Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 5 – What’s An Atelier?

food3The entire afternoon was to be a “hands-on” exploration of the five “atelier” spaces at the Loris Malaguzzi Center. Lorella Trancossi introduced the concept of the Reggio “atelier,” and shared how each individual “atelier,” or workshop space, was related to each of the others. The unifying concept of the atelier space is that each large, open area provides unlimited possibilities for exploration leading to the transformation of thoughts and transmission of ideas. [Please note that we were not permitted to take photographs of the atelier spaces. The images in this post are representative samples gathered from the Internet.]


artwords and materials

The first workshop “atelier” space, titled Mosaic of Masks, Words, and Materials, is given to drawing; observational and sketching. In this way children imagine, interpret, and communicate with a multitude of natural or synthetic materials. Links between materials and verbal and written language are explored while creative potential is released.


The second “atelier” space takes users into Digital Landscapes. In this space children explore the lightconnection between digital devices and their capacity to project light and manipulative materials (e.g. blocks, statues, plexiglass shapes). Mixing these materials provokes hypotheses around science colight2ncepts (i.e. physics and the properties of light, balance and stability, etc.) allowing even preschoolers to engage in the language of learning. I was gratified to see how imaginatively the “atelieristas” – persons who set up and facilitated users in the space – recycled decades old technologies like overhead projectors.


Everything On the Table was the third “atelier” to which we were introduced. food2Transforming raw cookingfoodstuffs into human nutrition is studied as seriously as other academic endeavors. It is in this atelier that research into the background of food (e.g. Where does food come from?), safe preparation and aesthetically pleasing presentation, healthy eating, the use of leftovers, development of habits of
composting, and consideration of re-useable food containers is
explored. Recycling (“remida”) is a significant part of this workshop space.


planetThe transformation of the natural world is showcased in the fourth “atelier.” Called the Living Organism, children explore the variety and the beauty of life’s cycles. It is here where children contemplate nature’s secrets; where they begin to develop emotional and empathetic responses to nature, to natural materials, and to reflect on their own place in the larger world. It living2is here where children begin to understand and appreciate beauty, aesthetic beauty, as a part of every life.


Planetary Messplanet2ages, the fifth “atelier,” is showcased in the Milano EXPO 2015 exhibit “Ring Around the Future.” This atelier permits children to explore the ethical foundations and cultural differences of the planet’s many societies. Through empathetic examination and devout understanding of the interdependence of planetary systems, children are transformed into planetary citizens.

I will share my experience with one of these “atelier” spaces, Digital Landscapes, in the next post.


Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 3 – The Critical Role of the Teacher

NO child is NOT ready to encounter task that challenge them! Marina Mori, Tutor Teacher

Finally we address the role of the teacher. Completely antithetical to what many of our U.S. colleaguimages-1es believe, the Reggio teacher begins with the child as “all knowing.” It is (not simply) up to the astute and sharp-witted teacher to listen, to understand what the child already knows, and to set the provocation for constructing further learning. In a nutshell, the teacher’s role is active and thoughtful engagement in observation, interpretation, and documentation. Teachers expend much physical and mental energy learning how each unique child responds to concepts or ideas, both individually and as a member of a group. The teacher’s role, then, is reflexive and self-reflective. It is that of a researcher and a ‘chooser’ of follow-on provocations.  It involves quiet mindfulness away from children, collaboration with mentors or colleagues, or reviewing a video of the encounter just completed.

images-1This requirement for reflection on children’s thinking may sound impossible in a busy preschool or primary school setting in the U.S. But the Reggio Approach permits grouping structures that allow teachers the privilege of peering deeply into a child’s world. The physical structure of the class enables small group interaction. Based on previous observation and reflection, group participants are intentionally selected around the context, content, problem, or materials the teacher believes will lead to further learning/understanding. In a large class of 20 to 25 children, this means that one teacher will work on some bit of content knowledge or social emotional skill with 3  to 5 students (i.e. observing, interpreting, documenting) while the rest of the class is engaged in independent pursuits or work with another adult.

UnknownGrouping becomes the key to curriculum delivery. Through the teacher’s ‘quest for awareness’ of each child the art of waiting and questioning are paramount. The teacher becomes the ‘memory’ for the children as she guides children’s thinking through her questioning. The teacher functions as the provider of a different point-of-view as she questions learner analysis of a task. The teacher becomes a collaborator when she ‘relaunches’ a topic or exploration by bringing earlier learning into a task and asks children to appraise their own work. In this way the process of learning becomes the ultimate product.

Curriculum becomes less a roadmap and more an open journey with observation as the basis. In the Reggio Approach connections to the real world are continuously made. There is no pre-established set of standards or mandated curriculum. Student cognitive growth is predicated on trusting teachers to observe, interpret, and document. Teachers in the Reggio schools are characterized – much like their students – as a confederacy of ‘marvelers’ and ‘wonderers.’

For a Reggio teacher participatory observation is never neutral. It is always intertwined with shrewd interpretation. This is the definition of documentation. The documentation I witnessed was both formal and informally presented, but it never varied in its purpose  or intensity.  As the image to the left shows, documentatiimageson can be recorded and artistically presented to the public as an informational display. The use of photography to capture just the right moment was always in evidence. Binders full of other examples of documentation I perused consisted of T-charts where hastily written pencil transcripts of student conversation were added on the left, and teacher interpretation of student understanding was written to the right. Interestingly, the teachers show their thinking/interpretation by using a highlighter to focus on particular statements or words uttered by the children. Then, by stringing together these phrases, the teacher was able to interpret where to take the learning and determine what extensions of the original concept she might plan for the following day. What materials would she make available?  What might her provocative questions be? One day’s documentation becomes the next day’s lesson plan. You see, of course, how natural and fluid learning becomes. Shouldn’t all learning be as compelling?

Before leaving this account of the Reggio teacher and her role as a significant catalyst to learning, I must add that each school has, on staff, a veteran teacher called the ‘pedagogista.’  This revered educator assists teachers with their interpretations of observed behaviors and helps in planning for next cognitive steps.  Perhaps the role we know as “curriculum director” in the U.S. might transform into this same “pedagogista” whose role is to increase involvement with teachers and the pedagogy of student learning instead of the usual focus on budgeting and piloting pre-fab curriculum materials, or gathering and analyzing test results.

Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 2 – Amazing Commitment

Lorus Malaguzzi Center, Reggio Emilia, Italy

Lorus Malaguzzi Center, (2006) Reggio Emilia, Italy

The second full day of our Study Tour found us a 30-minute, shoppers paradise walk from our Hotel: the Lorus Malaguzzi Center. It is a splendid building dedicated to the philosophy and work of Lorus Malaguzzi. The open spaces, called “Ateliers” (French for ‘workshop‘) welcomed the discovery and inquiry of children and adults. The auditorium, expandable to seat 400, welcomed the nearly 200 North American tour participants.

The first full day of lecture focused on the history of Reggio Children and the commitment of the entire Reggio Emilia community to the development of their young children. In 1947, after World War II and during the reconstruction of a devestated country, the city declared education as an ‘unalienable right.’ And, today, after nearly 70 years, the entire town retains the political will to make visible the ‘culture of children.’

The Reggio Children movement, was, not surprisingly, led by the town’s women. Full ‘citizenship’ was awarded to mothers and their children after the war. Thus infant and toddler programs (0 months to 3 years) as well as pre-school programs (3 years to 6 years), influenced by Vygotsky, Erickson, Dewey, and Bettleheim, became an ‘expressive place’ for children. By 1960 the ‘Reggio pedagogy’ was thriving and generally accepted. In 1972 the city drafted a political document that outlined foundational principles that codified this child-centered pedagogy. It established rules for managing the municipal schools, including mandatory participation of parents, active engagement in learning for children and teachers, a focus on relationship-building and on the natural environment, and the establishment of an “Atelierista” (a workshop leader) to promote the integration of visual learning; making/creating using the 100 languages of learning.

By oranges1980 the ‘Reggio Approach’ to early childhood education – where all learning springs directly from children’s interests, questions, and ideas – had become a global phenomenon. The responsibility of the municipality to continue to build the concrete conditions that protect the rights of children had become a sustainable value in the Reggio Emilia community. And, even through hard times of unemployment and declining population, the city continues to put its money where its values lie. This altruism, this fidelity to the future, was my biggest take-away from the entire tour experience. And, it begs this question: Why can’t the richest country on the planet provide similar educational foundation to its youngest citizens?

What about teachers and professional development in this emergent pedagogy? What place do they have if children lead all learning? Simply put, students of every age arrive at school as COMPETENT learners.  Smart, caring teachers, then, develop the context for learning by setting up spaces for active discovery. They design a classroom where students interact with materials, ideas, concepts, and each other.materials Teachers challenge children’s competence through QUESTIONING. They bring children’s HANDS and MINDS together. And, more importantly, they LISTEN to the children with attention and respect. Teachers eschew the stereotype of children as vessels to fill with knowledge. They coax children out of a place of invisibility and into the world of understanding; a world where connections are made and knowledge is created. This is accomplished through a process of documentation.

There will be much more about this process in Day 3.


Reggio Emilia North American Study Tour: Day 1- False Start

Packed and excited, we arrived at the airport on Friday afternoon with plenty of time to check in and brush up on some important conversational Italian phrases.  “La mia auto qui?” “Come si dice…?” “Dov’e il bagno?” The North American Reggio Study Tour to Reggio Emilia, Italy promised to be an enlightening experience for the three of us. We boarded the 747 for the first leg to Frankfurt.

Words you never want to hear...

Words you never want to hear…

We sat on the tarmac while the maintenance crew worked on a brake release. 20 minutes.  40 minutes. An hour. Just as the passengers were becoming restless, notifications from the airlines began to show up on iPhones. We knew before the flight crew alerted us, that we were going to need to change planes. The new 747 was at a different gate. So, we gathered our belongings and all 500 of us deplaned.  Arriving at the new gate, the scramble to find an electric socket into which we could plug our depleted digital devices began. The gate showed that our new departure time was about an hour away; and 3 hours later than our original.  But no matter, we could still make our connection from Frankfurt to Milan. No sweat.

Less than a full iPhone charge later the word you never want to hear came though the boarding gate mic. “Cancelled.” The cabin crew could not attend to this new, later flight, because it would cause them to work overtime. We were told to go home, but to be back at 11 AM for our new flight — complete with a new, fresh flight crew. Luckily my colleagues and I were local, so we left our bags, made some frantic phone calls to family and to those scheduled to meet our flight in Italy, and got rides home. A fitful sleep later we returned to SFO and cued for 90-minutes only to be reassigned completely different seats. We did meet wonderful people who found themselves in the same predicament, and who were able to keep a sense of humor and priority. As for my colleagues and me? We began a unique and rewarding bonding experience that, I feel quite certain, will last a life time.

The rescheduled flight got off – a day late – but on time. And, after a fast and furious ride down the A1 from Milano-Malpensa with a driver who spoke no English (and we no Italian), we did arrive safely at the Hotel Posta in Piazza DelMonte. PiazzaDelMonteWe missed all of our first day (Sunday) events; the town of Reggio Emilia orientation tour, and the North American colleague ‘meet and greet.’  We treated ourselves to authentic Italian food and drink.

So…what got off to an inauspicious beginning, began to develop into a delightful, energizing, if exhausting learning experience.





imagesLeaders of educational organizations consistently tout BEST BRACTICES as a panacea. These magic bullets, taken from educational literature and high-powered think tanks, provide examples for everything from classroom management to curriculum delivery, from leadership style to student assessment and accountability, and from community involvement to staff professional development. We are often seduced by the easy implementation of these “It worked for them, so it’s gotta’ work for us” BEST PRACTICES.

I confess that I, too, have been caught up in the alluring nature of those tried and true practices that promise instant success. I have regularly peddled the thoughts and theories of others; especially those that I found exciting or at least workable in my classroom. And, I have been known to hawk my best practice attitudes and ideas to my principals and colleagues.

But as I think now about our hunger to emulate these BEST PRACTICES, I find myself questioning the truth of this evangelical approach to school reform. I am just beginning to understand the subtle tyranny inherent in easy adoption of what works elsewhere. Regardless of the amount of research data these BEST PRACTICES garner, when we adopt – wholesale – the thoughts and practices of others we abdicate our own creative competence. We marginalize our expertise. We abstain from making our school a distinctive place within a uniquely contextualized situation.


  • inhibit deeper thinking about an idea or issue, and thereby promote mental indolence,
  • curtail professional curiosity and inhibit innovation around a difficult challenge,
  • prohibit novice teachers from seeing possibilities with their new eyes and believing in their creativity,
  • truncate our ability to contextualize teaching and learning to our local situation,
  • assume teachers and learners must adopt a subjective and passive role,
  • assume someone smarter has the ‘right’ answer and knows better than we do, and
  • have become the hand maiden of the one-size-fits-all standards/assessment movement.

If BEST PRACTICES are truly the best way to run our schools, why do BEST PRATICES change every quarter in every educational journal? Shouldn’t best practices, if they are indeed best practices, be able to stand the test of time?

Just askin.’

The Motivation Gene?

carrotIn a study released April 8th of this year, researcher and psychology professor at Ohio State University, Stephen Petrill, suggests that motivation to learn is primarily a function of the student’s gene pool. That’s right. According to an article in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, to be published in July (2015), student motivation is inherited!

In a comprehensive study of 13,000 fraternal and identical twins across six culturally diverse countries, Petrill found that in 40-50% of the cases, inherited dispositions toward learning (i.e. parental genes) and non-shared environmental factors (e.g. diverse home situations or different classroom placements) had the most significant impact on motivational behavior. Whereas shared environmental factors (e.g. same home life, same teachers) had nearly no (3%) impact on student motivation.

Scientists are far from isolating the “motivation gene,” if one exists. The study declares that motivation is a very complex process that closely ties genetics and gene-environment interactions. So, is it time to stop the blame game? Parents and their offspring may be powerless to instigate a motivational turn around. And teachers, it seems, cannot be held completely responsible for failing to reach their reluctant scholars. Perhaps it’s time to remove that ‘motivates students’ line item criterion from the administrator’s observation checklist?

Inherited personality differences aside, should teachers now abdicate their role as chief encourager, engager, stimulator, or inspirer? We certainly hope not. Teachers must be prudent about dealing with this new pedagogical reality even as constructivist instructional practice has shown such promise in reaching even the most unenthusiastic learner.

A quick Internet search will provide a cascade of constructivist strategies to stimulate intrinsic engagement in the classroom. From inquiry- and project-based learning to discovery and cooperative learning, and from flipping the learning sequence, or adding choice and authenticity, ideas for creating a student-centered and highly motivational environment abound. For progressive educators like me motivation can be summed up in this century’s “Three Rs:”

  • Rigor (i.e. allowing for heady, interesting, timely, and deep discovery/inquiry);
  • Relevance (i.e. permitting student choice, passion, interest to guide inquiry);
  • Relationships (i.e. consenting to diverse and differentiated group situations for exploration and presentation).

Six Strategies To A Student-Centered Classroom

Comparison Traditional & Progressive Pedagogy

Comparison Traditional & Progressive Pedagogy

A hundred years ago “progressive pedagogy” advocates like John Dewey, Francis Parker, and Jean Piaget urged a child-centric educational system in order to assure full participation in and maintenance of a democratic society. Their admonishments have particular resonance for America’s hierarchical, test-obsessed educational system today. What are we doing to prepare our young people to accept responsibility for preservation of our robust democracy? A 9th grade civics class? A general math class that explains how to prepare income tax forms? As we reflect upon our own classroom pedagogy, how might we respond to these departed educational luminaries in terms of their six agreed upon progressive practices.

1. Is there an equal balance between our student’s emotional development and their academic/intellectual achievement? How much time do we spend on social communication, conflict resolution, and collaborative dialogue? How much on lesson delivery, lecture presentation, and note-taking?

2. Does our curriculum rely on student interest to inform delivery? How much of what we teach capitalizes on student’s interests and passions? Are we familiar enough with our school’s prescribed curriculum so that we can exploit ‘teachable moments’ and turn them into curriculum connections?

3. How much do we rely on individual competition; on grading, ranking, testing? What types of formative assessment might be designed to capture the process of learning? What types of summative assessment might be designed to represent social as well as academic growth?

4. How much time do our students spend off campus engaged in community service or visiting sites and agencies linked to ongoing student inquiry? How can the greater community provide support for these trips? What types of follow-up activities will assure connection between the visit and the curricular inquiry that spawned them?

5. How has our school addressed the issue of curriculum integration? How can we modify daily schedules to allow cross-curricular inquiry? What types of activities might be devised to assure cross-curricular connections? What types of assessment instruments might be designed to describe student learning that crosses core disciplines?

6. How do we address issues of social justice, equity/equality, and cultural difference during the school day? How do we engage students in the democratic process in meaningful ways? How might we help students participate on a deeper level with these moral-compass issues?

Little & Ellison outline these 6 core strategies as the underpinnings of progressive pedagogy in their 2015 book Loving Learning. As I read I wonder just how much radical change would our schools have to undergo before they can be realized? I believe, with administrative support, changes that will transform our school-age populations can happen rather quickly and with little to no cost. It’s time to get started. Our democratic way of life depends on it.