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Winnetka Public School Nursery: Our Journey Toward Becoming a Reggio-Inspired School

By Sherry Kaufman, MAT, JD, and Mary Bell, MAT, MM

“Tigers are dangerous. When I grow up I want to train one. And, when I grow up, I wish I was one.” (Andrew, age four).

“Once upon a time there were four princesses living in a castle. And one day there was a dragon. The princesses ran and ran. They got caught by the dragon. But he was nice.” (Sarah, age four).

We cherish our children’s stories, for everyone has a story to tell that reveals a bit of their essence. What follows is Winnetka Public School Nursery’s story of our encounter with the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, and of our journey of becoming a Reggio-inspired school.

As many stories do, ours begins in the middle, long after WPSN established its reputation as an innovative preschool. In December of 1991, Newsweek ran an article citing the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, as “the best in the world.” Suddenly the world’s eyes focused on this northern Italian city. In the fall of 1992, Winnetka School District 36 hosted a seminar led by Lella Gandini (currently Reggio Children Liaison in the U.S. for Dissemination of the Reggio Emilia Approach) and several American educators who had attended study tours in Reggio Emilia. By all accounts, what was shared that day piqued the curiosity of Winnetka educators. Two of our current teachers who were present that day recall leaving the presentation feeling puzzled by this approach to education that seemed different from their experience teaching young children, and yet felt familiar in ways they could not articulate.

The ideas shared that day percolated for a decade in the minds and practices of the teachers of WPSN. We visited the Hundred Languages exhibit at River Forest in 1994, and attended seminars with educators from Reggio Emilia, including Amelia Gambetti, Carlina Rinaldi, and Vea Vecchi. Here we became more familiar with the “Reggio approach.” We read that the Italians begin with the belief that all children are competent and capable. We saw how the Italians encourage children to work in small groups on long-term explorations. We began to absorb the value of documenting children’s learning in photographs and text to “make the learning visible.” We learned new ways of involving families and community in the life of the school. We pondered the idea of teachers as learners and researchers. We understood that children express themselves not just verbally, but in a “hundred languages,” including visual art media, dance, music, drama and construction. We saw videos and heard stories of their work with and for children in Reggio Emilia. We were awed by the sheer beauty of the schools, amazed by the intricacy of the children’s theories, drawings and work, and deeply moved by the words of the children and teachers that reflected a depth of thinking and understanding we had seldom experienced in American preschools.

Yet, in the midst of these powerful feelings we heard an equally strong voice saying, “But this would not be possible in Winnetka! The Italian culture is very different. We don’t have adequate funds. Our classrooms are too small. We do not have an atelier (studio) or an atelierista (an artist) on staff. Our children would not focus on a project for months. We don’t even have a school camera to take photos of the children!” Also lingering in our minds, however, was Amelia’s voice challenging us to “stop talking about what you can’t do and start thinking about what you CAN do!”

Slowly, that is what we chose to do. We embraced the belief that Lella Gandini so eloquently articulated in The Hundred Languages of Children, “The environment here is seen as educating the child; in fact, it is considered as ‘the third educator’ along with the team of two teachers.” WPSN had long before embraced the concept of two co-teachers in each classroom. Now, we looked at our environment with fresh eyes and, as budget allowed, replaced bright primaries with neutral colors to highlight the children and their creative expressions. Plants, river rocks, and other natural materials added beauty and serenity to classrooms. Process art, which encourages children to express their own ideas rather than replicating an adult model, had always been central to our philosophy. Gradually, however, we began to offer a beautiful array of art materials to the children, encouraging them to make thoughtful choices. The easel, which had once offered three or four colors of paint, now offered a cart filled with an array of primary and pastel hues. We purchased a camera, began taking photos of the children, and wrote their accompanying thoughts and ideas. Portfolios, similar to those used in the Winnetka elementary schools, became one way for us to document the children’s experiences and growth during their years at WPSN. We developed a unique program for two year olds and remodeled our playground to create an “outdoor classroom” that encourages small group exploration and discovery.

In 2001, the parent board of WPSN gave three teachers the opportunity to attend a study tour in Reggio Emilia. Together with 200 educators from across the United States and around the world, these teachers visited preschools, spoke with Italian educators, attended seminars, and became immersed in the city and culture that supported and inspired these now famous schools. Not unlike the difference between seeing a picture of a mountain and actually climbing one, experiencing the schools of Reggio Emilia first-hand was a life-changing experience for these teachers. They returned filled with ideas, questions, and visions of what the next steps might be for WPSN. In 2003, two more teachers participated in a study tour in Italy.

Our practices continued to evolve. Our documentation addressed the why and how of children’s learning in addition to what they were learning. We saw long-term projects emerge from the expressed interests and questions of children, with topics as varied as the solar system, music, castles, robots, measurement, and Chicago. In-depth discussions and focused small group work became a regular part of our school day.

Equally important though less visible changes also occurred. The collaborative spirit always a part of WPSN flourished as teachers shared ideas for the next step in a project or found creative ways to use every inch of space available for children’s activities. Respect for children and their capabilities took on new meaning as children as young as two demonstrated their ability to translate their experiences with paper tubes into drawings, and four-year-olds posed hypotheses about freezing and melting and designed experiments to test their theories. Teachers’ roles evolved as we asked questions to encourage thinking; listened and observed to decide what material or provocation to offer next. We saw joy in the children’s eyes; a recognition of their learning and accomplishments.

Like any process of growth and change, our journey has not been without challenge. We have stumbled, learned from our mistakes, and grown stronger as a result of our experiences. This past year we began designing our Studio to inspire small group work with paint, wood, wire, oil pastels and clay. It, too, is evolving as we reflect upon its arrangement and optimal uses with children while also continuing to involve families in the process.

Jennifer Strange, Webster University professor and incoming co-chairperson for the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, became our consultant, providing guidance and challenging us to look critically at why we make the choices we do. We continue to grow in our Reggio-inspired practice as we have begun to share our journey in presentations to other preschools. In the fall of 2005, as we prepared for a visit by Erikson Institute graduate students interested in the Reggio approach, we were reminded of Carlina Rinaldi’s advice to educators during a study tour: “The important thing is to find your own roots. Roots cannot be pulled up and taken somewhere else. You must use your own roots to produce your own fruit.” So it was that we began to delve deeper into our own history. We had all learned to recite from memory… “WPSN was founded in 1927 by Rose Alschuler, a national leader in preschool education, and Dr. Carleton W. Washburne, superintendent of the Winnetka Public Schools, as one of the first nursery schools in the country.” But as we read the books by Alschuler (Two to Six and Painting and Personality) and Washburne (A Living Philosophy of Education), we rediscovered in the authentic words of our founders the progressive philosophy of our roots and the reason we had felt so drawn to the schools of Reggio Emilia.

We believe that Rose Alschuler, Carleton Washburne, and Loris Malaguzzi (founder of the preschools of Reggio Emilia) shared a deep respect for children and a belief that, by listening to and observing children at play, we can support their natural inclination to want to learn about their world. Each of these educators recognized and acted upon their belief that a school’s physical environment contributes immeasurably to the learning that occurs there. The Alschulers designed and donated a “nursery wing” for Skokie School; Washburne initiated the thoughtful design of Crow Island School built in 1940 and considered a model for schools nationally; Malaguzzi emphasized the importance of school design and the importance of aesthetically pleasing spaces that inspire relationships, joy and learning. Each encouraged and celebrated children’s creative expression and each rejected specific methods or a fixed curriculum in favor of an organic approach to education. As Washburne so succinctly articulated, "as each child is a new creation, as life is ever growing, ever changing, so must education, if it is to nourish the living child, be ever developing, never finished.” Listen to the parallel to Washburne’s words, from the schools of Reggio Emilia: “Reggio is not a model, a method or a system. It is a way of thinking, of researching and evolving.”

In researching our roots we also explored WPSN’s archives, lovingly passed from board president to board president over almost 80 years of relocation and renovation. We discovered photographs of an environment where play was respected as the important work of children. Yellowing newspapers reveal Winnetka residents supporting the work of the preschool, providing time, money, and energy. Handwritten notes provide a glimpse into the support network that existed, in the days before the Winnetka Alliance, amongst those on Chicago’s North Shore dedicated to early childhood education. Conversations with Winnetka resident Barbara Plochman, a board member from 1956 to 1972 and a member of last year’s Ad Hoc Committee on Governance, confirm that the values of community involvement, family participation, and respect for children, run deep within WPSN’s culture. In Barbara Plochman’s words:

“Throughout its 80 years, the treasured philosophy of the Winnetka Public School Nursery has been at the foundation of all its programs. Now… WPSN and Reggio Emilia– two like-minded philosophies–have come together to provide exciting new paths of exploration and opportunity for young children and their parents.”

These conversations and authentic documents help us to understand our roots, and the common essence we share with the schools of Reggio Emilia.

Malaguzzi once described The Hundred Languages of Children exhibit as “an unfinished story…that seeks wider spaces for reflection and the comparison of ideas.” The exhibit continues to travel the world, causing those who see it to reflect on “the possibilities” in their work with children. This fall, as WPSN celebrates our 80th anniversary of learning together with children, we continue to reflect on how far our Reggio journey has taken us, and to look forward to the chapters of our “unfinished story” yet to be written.

Sherry Kaufman, MAT, JD, is director of Winnetka Public School Nursery. Mary Bell, MAT, MM, is a teacher and former director of Winnetka Public School Nursery.

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