This post is number three in a series, each based on a question asked by the co-author of this pilot program, Jen Miller-Taylor. In the Fall of 2016, Jen was an experienced teacher but new to Kindergarten. She declared intent to bring the principles of the Reggio Emilia approach to her Title One public school classroom. Our collaboration resulted in the formation of a pilot program to take elements of the Reggio approach beyond Jen's classroom at Bensley Elementary School.
My other thing I would love your expertise on is how to mesh some of the principles of Reggio Emilia with the academics that are being pushed on kindergarteners.
As we took a careful look at what was required of the children, we saw that, often, it was how the children were required to respond, more than the concepts themselves, that was unreasonable. That is, though it would be lovely for the topics of study to emerge from the children's interests, it was possible for them to engage in rich, child-led explorations on topics determined by the school district or state. For example, teachers were expected to "teach" and assess "magnets" over the course of a week. I suggested that there was much more learning possible through exploration of magnetism than in five "lessons," and that, given the opportunity to explore materials freely over a longer period, the children would generate questions the teachers hadn't even thought to ask and theories beyond the curriculum or the teachers' expectations. And, I proposed, the teacher could observe every behavior asked of the children on the common assessment worksheets in the course of the children's play. So we set up a table with magnet-related provocations. The children explored at the table for a bit but then moved out into the world of the classroom to test their hypotheses. Every now and again, in response to what the teacher observed the children had noticed or wondered, she added to the materials. Free to explore magnetism until they were no longer interested, the children accomplished what the county required, but also engaged in meaningful inquiry until they were satisfied.
We are just now beginning to tackle the possibilities in reconciling academic expectations with the playful exploration we know is the best way for young children to learn...from the habits of mind learned through play, inquiry and representation, to the depth of knowledge made possible by teaching and learning in this way. At hand are tasks involving scheduling, forms for documenting observations, systems for keeping portfolios, and protocols for translating observations (rather than assessment worksheets) to grades, which are still required for all students in the county. But even with just an adjustment in mindset, from assessment-centered to child-listener and from teacher as giant "answer" to child as questioner AND answerer, and an adjustment to the environment and schedule to allow for playful exploration and Story/Writers Workshop, the children's process, thinking, and sense of agency astonished those who witnessed them.
Kerris was quiet, competent, bilingual and five years old. She chose to join small project groups, but she did not often offer ideas or her opinion. Then, in early Spring, K found her voice...through writing. What follows is a blog post teacher Jen Miller-Taylor wrote about a very academic undertaking of a very playful nature.
A few weeks ago on the way to the bus loop, Kerris asked me if we could have a sleepover at the school. Before I could answer her, Charlee chimed in and said that we would have to ask [the principal] Mrs. Cooper. I made the suggestion that they might want to write Mrs. Cooper a letter to inquire about this possibility. What evolved from a casual conversation in the hallway was weeks' worth of writing for a purpose and an avenue for children to find their voices.
The morning after the conversation about a possible sleepover, Charlee and Kerris declared a plan to write a collaborative letter to Mrs. Cooper asking about having a sleepover at school.
Below is the girls' first letter to Mrs. Cooper.
A few days passed with no word from Mrs. Cooper. We all know that she is a busy lady. Anxious for a reply, the girls decided to write her again, encouraging her to consider the sleepover.
With still no word about a final decision on the sleepover, the girls were persistent. They decided to use a large piece of butcher paper for the next letter, in hopes that their note would not get lost in the shuffle of business in the office.
This was their finished letter to Mrs. Cooper. The ideas for the sleepover become grander with each successive letter!
The excitement of writing letters to others was contagious. Other children were following suit and writing letters to adults beyond the classroom.
Neveaha caught the joy in creating messages for someone else. She wrote the letter below to Mrs. Cooper independently. She knew some things about letter writing, for example, that the name of the recipient had to be written first. What she was missing was that the person receiving the letter needed to hear the writer's voice, not words copied from a Guided Reading book.
After I saw Neveaha's first attempt at a letter, we sat down together and had a conversation. Neveaha shared with me orally what she wanted to ask Mrs. Cooper. Having this dialogue allowed her to take a deeper look at what writing a letter to someone is about. It is more than just a picture and some random words; you have to put "love" into it...taking the time to think about what you want to share about yourself and what questions you want to ask of the recipient. Asking questions and inviting people into our lives helps us feel connected to one another.
Neveaha's completed message to Mrs. Cooper was a drastic improvement on her first attempt. She shared a bit about herself and invited Mrs. Cooper to come play with us.
Meanwhile, everyone had been waiting eagerly to hear back from Mrs. Cooper about Kerris and Charlee's idea of a sleepover. When the girls finally received a response, Kerris read it to the class during Morning Meeting. [Mrs. Cooper was somewhat vague in her answer to the children, which served to satisfy them only temporarily. PO-W]
Kerris was satisfied with the response that she received from Mrs. Cooper and then turned her energy to writing to Mrs. Scruggs, the second-grade teacher across the hall from us. Kerris, who is reserved in nature and is at times reluctant to speak out in a crowd, has found a way for her voice to be heard...through the act of writing.
Enjoying the power of her own written word, Kerris has continued to write to Mrs. Scruggs, sometimes one letter after another.
Contagion around letter writing continued in the classroom all month. Lillian was one of the children who caught on to the excitement.
Later that week, Kerris joined forces with Allison to respond to the letter from Mrs. Cooper. The collaboration worked a little differently from the one with Charlee. Though the ideas for the message were a joint effort, Kerris completed most of the writing while Allison, new to the process, was more of an observer. Note that the children chose once again to use very large paper; their theory that larger paper would lead to a response worked the last time, after all.
Charlee teamed up with Kayla later that week to inquire about having dogs in the building! The children are developing a sense of agency, and they want their ideas and voices to be heard. When the girls first started writing their letter, I pointed out that there was no greeting and I did not know who the letter was for. Charlee and Kayla decided to begin again; they copied the words from their first attempt and proceeded from there.
The final piece.
After all, as the children have discovered, there is power in the written word, and it might just get you what you want.