I began my journey with Reggio Emilia at the beginning of my teaching career. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a conference called, Wonderous Places to Learn and Grow in Medicine Hat, Alberta. It was hosted by Margie Carter and Deb Curtis. The books, Designs for Living and Learning, Learning Together With Young Children, and Inspiring Spaces for Young Children, which is written by Jessica DeViney. To say the least, the two-day conference was inspiring. I left wanting to change everything that I had ever known about teaching. When I returned home, I barely came home. I tore everything down in my classroom, all the coloured paper and cheesy posters! Everything came down! I decided to be open to relinquishing control of the classroom environment to my students. It was incredibly freeing! When my Kindergarten students returned that Monday morning, I was nervous that my new “decor” would not be well-received. However, it was quite the opposite. The children all exclaimed how different the room looked, but they immediately dove into my first open-ended invitation.
If you are just diving into the world of Reggio Emilia and figuring out how you can start your journey, I found Inspiring Spaces to be a great way to ease yourself in. The classroom environment is a place to start that begins the journey into Reggio Emilia. I was able to easily track down some butcher paper that was hidden in the corner of the teacher workroom, to put on my bulletin boards and some natural looking borders. I also put away plastic, unrealistic toys and stocked the classroom with open-ended materials. This was done with the help of the students and their families with “Beautiful Things.” There is a really helpful resource entitled Beautiful Stuff that I perused in order to help me have a better understanding of open-ended materials in the classroom. Before requesting beautiful things from families, I read a short poem to the children and we talked about a variety of items they may find at home, or in nature that we could use to stock our room. I then distributed paper bags with the poem attached and sent a short letter home to parents.
I gave students about 3 days to collect their items and return them to the classroom. During this time, I collected empty jars, baskets, and other containers that would serve as a holding place for the mirage of items we were about to discover. Then the day came, the day of sorting!! Sorting of beautiful things has become one of my favourite days of the school year. But, on this first day, it seemed chaotic, hectic, and a little insane to say the least. However, the learning, the conversations, and the way that the children were able to articulate their choices and categories, was absolutely amazing. I always do sorting right after the first morning recess. This gives me time to be able to continue our morning routine of meeting together for a story, some calendar activities (which I will discuss later), and a lesson. It also allows for me to be able to organize the assortment of jars and baskets around the carpet during recess time, so that we are ready to go once the children come in after the bell. When the children return to the classroom, I hand out their beautiful things paper bag that they usually have stuffed to overflowing. We sit in a circle and discuss what we are going to do. This is pretty open-ended, as I mostly allow the children to create their own groups and categories for sorting the items. However, I always tell the children before we start, that if there is anything that they do not want to share with the entire class, they have a moment to take it from their bag and put it in the backpack. If you give them this short moment, it saves a lot of tears!
The children all take turns, dumping the contents of their paper bag into the center of the circle. As the children dump their bag, they are able to share stories of their items, where they were found, and why they were chosen for such an important piece in our room. This validates that they children have equally contributed to the learning and that their items are all special in their own way. (Even if it’s a crumpled leaf!) We wait until each and every bag is empty before we begin to sort. Now this is where it gets a little crazy. I find it’s best just to take a step back and let them go at.
While the children are feverishly sorting their little treasures, I engage in conversations with individuals and small groups. How is this item similar to what is already in this basket? What would this group of things be called? Should there be a new category? And so on. Guiding the children with focused questions is what makes this lesson so successful. Once the sorting is complete, and the children are satisfied with their categories, we begin to write the categories down. Some may cringe at the thought of asking Kindergarten students to begin writing, with no formal lesson during the first week of school, but I think it’s exciting! There are no rules, no fears. We just write, whatever that looks like. It’s actually amazing what these little ones are capable of when they feel independent and that you believe in their ability to succeed. Once the signs or lists are complete, it is usually close to lunch time, or at least a snack or play break! I use this time to have informal conversations with the children, or allow small groups to further the sorting or help with finding a place in the classroom where these items can be displayed.
This is a whole other conversation, and may become an entire other lesson. What items are good for the light table, sand or water table, what might we want to use in projects, etc. This also might allow for further sorting, or new categories to take shape. The best advice that I can give, is to be patient, give the space needed for this learning to take place. When speaking of space, I mean the time during the day. I find that the first couple weeks of school are mainly routines, and switching of prep schedules with staff members. As teachers we need to be flexible so it’s best not to try to pack your schedule. Allow for these moments of learning. You will find them to be incredibly valuable as the school year progresses. The children claim the classroom as their own, are excited about being able to use the materials that they themselves had a hand in gathering and sorting, and most importantly adds to the community within the classroom walls.
Happy sorting! Take a breath and step back. It’s all worth it in the end.