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And the children shall lead

Reggio approach produces success at Brooklyn pre-K

Teacher Sandy Fajgier watches as her pre-K students use VHS tapes — circa 1980 — Jonathan Fickies

Teacher Sandy Fajgier watches as her pre-K students use VHS tapes — circa 1980 — as blocks at the K-280 pre- K center in Brooklyn.

Students get creative in the block area, which features a projector for casting Jonathan Fickies

Students get creative in the block area, which features a projector for casting light and shadow.

A student arranges jewelry on the projector to create an interesting image. Jonathan Fickies

A student arranges jewelry on the projector to create an interesting image.

In the block corner, a trio of 4-year-olds is winding a string of LED lights through a complex wooden structure topped with flowers, magnetic tiles and toy dinosaurs. Tucked behind a curtain in a darkened area of the room, another trio is playing house, addressing each other as “Mommy” and “Daddy.” In the art studio, one girl is wrapping a pipe cleaner around a stick she collected in the yard the day before, while another carefully affixes colored tape to a drawing.

It’s a typical morning in Sandy Fajgier’s prekindergarten classroom at K-280 in Windsor Terrace. At K-280 — a pre-K center affiliated with PS 10 that is also known as the School of Inquiry and Journeys — teachers like Fajgier eschew traditional curriculum in favor of the Reggio Emilia approach to education.

The Reggio philosophy encourages teachers to let children investigate their own interests through exploration and play.

“This is what kids should be doing, exploring the world through their lens,” says Fajgier.

Most educators are familiar with the term “backward planning,” in which teachers begin with a specific learning objective and plan lessons designed to help students achieve that objective. It’s a strategy that Fajgier has cheerfully discarded.

“When children come into my classroom, I have no product in mind, no intention, no idea what I want them to do,” says Fajgier. “It all comes from the children.”

Because the Reggio philosophy emphasizes the idea that the environment is a second teacher, Fajgier is deliberate about how she arranges her classroom and the materials she sets out for children to use.

“I set things up extremely intentionally; nothing is random,” she says. “I think about multiple entry points — can everyone play accessibly and collaboratively?”

Fajgier shows off a basket of kimochi characters she uses to teach children abouJonathan FickiesFajgier shows off a basket of kimochi characters she uses to teach children about expressing emotions.

Each day begins with a “provocation,” or an arrangement of materials that invites children to play. Students may encounter a vase filled with flowers, for example, or a stack of VHS tapes Fajgier happened to find one morning on the way to school. During their meeting, students agreed that the tapes resembled building blocks and belonged in the block corner, where they joined a variety of other found building materials.

“The classroom is so creative,” says Yfat Talpaz, who says her daughter Michal’s “obsession with worms” has been happily nurtured by her time in Fajgier’s class. “It’s like the Renaissance, with so much talking about different ideas.”

As students play, Fajgier listens to their conversations, asks questions and documents their behavior, which helps her reflect on the arc of students’ inquiry over time. She’s careful to ask open-ended questions and to guide children without directing them or “spoon-feeding them information,” she says.

In the block corner, for example, Fajgier recently placed a series of mirrors and closely observed students’ interactions with them.

“I could have just explained the phenomenon of reflection,” she says. “But that’s not teaching anything.”

During their “choice time,” Fajgier’s students read books, use art materials and build with blocks. But they also experiment with flashlights, light boxes, LED lights and projectors.

“Light and shadow are very Reggio-inspired tools,” says Fajgier. “It helps children explore movement in the world and teaches about cause and effect — what happens when they move things.”

Fajgier acknowledges that even her daily morning meeting — a hallmark of most early childhood education classrooms — is slightly unorthodox.

“I want them to be researchers and investigators, and they’re not going to learn how to do that sitting perfectly still with their hands in their laps,” she says. “I let them have a meeting that is about community and what’s important to them, not the calendar and the days of the week. I’m there to elevate the conversation and keep the line of focus and questioning going.”

Amir Keinan, a special education teacher who works with a student in Fajgier’s class, says this approach has paid off.

“So much of pre-K is focused on academics for kindergarten readiness,” he says. “But Sandy spends the first half of the year focusing on how children engage with each other with respect. She makes sure the kids really have ownership and the class is working organically.”

On a recent morning, the “morning meeting leader” shared the news that her mother had brought home cookies the night before. Then she took questions from her rapt audience: What kind of cookies were they? Why did your mommy bring them home?

“It’s teaching them how to listen and answer back with a comment that makes sense,” says Fajgier. “The most important part of pre-K is establishing pro-social skills and being community members. It’s teaching them how to be citizens of the world.”

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