This post is number two 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.

Dear Pam,
I have never taught the Kindergarten curriculum before, but I think one of my inner struggles will be once the year begins, is how to mix play, authentic documentation, SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning), and mandated grades together.

This was the fundamental ongoing question we tackled all year. Some of the conflict between teaching/learning and assessment was due to county and school mandates. But some seemed to arise from within. The new philosophy did not replace the old assessment-driven image of teaching and learning all at once. For a while, though a teacher may embrace the image of the child as competent and strong, and of the teacher as a researcher, mentally, the old data-driven mindset and the habit of residing in “receive mode,” (where decisions about the day-to-day life in the classroom come entirely from the administration) remain habit that does not relinquish power over the teacher easily. So, changes had to come slowly. Jen (the teacher) had to feel the pain of missing out on moments of brilliance with her children while she conducted required worksheet-like assessments before she could consider an alternative. Other teachers, watching (at some points incredulous), had to witness the children’s sense of agency in the Spring to consider the changes worth making in their own classrooms. Administrators had to see the growth of the children in the form of numbers on a test to believe that there is more to be learned than what is on those tests.

We made progress toward reconciling teaching and learning with assessment during the course of the year, first designing a form for collecting observations as children work with Math Materials, to take the place of worksheet assessments. For next year, we are working on replacing the Science and Social Studies tests with similar observational records. We began keeping portfolios for the children this year on a small scale, and that work will continue next year. And next year, the pilot grows from a one-classroom project to a whole-Kindergarten project (with five or six classes). It’s exciting, illuminating, and slow work…eminently worth doing.

I believe it was Carmen Raynor, a colleague in North Carolina, who refers not to the Reggio philosophy or approach, but to a Reggio mindset. It seems to me that, though we may manage to make a worthwhile stab at bringing Reggio principles to public schools, and Reggio-inspired aspects of teaching and learning may be able to co-exist with the state standards of learning and public school curriculum, in my opinion there can be no dual mindset. An assessment and data orientation is a lens that cuts the teacher off from the deep listening, the interpretative stance, and maybe even the joy that are part of a Reggio mindset.

I propose we listen to our language. If it is about numbers, tests, scores, and grades your mindset is showing. As it is if the language is about moments of brilliance, associations, big ideas, representation, and joy. It is our choice.