KIDDISH_SGPV_0819_Mama_MiaWhile the delicious smell of baking challah emanates from every crook and cranny of our preschool each Thursday; while we light candles, teach Hebrew and dress up during Purim; while we incorporate Jewish traditions in our school every day—some of our strongest Jewish values are, in fact, reflected in an Italian teaching philosophy, Reggio-Emilio.
Founded shortly after World War II, Reggio came about after Italian educators took a hard look at how their country was schooling its youngest. They partly blamed their nation’s period of fascism for education focused on regimentation, inhibiting free and independent thinking.
The Reggio approach follows several key principles. Chief among them is the idea that every child is “confident and capable.” Through discussion, painting and coloring, role playing, sculpting and arts, and countless creative processes, our children engage in learning. The role of teachers in the Reggio framework is to tap into every child’s individual creative processes.
The teachers will start with a provocation, something that could be of interest for the children. For example, a teacher who has a class interested in animals as well as music will set out a shofar as the High Holidays approach. Several children will be interested in the shofar as a musical instrument, and others will be interested in it as a ram’s horn and want to learn about rams, but all of them will learn how this is a symbol from our High Holiday celebrations. The children are asked what they think, what interests them, etc. As a group they often decide to explore the different sizes, colors and sounds the shofar makes. The teacher continues to ask questions and helps guide the class as they measure, compare and contrast, read, create their own shofars and experiment through art and inquiry.
The children who are interested in a ram will learn their sizes, what climates they live in, what part of the globe they reside in and what they eat. All of these interests guide the children to use art, science, literacy, and math as well as creative thinking to expand their knowledge and interests.
One aspect that makes Reggio’s popularity surprising is that it appears to contradict the emphasis that many parents and educators place on academics.
As opposed to a more traditional preschool, where curricula is specifically planned out, our teachers do not outline specific learning objectives; rather, they observe kids’ interests and activities and extend them throughout the school day. The focus is not on the outcome, such as learning or the ABCs, but on the actual process of learning.
What’s Jewish about this Italian philosophy?
Reggio’s principles are wholly consistent with Jewish values. Clearly, Jewish values espouse education, teaching and learning. We do not dictate or teach by rote; rather, we show our children how to study everything from different angles, to test ideas and to interpret based on experiences. Likewise, Reggio looks at topics from a variety of angles and invites children to contemplate, analyze and consider.
Jewish teachings recognize the idea of sacred time and space. Likewise, with Reggio, a critical aspect of our teaching is building the time and space for reflection. Children document and review their learnings, enticed to look and investigate new angles. There is always something new to explore.
Sue Penn is currently the Director of Congregational Learning at University Synagogue where she oversees all education from ages 4-104. Sue has been honored for being an innovative educator and is committed to creative approaches in Jewish Education. Sue currently sits on the Board of the Jewish National Fund of Orange County, and of the Reconstructionist Educators of North America, where she was a previous chair.  She is also co-president of the Orange County Jewish Educator Association. Sue writes a monthly article for Jlife Magazine and runs educational webinars for the Reconstructionist Movement.


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