Today I’d like to introduce you to one of our early childhood educators, Elisa Stevani. Elisa is a member of the Orcas team in one of our three-year-old classrooms, and has been teaching at Northside for six years. Elisa values our community as a place where students can sing, play, dramatize stories, work with real-life materials and strengthen emotional awareness, inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach to education.
But Elisa isn’t just a “Reggio teacher” – she’s also a former student. Elisa grew up just outside the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy. From ages 3 to 5, she attended a nearby preschool which, “although it wasn’t a city school, the Reggio Emilia approach was so common and everyone saw that it worked and embraced it,” she told me last week when we sat down to chat.
What Elisa remembers most about her first school experience is that “Everybody was treating kids like they had a choice – their view of children was that they had value, that you could listen to what they wanted to do, [and also] know what is good for them.” She recalls being treated with respect when sleeping at school was hard for her, and that her teachers allowed her to be messy and express herself in ways that weren’t possible at home. “We also had nuns helping in the preschool, and they were so unconventional because of the way the preschool was run – the nuns would take markers and paint my nails to give me ‘nail polish,’ and fake jewelry – I could do all these things that I couldn’t do at home.”
Later when Elisa went off to university in Parma, a city a little over a half hour from where she grew up, she discovered that the rest of the world didn’t see children in the same way. One of her teachers was always complaining that people from Reggio Emilia, “gave so much importance to children. But we’re not selling a brand, we just think [children] have a value as people.” So many schools are “stage oriented,” and if you are not performing the skills of your age group or stage, “there is something wrong. They don’t think about variability and individuality as a value. They never think, ‘Oh, maybe we need to change things so they become functional.’”
Another thing I learned from Elisa is that it is not just schools that see children this way in Reggio Emilia, it is the entire community. Children are a precious resource, and everyone – from the teachers to the pharmacists to the bankers to the librarians – feels that they have a stake in their success.
“It’s the culture of the city of Reggio Emilio, around the city and surrounding areas. Every public space has the influence of the children. If they make a new piazza, a new monument, [children are involved] – it’s really community philosophy, not a school philosophy. Here you go to the library and there’s a ‘child section’ – in Reggio Emilia, you go to a library and even where there are ‘grown-up’ books, there are places for children to sit, small chairs, or mattresses on the floor, or toys, something for them. And in other public places, you will see sculpture, artwork, documentation or a report from a study” by local children, said Elisa.
In talking with Elisa, I was profoundly moved by her depiction of community spirit and shared values in Reggio Emilia. She pointed out that even the name speaks to this: “[Loris Maliguzzi] chose to call [this educational approach] ‘Reggio’ because it was from the city, and part of the city. He could have called it ‘The Malaguzzi Approach,’ but he didn’t. It is really a culture, not a brand, and something that is part of the community, something that you value: asking a child what they want to do.”
From such a simple premise, the community of Reggio Emilia has grown to become an internationally recognized leader in early childhood education, and a model for urban communities around the world. Every day here at Williamsburg Northside, teachers like Elisa welcome our children into their classrooms with joy, encouragement and respect. May we all find ways to welcome children into our spaces, and create the kind of community that most New Yorkers only dream about.
Elisa Stevani holds a Master’s degree in Developmental Psychology from the University of Parma in Italy, and is currently working toward a second Master’s in Early Childhood Education at Touro College Graduate School of Education.