We were delighted to receive an article published in Principia News featuring a teacher with whom we have worked for 3 years. We will continue our work with Principia this coming year, 2019-2020. Rachel Soney is a preschool teacher of four- and five-year-olds at Principia School in St. Louis, Missouri. We have been fortunate to work with Principia teachers and administrators for 4 years and we are thrilled to continue. The greatest satisfaction and joy of our work with schools and teachers is witnessing transformation and new energy and excitement for learning in teachers and in children. The rest of this blog post is excerpted from the article: Experienced Teacher’s Perspective and Practice Transformed in Principia News. We encourage you to read the whole article and view the slideshow that is included. And while you are there, explore the Principia website, to learn more about an inspired school founded in 1898 for Christian Scientists preschool through college.
Rachel Soney joined the Preschool faculty one year into the School’s transition to a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach to instruction in the early grades. Soney wasn’t familiar with this approach, but she was open to the guidance the Cadwell Collaborative (a consultant group) has been providing as the School makes this transition. “The more I opened up to what they were saying, the more my practice grew and blossomed,” Soney says. “It has transformed my teaching more than 20 years into my career. I’m so incredibly grateful.” In fact, Soney is so inspired by this new approach that she can’t keep it to herself—she shared her experience at two conferences recently, one in St. Louis and one in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The Role of Student and Teacher
Central to the Reggio Emilia approach is the teacher’s view of the child, not as an empty vessel to be filled, but as a protagonist, collaborator, and communicator—whole, complete, and capable of owning his or her learning. Rather than trying to fill the student with knowledge, the teacher is a partner and guide in the child’s learning journey.
Along with this nontraditional student/teacher relationship comes a dramatic shift in the curriculum and classroom. Predetermined lesson plans no longer drive learning. Instead, the curriculum emerges from the children’s interests. The teacher provides invitations or "provocations" to pique curiosity, and the children are free to respond based on their inclinations. Following a conversation with the children about rocks, for example, Soney and co-teacher Sue Huddleston set up a table with pictures of cairns (rock sculptures), a basket of rocks, paper, and pencils. Some children stacked the stones, others drew them, some did both. And before long, a couple of children moved books about rocks from the book nook to the cairn provocation to serve as research guides. That level of choice in activity and the freedom to manipulate the environment are hallmarks of the Reggio Emilia approach.
Cultivating a Love of Learning
“We’re teaching them to be thinkers,” Soney explains with delight. In the process, they develop traditional academic skills as well.
Each class creates an alphabet—out of twigs and leaves, perhaps, or buttons and beads—and a number line up to 20. These are on display throughout the year, becoming touchstones for the many books they create. Last year’s class of 16 children created 87 individually authored books, in addition to those coauthored by groups of children. The illustrations are always the children’s—as is the narrative, which the teachers write down. The children choose and write down the book titles themselves, along with their names. In this and other purposeful, organic ways, they learn to identify letters of the alphabet and write them.
“Instead of doing ‘drill and kill,’” Soney explains, “we're helping the students build background knowledge, phonological awareness, vocabularies, and number sense. By the end of last year, all the students knew the uppercase letters, and many knew most lowercase ones, too. Some knew up to 20 letter sounds, and several were beginning readers.”
That level of kindergarten readiness is a ringing endorsement of a Reggio Emilia-inspired program. More important to Soney, though, is the students’ never-ending eagerness to learn. “Things happen organically,” Soney says, “which puts a fire in their belly for learning.”