get better than 1:1. With only one child in your class, you can be so much more attuned to their needs. You can move more quickly or slowly depending on the child. They get one-on-one help when they need it. You can indulge their interests and go off on tangents. That is much more difficult in a classroom of 20 (or 35 in the public schools).

The other really great aspect of homeschooling is how it can take place anytime, anywhere. If you go on vacation you aren’t pulling your kids out of class. Class goes with them. If there is a day no one feels like being in school, you can change the routine and do something more hands on or more relaxed. Plus you can teach year round so there is no summer slip.

I have heard the argument that kids need Friday nights and Sunday nights and summer vacation, but to me, that sounds more like a desire on the parent’s part based in nostalgia rather than in any real need for children to have those experiences. The school calendar is based on the agrarian calendar that no one else follows (hence the growing popularity of year-round schools) and parents‘ work schedules.

I think the way schooling is currently set up, it compartmentalizes learning into the school day. When kids come home they don’t think of it as learning time and I think parents don’t either. Because of this I think children don’t see learning as something that can happen any time and anywhere. While it isn’t necessarily an argument against traditional schooling I think homeschooled kids, because they are exposed to activities and lessons and field trips at a variety of times, don’t have that sense that learning ends at 3 o’clock.

Homeschool Manifesto: Question One

Homeschool Manifesto BannerI wanted to preface this with an acknowledgement that some of my opinions may sound harsh. I don’t mean to be insensitive about children who do not have the same opportunities that my daughter and my family does. But when making the decision to homeschool I have had to keep my own daughter’s interests at the forefront and that has led me to formulate some opinions that, under other circumstances, I would consider inconsiderate.

Part of my struggle with the decision to homeschool has been the time commitment it would require on my part because it would require me to put my career on hiatus for some time. One of my aspirations as a librarian is to, essentially, provide all children with educational opportunities. But again, and this ties in with what I said in my preface a few days ago, my decisions can no longer simply focus on myself or on an amorphous “others”. I am here to ensure that my daughter’s needs are met and her best interests are represented. One day I will return to librarianship and help those “others”. In the meantime my experience teaching my daughter and the gratitude I feel for even having that option will inform my career decisions in the future.

Question One: Why homeschool?

First and foremost, I am not happy with our schooling options outside the home. The public schools in California are atrocious. They are extremely rigid in their methodology, teaching to standardized tests that discourage curiosity, intelligence, and the development of a whole child. The teachers are ill-equipped to deal with their classes, which tend to be far too large and composed of children at a variety of levels of school-readiness. There are no extra curricular classes such as art, physical education, or music. Most of the facilities look like prisons, not places of learning and childhood. I was a product of the public school system until middle school, when I transferred into a private school, and remember how far behind my new peers I was. It took me four years to really hit my stride, although I don’t think I ever really “caught up”. I later worked for the same school system just out of my undergraduate years and saw how much worse it had gotten.

In terms of private schools, there are four options. Independent, Waldorf, parochial, and Montessori/Reggio. Of the first three, none truly espouse the same educational philosophy and ideals I hold. Certainly they don’t have many of the problems that the public schools do (i.e. overcrowding and testing), but they still don’t match up very well with what I want in an educational experience for Cam. There is one Reggio school and a few Montessori schools, but they are either too far away or not very well regarded.

As I have researched pedagogy and learning I am very drawn to the educational philosophies of the Montessori method and the Reggio Emilia approach largely because they foster independence, curiosity, and well-roundedness in their students. They also encourage the student to be a life-long learner and allow the teacher to follow the student’s lead when it comes to selecting what they most want to study. I do not see these qualities encouraged in any of our local schools.

Most, if not all, of the schools I have seen push academics way too early. Children need to play and explore and develop skills beyond test taking, reading, writing, and math in preschool. In fact they don’t need those skills at all until they are much older. And even when they do, I think most schools place much too high of a priority and emphasis on them. To the detriment of a lot of other things I value, like character building, imagination, artistic ability, creativity, and just a simple love of learning.

I know I harp on the idea of a “love of learning”, but I think it’s incredibly important for encouraging people to continue to engage with the world and take an interest in life. Teacher-led and mandated learning does not make children want to pursue their interests and keep learning. I think there is value in knowing that you can’t always “do your own thing”, but don’t think that that lesson needs to come at the cost of wanting to learn for yourself and learning what interests you. If a curriculum is student-led and the teacher is there as a collaborator as well as a learning specialist then children want to engage and take interest in anything put in front of them. Plus, at the elementary level I don’t think it really matters what content they learn so much as the process of learning.

The curriculums that these schools follow also tend to be disjointed and disparate. Even though the subjects are applicable to the real world and are inter-related, you would never know that from how they are taught. I think subjects (everything from math to language arts to gardening to history) can and do overlap. By encouraging students to see connections, both to other subjects and real life you encourage them to take interest in a variety of topics and see the pertinence of the skills they are learning.

I also don’t think most of these programs allow children enough time to play and to go out of doors. I think is especially a problem in programs where the academics get inserted in too early. Children spend their time working toward objectives instead of indulging their imaginations and rarely get outside except for a 10 minute recess here and another 15 minute recess there.

Finally, there is cost to consider. I think sometimes you have to make sacrifices to get your child the best education possible. My parents and my husband’s parents certainly did. I am not opposed to paying, and paying dearly, to get Cam the best education. But I really don’t think the cost of some of these schools, when held up to the quality and type of education they offer, is justified. I think Cam can get a better education from me for a much smaller price tag.