You won’t find a lot of bright neon colors or posters with the ABCs on the walls of the Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood Education Center (ECE). Instead, you’ll see a lot of preschoolers’ art, their family photos and a collage created by the children’s parents. Since he arrived in July 2012, director Zac Price, 33, and one of the country’s only male preschool directors, has presided over significant changes in the program’s educational philosophy, learning environment and teaching methods.
The ECE program is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, which stresses the importance of gearing education to the interests and needs of individual children in the learning community.
Reggio Emilia is a town in Italy, where the model, developed by educator Loris Malaguzzi, was first practiced after World War II. It came as a response to Italy’s Fascist regime that, Malaguzzi said, robbed him of much of his childhood. Parents of young children in Reggio Emilia, also deeply affected by the war, were attracted to his ideas about education.
“Parents looked at themselves after the war and said, ‘How did we [our country’s culture] raise children who were Fascists? Let’s make sure it never happens again,’ ” said Price.
Teachers at the ECE learned first-hand about Malaguzzi’s approach when they were part of a group of 70 Jewish educators who traveled to Italy in March 2012 for a five-day intensive training program in Reggio Emilia.
Ironically, the Reggio Emilia philosophy, created and first practiced by non-Jews, is based upon many values and ideas fundamental to Judaism. For example: “the image of each child as unique; awe and amazement; the value of education; the power of questioning; and the importance of community,” said Price.
Price also emphasized that each child has a unique learning style and said the program individualizes its methodology to meet the needs and interests of every class member.
“Each child will do things differently,” he said. “All that some kids want to do is take things apart; other kids just want to be physical with something; others are ‘thinkers.’ ”
Riley Burger was in his third year at the ECE when the Reggio Emilia approach was introduced. Gabrielle Burger, Riley’s mother, found that it was “a better emotional fit” for preschoolers compared with more traditional approaches.
“A lot of schools assume that little kids need to be told what to do, that they don’t know anything and don’t have anything to give,” said Burger. “Reggio Emilia empowers children and makes them feel like they have a say in their lives. Usually a teacher will say, ‘Now we’re going to do this, now we’re going to do that. That didn’t work so well for Riley because sometimes he was involved in what he was doing and didn’t want to move on to something else. In the Emilia Reggio approach, [learning] centers are always open.”
Burger credits the approach with helping her son to overcome his reticence about painting.
“Because he could spend more time painting, this child — who never touched a paintbrush unless he was forced to — started coming home with paintings every day,” she said.
Painting, Burger added, helped Riley with his fine motor coordination, making this year’s transition to kindergarten at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School much easier.
“We don’t do traditional art projects here,” said Price. “An art project really just shows how smart the teacher is. When the teacher tells the children what to do, it doesn’t give the child a chance to explore. It’s like it short circuits that child’s idea.”
In the classroom for 4-year-olds, children have been painting with inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Price showed how each child’s painting expressed his or her unique interests. “One child is fascinated in the cypress tree in the painting; another child is working on color,” he said.
When it comes to learning the alphabet, Price said teachers don’t focus on the ABCs. “We talk about the kids’ names and start by teaching them the letters they need in order to write their own names,” he explained. “Then we teach them their friends’ names. Then we fill in the rest. In the 3-year-olds’ class we have them write notes to each other. Sometimes letters are inverted or [there are] approximated spellings. That’s part of developmentally appropriate practice. We start with the meaning, then label. Otherwise, the learning doesn’t stick.”
Sometimes learning to read at the ECE starts with pictures and storytelling.
“We might take a book they’ve heard many times and ask, ‘Why don’t you read me the story?’ And the child might say, ‘I don’t know the words.’ Then the teacher might say, ‘Just tell it to me.’ Without the meaning, the learning has no use for them.”
In the weeks preceding Chanukah, for instance, the children learned about light and dark and how these concepts are central to Judaism and Jewish practice.
“We set up a light table, just a table with LED lights underneath so they could experiment,” said Price.
The table had different objects such as small rocks, buttons and a ruler, some of which were opaque, some of which were translucent, he noted.
Rather than provide children with information they may need to problem-solve, teachers ask questions and encourage students to use reflection and creative exploration to discover answers. This process, he stressed, gives students ownership of their projects.
Said Price: “The kids were always wanting to take off their shoes. We thought, either we could fight them on this or we could come up with a solution.”
Through a collaborative community process, a safe solution was reached.
“Now we have a bin by the exit where all the kids’ shoes are kept. That way, in case of a fire, they can grab their shoes as they’re leaving the building,” said Price.
Inherent in the program is its guiding principles of respect, responsibility and community.
“It seems odd compared with how we were taught, but once you see it and go through it [the process], it makes sense,” he added. “We teach them to think, understand and question.”