Strolling through the classrooms of the Stephen S. Wise Early Education Center is like walking through a museum. Walls are jam-packed with the children's elaborate educational art projects, photos of them creating these masterpieces, and typed quotations of their thoughts on the topic at hand.
One preschool classroom boasts a replica of the Western Wall made out of painted paper bags. Next to it is a list of the youngsters' explanations about the famous landmark. "You put notes in the holes and God reads them" is one 3-year-old boy's comment. "You can wish or tell a story." Nearby is a small clay model of the Wall and photographs and postcards depicting the real monument in Israel.
This ornate aesthetic display is just one element of the Reggio Emilia teaching methodology, which is becoming more popular in Jewish preschools in Los Angeles. The teaching style was developed in a northern Italian town of the same name. After the city of Reggio Emilia was ravaged in World War II, citizens wanted to give hope to the community by creating quality preschools. A young teacher named Loris Malaguzzi developed the "Reggio approach," which maintains that the child is a contributor to his or her education. Other cornerstones of the philosophy include incorporating local culture, encouraging parent involvement and using the classroom as the "third teacher," in that it should contain thought-provoking objects and experiences.
Esther Elfenbaum, the director of Early Childhood Education Services at the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), introduced Reggio Emilia to the community four years ago after she spent time at the original Reggio school in Italy, where educators from all over the world go to learn about the program. Since then, Elfenbaum has trained local preschool teachers both inside and outside the Jewish community to use this approach in their classrooms. This summer, she made another trip to Italy to gather new information on the method.
Elfenbaum teamed up with Dafna Presnell, the director of the Stephen S. Wise Early Education Program, and the two women developed the program for the Los Angeles preschool. Presnell was immediately drawn to the methodology.
"The approach was so inclusive," she says. "They really emphasized relationships and the necessity to include the community. When we were looking at the cultural part, it was so exciting, because I was thinking of our rich and magnificent culture and religion."
"In traditional teaching, the teacher has a plan," says Elfenbaum. "This is different. It's inspired by the children." To enable the children to guide their learning experience, teachers must be observant facilitators and let the lesson evolve by discovering what the children are interested in. Children then hypothesize about the subjects they are studying and do research to see if their theories are correct. This research might involve discussions, drawing pictures, painting, working with clay, putting on a play and countless other creative processes, which constitute what this method calls the "hundred languages" of children.
In the spring, preschoolers at Stephen S. Wise learned about Passover. This led to a lesson on the desert. When the children expressed their knowledge of Palm Springs and the Negev, the teachers asked questions about what desert life is like, which lead to a monthlong study of the topic. Yom Ha'atzmaut presented the perfect segue into a monthlong study about Israel. The children drew pictures of the Israeli flag and brought in pictures, postcards and other authentic relics belonging to their families. Classes then created "Israel museums" for the other students to visit.
While some preschools, like Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and Adat Ari El in Valley Village, embrace Reggio wholeheartedly, other institutions choose to simply incorporate aspects of the approach. At Temple Israel of Hollywood Nursery School, teachers borrow the aesthetics theory used in Reggio.
"I don't believe in one program meeting the needs of all children," says Eileen Horowitz, who heads Temple Israel's school.
Carol Bovill, the director of the Mann Family Early Childhood Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, plans to teach her staff about Reggio Emilia this fall. "It will be one part of our program, along with the Montessori and High Scope," Bovill said.
Still, Reggio advocates believe that the method can stand alone, since it represents a belief in a youngster's potential. "You don't always know what children will know unless you give them a chance," Elfenbaum emphasizes. "You would be amazed at what kind of information comes out of a child."