The horrors of World War II signaled a need for change throughout the world.
In Italy, the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy was a step toward such change, a departure from traditional early learning pedagogy that allowed the population to focus on the future: the children.
Today early learning institutions throughout the world still use the Reggio Emilia method, which puts children in control of their own learning.
The three Jewish preschools in the Milwaukee area – Gan Ami Early Childhood Education programs at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, Jewish Beginnings and Mequon Jewish Preschool embraced Reggio Emilia nearly a decade ago and still find it to be the top method to provide a Jewish education to the approximately 450 students, ranging in age from 6 weeks old to 5 years old, that they collectively serve.
Stacy Synold Mitchell, director of early childhood education at Gan Ami, with sites in Mequon and Whitefish Bay, remembers reading about Reggio Emilia in a 1990s Newsweek article, but it didn’t take root locally until some years later.
In 2007-2008, Gan Ami, Jewish Beginnings and Mequon Jewish Preschool took a deeper dive into the approach through the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, or JECEI.
“The idea is that children are capable,” said Tziporah Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “They treat them as younger, but as full human beings.”
Teachers facilitate learning by guiding children, rather than leading them in the classroom.
“I really connected to it,” said Rivkie Spalter, director of Mequon Jewish Preschool. “It met our values.”
Though Reggio Emilia was not specifically designed for the Jewish population, it resonates with the core beliefs of Judaism, local educators agree.
“Each person is created in the image of God,” each person is important, Synold Mitchell said.
Likewise, Reggio Emilia sees each child as valuable and vibrant.
Additionally, Reggio Emilia emphasizes relationships between children and the community, and Judaism places a similar importance on relationships with one another.
The philosophy puts forward the idea that children access “100 languages” to learn through painting, poetry, physical movement and so much more.
Students in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where Loris Malaguzzi first developed the approach, are led throughout the city, encouraged to use the community as a classroom.
That’s easier abroad than it is in the Milwaukee suburbs, said Einat Oknin, preschool teacher at Jewish Beginnings.
“Everything is so far away,” she said. “We took the kids to the post office – it was the whole day.”
But the preschools do what they can to connect children and families to the wider community.
At Mequon Jewish Preschool, a weekly coffee for parents continues to draw adults long after their kids have outgrown the early learning programs.
Alumni are invited back to the school to participate in monthly committee meetings where first-grade students sit next to college freshmen.
“I think (Reggio Emilia) is attractive to any educator that actually cares for kids – Jewish or not Jewish,” Oknin said.
Oknin was teaching at Jewish Beginnings when the Reggio Emilia approach was introduced, and she felt confused and overwhelmed at first.
“I was really fascinated,” she said. But “I didn’t necessarily understand how or what to do with this information.”
Dr. Naama Zoran, of Israel, came every six to eight weeks to provide professional development at Jewish Beginnings and Mequon Jewish Preschool, but when she left, Oknin was left with questions.
So she packed up and headed for Israel, where she taught in Kefar Save for two years, learning more from Zoran.
Now she is back at Jewish Beginnings and coaches teachers on the Reggio Emilia approach. Zoran continues to serve as educators’ mentor.
Oknin has seen behavioral issues dissipate as kids have been given more power over their own learning through Reggio Emilia.
“To me it seem(s) so much more natural and organic,” she said. “It (makes) so much more sense than the ‘American’ teaching.”
Where a traditional American preschool might hang students’ art projects on the walls, a school utilizing Reggio Emilia might hang the art accompanied by illustrations of the art in progress.
The learning process is given the utmost importance, and teachers are responsible for documenting that process. Through that documentation, they can realize students’ passions and push them to explore those in their learning.
“A teacher’s job is not to teach,” Oknin said. “A teacher’s job is to guide.”
Actively listening and observing students is key. Recording their realizations helps document their day-to-day growth.
“It’s putting this tremendous importance on what kids have to say,” Altman-Shafer said.
Documentation takes many forms at Gan Ami, Synold Mitchell said.
Teachers take photos and record videos of the children, share updates on social media, inform parents of kids’ progress in real-time using the brightwheel application and create long-term portfolios to record each individual student’s development.
In this way, teachers are “students of the children’s learning,” Synold Mitchell said. “The evidence of their learning is so rich.”
A teacher at Mequon Jewish Preschool was able to step outside a circle of 4-year-old children in her class as they planned the school’s Shabbat celebration and watch them continue to work without her literally at the center of their plans.
“They really are the contributors and the providers,” said Robyn Eiseman, assistant director at Mequon Jewish Preschool.
Ready to collaborate and innovate at such a young age, these children are the future.
After the events of World War II when Reggio Emilia was born and yet today, “they wanted something better for their children,” Synold Mitchell said. “They wanted a way to heal the world.”