A couple of years ago, I was working on some research for my Masters of Education degree. At the time, I was teaching a grade 2/3 split class and was struggling with incorporating the philosophy of Reggio Emilia into a split class, plus covering two curriculums! As I’m sure many of you have experienced, this was a daunting task. Since I needed to do a research project for one of my classes, I thought I might as well focus on the struggle I was experiencing in my own classroom. So this is what I came up with…
I have struggled when teaching grade two, and a grade 2/3 split, how to create a community within my classroom that supports my teaching philosophy and child-centered values. I have found that the curriculum can be extremely restricting when it comes to trying to connect the values of Reggio Emilia into the learning objectives that are required to be taught. I have heard through some discussions with some readers of the blog, that this is a struggle that many of you are having as well. In a recent post that I shared to a Facebook page, I found that I struck a cord with some educators who are able to teach Reggio Emilia to its full extent. Although this sounds so amazing, this is not the opportunity that I have as a teacher. I follow the Saskatchewan Curriculum, which lays out specific objectives that are to be taught throughout the school year. These objectives are assessed and reported upon to be shared with parents and administrators three times a year.
I am constantly restricted by the learning objectives outlined in the curriculum. I find that the curriculum has hindered my ability to truly teach to the capable and competent child. There are many times where my students have shown extreme interest in a specific area and I have felt that as a co-learner amount them, I would like to stop and explore their questions. However, with the risk of running out of time to teach curriculum objectives, I have to divert my students to another avenue of learning. (This is where the creation of my new and improved year and week plan came to fruition!) I feel that I am damaging the community of the classroom each time that I have to stop their learning. It’s contradictory to what I tell them each day, “they are capable of shaping their learning, and I am here to help them to do just that.” It was through the research that I did, that allowed me to find a balance between the curriculum and Reggio Emilia within a public school.
The article, Can We Adapt the Philosophies and Practices of Reggio Emilia, Italy, for Use in American Schools? discusses how the overall application of Reggio Emilia may not be practical for implementation within North American schools. There are areas however, that can be adapted to work in our schools, such s documentation and project-based learning. Frilly (1996) discusses how the Reggio Emilia approach is based in a small town in Italy and is directly based on the principles and values of that community. In North America, people have different ways of thinking and knowing. Our patterns of thinking differ from those in European countries and although the Reggio approach has strong principles, it is not feasible to construct that same learning environment within a North American school system.
Although I agree that there are vast differences, there are many aspects of Reggio that can certainly be adapted into our school systems. I have had tremendous success in implementing documentation within my teaching. Documentation allows me to reflect on the learning that is taking place by my students, and also enables my students to ask further questions and reflect upon their own personal learning. Reggio Emilia may not be a mode of teaching that is accepted or implemented by all teachers, school boards, or administrators, but it can successfully be implemented by classroom teachers that value this process of thinking and learning that takes place within a Reggio classroom.
I have also found that parental engagement within the classroom has been a successful way to integrate community within the school environment. I have worked to incorporate family stories into our classroom curriculum. The concept of “guest-host’ came to mind when reading the article, Application of the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Science Curriculum. Being a guest host within the school environment allows parents to feel welcomed and know that they are valued members of their child’s learning environment. As teachers, in order to build community, we want to leave the comfort of our school to create relationships in other areas of our wider community as well.
Being guests means learning about the community which educators are entering, spending time and energy to know the context, the history, the cultures(s), and particularly the people who reside there. Educators as guests ask what they can learn from parents and community members about their children and about teaching and learning, rather than positioning themselves as people with expert knowledge to share. (Pushor, 2010, p. 10)
Our schools are continuing to change, becoming more diverse each year. Within the context of the school environment, teachers are often viewed as experts in the knowledge of the children that they teach. Although we are knowledgeable about the children who enter our classrooms, ultimately families carry knowledge that is unlike anything we as teachers will ever know. In order to gain a better understanding of the children that we will teach, it is important to involve families in the learning process. I feel this primarily for the fact that I teach in a neighbourhood that I was not and still am not familiar with prior to beginning my teaching there. However, I have always felt while teaching, that I am a host each day that a parent steps into my classroom. Especially when I think of events that take place in our school each year such as meet the teacher night, Kindergarten orientation, or parent teacher interviews. We as teachers are guests within the community this is not our building, but the community’s. Therefore, parents should be valued within that community setting and it is not our place as teachers to push those parents out.
Incorporating families within the context of the school community creates a rich learning opportunity for students. I want to learn about the children that I teach and the community that I teach in through their eyes. There are times to be a guest and times to be a host. As a teacher we need to ensure that we can engage in both roles intermittently when required in order to create a learning environment that engages our students and families.
In order to assess how child-centered values affect community building, myself and my intern engaged with families in conversations through home visits. I used home visits as a way to discuss with parents their views on community and sense of welcoming when they entered the school and classroom. Many parents voiced concerns about dropping their child off for the first time, leaving their child with a stranger, and as one mother so aptly stated, “I just want to know that someone [the teacher] will treat my child fairly and care for him as I do.” I think these are things that we sometimes forget as educators. These children that we teach are a fellow parents’ baby. My son and daughter will always be the centre of my universe and I want to know that when they go to daycare or school, that another adult will also show a reasonable amount of care and attention to them. I’m guilty of getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of the classroom, quickly shooing a child outside or responding to quickly to a request or sharing, not valuing their thoughts and opinions all of the time. Although, I do try very hard to.
Of course, we can’t get down on ourselves for not being able to pay attention fully to each child, many of us have over-crowded classrooms, as well as a full plate of responsibilities outside of the classroom that we need to attend to as well. But it’s a balance. If we take the time with our students, we will see them thrive in the classroom. This is part of the reason I believe follow the interest and natural curiosity of the child is so incredibly important. We are able to value the thoughts of our students and show them that their ideas and curiosities are important in their learning and our learning together. “Planning curriculum that is responsive to children’s lives and learning styles requires far more of teachers than choosing a set of lessons or activities to offer.” (Curtis & Carter, 208, p.11) And this is exactly why responsive education is not a common practice. As teachers, we need to strive to allow our students to guide their learning. This does not mean that they set the objectives of the learning, but with our facilitation, we can help students to support their learning.
I found through this research that I question my teaching philosophy and am aiming to become a better and more resourceful teacher for my students. I want to have the ability to live fully through my teaching and through Reggio Emilia I feel that I am able to do this. Teaching is not so much my job as it is my passion, my hobby, and reflects very much who I am and what I value as an individual. The way that I have arranged my classroom in order to create an environment that fosters the development of a community, is the way that I have shaped my own life in my home. I saw my students flourish that year. They were engaged, active, and eager to discover. Their level of responsibility and commitment to each other was admirable. Through completing this learning opportunity with my students to guide and facilitate my approach, I have found validation in my teaching and a renewed sense of commitment to my profession. What we do as teachers is powerful. We have the ability to foster a drive in children that will stay with them for the remaining of their educational career. This feeling of purpose, self-worth, and critical thinking skills bodes well in society and will allow these children to continue to flourish once they have picked a career path to follow. I am proud to say that I have been a part of guiding children to have a passion for learning.
The incredible feedback that I have received from parents is inspiring and further supports that what I have done and will continue to do in my classroom is worth it.
The community that has been built in the classroom exudes warmth, love and provides a safe and caring environment for the kids to learn in and support each other in their learning. I see such a difference in the way Abigail interacts with her classmates and this community has given them a sense of responsibility, confidence and pride.
Ryan has nothing but positive things to say about being in your classroom. I am huge supporter of guided learning (as opposed to lecture based lessons) for a number of reasons. I think this type of environment sets the stage for developing excellent problem solving skills and independent thinking. Kids will take more ownership of their learning and will find topics and discussions more interesting, which will likely increase participation and learning retention rates.
Thanks for the wonderful work you do with our kids.
These parents give us their children for a large part of their lives. The least we can do as teachers is to offer a space that is as inviting and engaging for the children as it is for their families. I had the opportunity this summer to be part of a family engagement class led by Debbie Pushor. We had a guest come in and speak to our class, Marie Linklater, who told me something that I will never forget: “Take care of our children, because they are on loan to us.” (Linklater, 2012, July) I have never heard something more profound during my teaching career. School should not be an institution. It is a place of comfort, security, and nurturing. For these short 10 months that we will teach a group of children, we must be aware that our teaching, the experiences that we give these students in the classroom, can shape who they are and what they will become.