Silvia Conti is a pedagogue at the childhood school Girasole Palomar, a Reggio Emilia inspired school, born in Castelnovo di Soto (italy) in the year 70. In this interview Silvia explains us how the school works and the main values and mechanisms behind its education model. Next, you will find the transcription of the interview:
The main values of the school have always been linked to children and childhood, to educational projects that place in the center respect, listening and the difference, because each one of us has his own experience and personality. Each child has her/his own purpose, a family from which he/she comes, so our goal is to create an educational trip in a group, build not only learning, but also a history, a culture of childhood that echoes the respect of the many points of view.
Regarding the educational experiences that we build together along the way, working by projects is at the center of this design. If children and teachers build and listen together, confronting and exchanging thoughts and ideas, learning is constructed by comparison. The group and the relationship is fundamental. The teacher is not the one who gives the answer, it always starts with questions about, what can be a natural phenomenon for example, and that is the starting point for an experience.
These experiences are going to be linked precisely with creative languages, the language of art, or the manipulative aspect, such as working with clay. The graphic, pictorial aspect and all the other languages allow the children to find expressive and cognitive forms. Group work allows exchange. There may be children who feel more secure in one language and others who do not. This creates a very strong exchange of skills too.
Teachers’ observation is very important because it allows creating, improving and renewing the educational proposals. What matters is not the goal we want to reach but the learning path, which must always be re-read and monitored. That’s why there are always two teachers with the group. This allows us working in small groups and therefore creating opportunities also for dialogue and deeper exchange.
At the same, there is also an exchange between the teachers themselves. In this exchange also appears the figure of the pedagogue to compare different points of view.
The spaces of the school are divided by sections: 3,4 and 5 years. In each section there is a space called atelier (“workshop”), the privileged place with respect to graphic, pictorial language, clay, light, digital language … digital instruments help us to develop different proposals in the creative sphere on a daily basis. At the moment that I propose a child to express graphically, I am also asking him to formulate a thought and I am connected with respect to the path t the child is taking and with respect to the one others are taking in that graphic dimension. This means being in two dimensions because the creation presupposes a thought.
During the morning, the teachers are equipped with a notebook, pencils and cameras to take notes and document everything that happens, what the children can say in a conversation or photographing an experience they are having. This material is reread by the teachers so that these aspects can be taken into account and redone with them the planning and sharing with the parents. There are a number of hours reserved at the school for the teacher to work on this documentation and the documentation serves precisely to the teacher to reflect and understand how to proceed regarding the route to follow in the project. It also serves children to re-read and see each other again compared to what they have experienced. Finally it serves the parents to understand the learning construction path that is happening in that group and time of year.
Behind this documentation there is an ethical and aesthetic thinking. Ethical because it gives value to the path that this group of children is doing in school, but also aesthetic because one learns better when there is a cured and thoughtful context.
The space is a very important element in our educational proposal because it is an element that helps us in the experiences, in short a kind of third educator because it allows to organize small groups and allows the children to self-organize since it is a space thought by the adult.
The section is organized in different spaces that can change over time, they are not fixed. The square is the heart of the school. It has a connotation of meeting between children of different sections and ages, but also for parents to know each other when they come to accompany the children. Also for meetings between experts and school teachers. It happens the same in the cities, the square is a meeting point. Now also this concept has been transferred to the digital world.
Another important space is the park, available to all children, with a very natural part, cured with elements of nature and another part more linked to structured play. The park surrounds the school so it is a kind of extension of the classroom. It is enriched with educational and project experiences.
Each section has different spaces linked to the construction and the symbolic game. The light table is present in all sections. It is one more feature of the space to work with more materials and languages. Space is not an empty space, it is a space rich in mostly informal materials, not necessarily structured because this kind of structured games children have them at home, so the school has to offer other possibilities. Informal materials allow us to work the most creative and imaginative aspects, giving children the possibility of inventing, building and working less in adult mode.
The school is open from 7:30 to 4 in standard time but for those who need more work is open until 6. The cleaning is achieved by taking care of space, food, experiences that are proposed to children, all it is part of a quality educational project.
The proposals we make to the children can be born in many forms. When the school year begins, we think which kind of experiences we can offer to the children by selecting aspects that may arise from the interests of the children themselves or from the needs that perhaps the adults read in that group of children. For example, a teacher can look for an educational path to develop graphic skills along with children.
In recent years we have worked a lot about the relationship of the child with nature. In Italy there is a great movement linked to these aspects. The park is one of the best places to work on this relationship. We use it not only when it’s beautiful, but throughout the school year, in the fall and winter.
Nature is a very fascinating element but also a very educational element, due to what it spontaneously offers us, for the risk and danger that I can find in it and in this way I can measure the limits and the rules. There is another aspect also linked to the transformation, to the change, to the seasonality that is very important to live with the children. So nature is an element that has guided us lately regarding the project route we had planned with children and parents.
Nature also helps us to know what a child knows, because a child is not an empty container to be filled. He has an experience and has his own level in the group.
The participation of the family is an important element of the educational path. The school considers it very valuable to confront and dialogue with the family because the child comes from a family and therefore has an experience. The school offers various meetings and moments of exchange with the family, section meetings, theme nights, as well as specific laboratories where parents bring materials for children.
There is also a part of confrontational meetings through individual interviews where it is important to face the educational point of view of the school and the family. Even if they are different you have to work and exchange points of view because what matters is definitely the wellbeing and growth of each child. It is an added value in my opinion, the construction of relationships between families that continue even after the children finish their three years in the school. Therefore it is a possibility to strengthen relationships that last over time. Here everyone is known, we are neighbours.
It can happen that with respect to the family you have a different point of view. This is normal because everyone has his or her personal experience. But I think the school shouldn’t abdicate its own educational task and we must give value to the potential of each child and also highlight those that may be the difficulties, which may be the contingencies that need to work together. The important thing is to find a space for comparison also between adults because this helps to build a reality together putting the children in the center. This helps build trust between the school and the family, to be able to work better together.
We propose to the children topics that go into depth in the cultural aspects related to the needs that the pair of teachers detects in the group of children. There are elements such as corporeity, sensoriality, poly-sensoriality, the transformation of natural elements, the knowledge of time, musical language, the motor aspect … that always accompany the educational path.
The topics and proposals may come from a specific interest of a child, or a specific family that supports the design and development of an experience. In these years we have worked on the aspect of natural education but also a lot about food, since this element is part of our everyday life, and respecting the indications of paediatricians regarding the issue of childhood obesity. Therefore there are different origins, it may be a need that the adult detects in society or an interest that is born of the curiosity of the child and therefore has a strong component of motivation that facilitates development and learning.
The typical day of the school begins very early. There are children who arrive at school at 7:30 because maybe the parents work early. There is a teacher who welcomes you.
At 8 the children are divided into their sections and that moment begins at the reception. Parents can take the children from 8 to 9 and they are welcomed by the teachers of the section. It is a very precious moment because it is the separation between home and school, It can be a very intimate and delicate moment for children who wake up there, especially for children who start this stage of three years.
At 9 o’clock the morning begins. We meet in an assembly, The children sit in a circle at different levels to start the morning. These rituals are important because they are repeated and help the children to structure time and scan the day. Then we continue with a game in which children learn the names of their friends, see who stayed at home and who came to school. Then give them small tasks that help the children to develop self-responsibility. For example, there are waiters who enter the kitchen to listen to what is the menu, children who organize and a whole series of activities related to a life together.
Then you can start a conversation together that can be linked to one aspect of the project, or to what has been done over the weekend, or there are also children who bring questions. It is also a valuable time for reading. We read many books together. There is an adult who spends time reading books dedicated to children.
Then the space is divided so that one of the two teachers can be in the atelier with a small group, while the others are divided into the spaces of the section that can be the tables, the light table … They can be free activities or more structured depending on the organization of the week.
Lunch is taken very early, around noon. Then there is a moment that can be dedicated to play or free time, or motor activity. Then we propose a moment of rest because we believe that it is important after so many stimuli, to have a moment that is to rest the body and the mind. The children sleep in the school in the same section with the teacher. Then there is the moment dedicated to wake up together and a snack accompanied by a game activity.
Between 3 and 4 in the afternoon the parents come. If there are families that need an extended schedule for their work we offer a service until 6 o’clock with an educator who takes care of the children.
What fascinates me about this educational model are its two main characteristics: the listening and the way in which we relate to each other, that together can build so much. The child is recognized as a personality, a competence with the right to be part of an educational path that takes into account so many aspects and offers the child so many possibilities. It is not something that is strictly governed and decided by the adult, but rather contemplates the unforeseen and the feedback of the children. Another motivation is undoubtedly the richness of the experiences that children bring daily and the relationship with the group that extends to families.
Castelnovo di Soto like other provinces in Italy and other locations in Reggio, is within a strong immigration context in the last 10 years. It is definitely an element that must be taken into account and addressed. There are children who come from many parts of the world, specifically for our school, from the Maghreb and India because the territory offers a working context for mothers and fathers.
The difficulties that we could find because of the language, have been overcome from the possibility of using so many languages. We have children who can have parents who come from abroad but then they are born here and therefore we are somehow building a community together for the future. They are Italian children in the end. They are children born bilingual and this dimension is very interesting because it gives a wealth due to its complexity. This complexity concerns adults especially because it is difficult for adults to find ways of confrontation and knowledge. However, this path for children is very natural, but for adults, it is not because we have superstructures that condition us. In recent years we have done a lot of training with cultural mediators.