In the second presidential debate, on Oct. 16, the men who would rule our nation uttered the word "children" just once in 90 minutes—when Romney declared we're all "children of the same God." They said "job" 100 times and "tax" or "taxes" 76, but "education" was mentioned only 13 times, generally as a footnote to comments about the economy or gun control.
Like environmental protection (mentioned zero times, which is terrifying), education is not on the national radar. Which means that if we want to improve the way we do public school in Santa Fe, or anywhere else, we're going to have to do it ourselves.
One community that did just that is the Italian town of Reggio Emilia. In 1945, after the devastation of WWII, the townsfolk and a visionary teacher named Loris Malaguzzi came together to create a brilliant new approach to schooling for their city's youngest. Over the last half century, their model of early childhood education has evolved and flourished, and is now being adopted by preschools around the world.
Through my research with the Academy for the Love of Learning, I visited a "Reggio-inspired" preschool called El Nido, or "the nest," in Cali, Colombia. The leaders and coordinators of this project, Amanda Felton and Maritza González, described to me how they have entered into a "dialogue with the Reggio philosophy," through which they've adapted the model to their particular setting and culture, while honoring many of its essential principles.
One of these principles, which I believe is key to moving our schools forward, is that students must be protagonists—not subjects or consumers—of the learning process. Having suffered through Mussolini's totalitarianism, the Reggio Emilia community wanted schools that would grow a questioning and participatory citizenry, so they threw out the old model of teachers forcing passive students through a pre-determined curriculum. In its place, they developed a model in which the curriculum evolves directly from the interests of the children, and projects are co-created by teachers and learners.
At El Nido, for example, when teachers noticed that a group of 2-year-olds were fascinated by rolling wooden spools, they created a multi-week exploration of movement and gravity. Following the children's interests, they extended the study into a project on heights, culminating in the construction of a classroom-sized "mountain" of recycled materials.
A second key principle is that teachers should not be chalkboard-pointing deliverers of information, but documenters, researchers, collaborators and facilitators. To this end, the Reggio Emilia schools established the practice of having teachers work in teams of two, and built in time for the faculty to reflect upon and respond to what they observed in their daily work.
This new paradigm of teaching became clear to me when I was watching El Nido 4-year-olds explore the concept of fire. While one teacher helped the students paint tubes orange and yellow, the other took pictures and recorded their chatter. The reflective, attentive way these teachers worked together to simultaneously engage and observe the children had little to do with the harried, isolated frenzy I've always understood as teaching. And after class, when I used to scour teacher manuals or Google for more activities, these teachers reviewed the photos and conversations from the day, analyzed how the children had responded to the experience and planned how to most naturally deepen the learning.
Game-changing principles like these—child as protagonist, teacher as researcher—did not rise from presidential platforms, but from educational research, local leadership and an engaged community—a town that looked inward, thought seriously about what was important for its children and had the courage to try something new.
In the dearth of national leadership on education, we have an opportunity in Santa Fe to follow the lead of Reggio Emilia, and support our district in the creation of public schools that honor the curiosity of children and the passion of teachers. Superintendent Joel Boyd has demonstrated a willingness to listen to diverse community groups. When he begins unveiling proposals, we should treat his ideas not as mandates or solutions, but as starting points for deeper conversations about the type of human beings we would like our children to become.
A SFPS graduate and former educator, Seth Biderman works with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research different learning models and further public conversation about what "school" could someday be. He blogs at schoolreformed.wordpress.com.