I met Lella Gandini in 1996 when my husband and I were visiting Rome and staying at the American Academy . At the time, her husband, Lester Little, was the director of the Academy. On the plane trip I was reading The Hundred Languages of Children and I was so surprised when we reached the main desk of the Academy to check in and I saw Lella’s photo on a bulletin board above the receptionist’s desk. We have remained correspondents since that visit.
Amazingly, I had a second surprise visit connected with Lella. This one included Cathy. When my daughter was having a concert in Worchester, Massachusetts, I was introduced to the publisher, Wyatt Wade. He invited me, along with my daughter and son-in-law, to visit his newly restored office. When we arrived, Lella and Cathy were there waiting for me! After a tour of the office, we all went to Wyatt’s home for dinner. It was a visit that I’ll always remember.
When I came up with the idea for this new series of conversations, I immediately thought of these two inspiring women. I crossed my fingers when I invited them to participate and to my utter delight, they immediately accepted the invitation.
Lella serves as Reggio Emilia Liason in the United States for Dissemination of the Reggio Emilia Approach. The Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach include:
a deep respect for the ideas of children and teachers.
a belief that knowledge is constructed through social interchange.
the value of using materials and media to express and communicate feelings, thoughts and understandings.
the desire to document children’s and teacher’s processes to preserve memories and sustain in-depth work.
the joy and growth that comes from collaborating with other teachers and with children in the search for knowledge and understanding of relationships.
Cathy Topal and Lella Gandini took some time the morning of November 17, 2020 to talk about Beautiful Stuff and the Gift of Discovery.
Here is a very apropros and entertaining video of how the artist Hanoch Piven uses beautiful stuff in his art. You might want to share this with your children. They will love it! https://youtu.be/f7bZWbzuW_I
This past Saturday I came across a blog that was posted on Facebook and the latest entry was titled Beautiful Stuff: Diary of a Gan Teacher. A kindergarten teacher was about to begin the Beautiful Stuff project with her class and would be blogging about it periodically. What a perfect find this was for me! The kindergarten classes in two of the schools where I consult are just beginning this project. I emailed all of the teachers the link to this blog and encouraged them to read it, and if they felt the urge, to send in comments on how the project was working in their classes.
Then, yesterday (Sunday) I received a beautiful private message on my Facebook page from Amy Meltzer, a kindergarten teacher working in Massachusetts. She wrote about how much she enjoys my blog and how it is supporting her planning for Choice Time. It was such a wonderful beginning to my Sunday. I wrote back to Amy and through the course of our back and forth communications discovered that Amy is the author of the Beautiful Stuff blog! Now isn’t that amazing!
I just love the Beautiful Stuff project. As a staff developer working with early childhood teachers, I find that it is a perfect way to support teachers in understanding the joy and potential of exploration, inquiry and creative expression.
The project is presented in the book Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materialsby Cathy Weisman Topal and Lella Gandini. The publisher’s description of the book on their website says, “inspired by educational practices in Reggio Emilia, Italy, this book focuses on process rather than product. Chapters cover collecting and organizing materials, stimulating thoughts about design, reflecting upon and extending work, and more. Several sorting and categorizing activities are presented, along with individual and group projects and constructions.”
I’d like to share some images of children’s work from two different New York City public schools. In this first school working with this study had a profound effect on the way that the kindergarten teachers approached art with their children. When I first visited their classrooms I was struck by how caring all of the teachers were towards their students. The population consisted of mostly children of immigrants from Latino countries. Many families lived in shelters or in a local housing project. For a variety of reasons, the children did not take part in class conversations. There was little chatter between them at their tables when they were working or at play centers. The art work that I saw on the walls all looked very similar and teacher-directed.
Look at what happened when they were encouraged to experiment with a variety of materials and come up with their own personal designs.
Something unusual occurred in Dana Roth’s kindergarten class at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, New York. They were in the midst of the Beautiful Stuff project. At their centers, during Choice Time, children created Beautiful Stuff Color Cities, Beautiful Stuff inventions and Beautiful Stuff games. Then one child came up with a new idea. “Let’s have a Beautiful Stuff newspaper!” Dana, who was always interested in picking up on children’s interests, facilitated a discussion to find out what children knew about newspapers. At the class meeting they decided to open up a newspaper center. Children took on different roles – writers, reporters, illustrators and photographers. Here are some of the pages from their Beautiful Stuff Telling Newspaper:
Have any of you had experience with this project? If you haven’t, are you interested in giving it a try? These are some suggestions that I have shared with the teachers that I’ve been working with at various NYC schools:
Ideas and Thoughts from the text Beautiful Stuff!
One goal of this project is to allow children to become ‘fluent’ with materials – as if materials were a language
This project tends to get parents very involved – they too are eager to share the treasures that they collected. They are interested in seeing what other families have discovered.
We want to record the opening of the bags – video, still photo, tape recorded responses, written transcripts
The teacher helps children focus their observations by asking questions and making responses that help focus conversation
Give children opportunities to sort the materials in unexpected ways
Give children opportunities to name the sorted categories and make observations about the different categories
Materials can be arranged and rearranged many times
When materials are arranged in different categories and displayed in an attractive way, parents and children can add to the materials when they come in to school in the morning (see page 21)
Because clutter is distracting, teachers have to make selections and throw away some materials. This should be done with discretion so that feelings are not hurt
Storing materials in clear or white containers allows children to clearly see the colors and textures of each material
Have a display shelf left blank so children can use it for unfinished or finished work (see page 46)
An enthusiastic adult has to be involved to keep the communication and dialogue going
The kinds of questions to ask as well as when to ask or make an observation becomes important parts of being present to the moment with children
Exploring materials is an evocative experience. It stimulates the imagination. It invites children to tell stories and to develop games
Social interaction is a natural outcome of exploring
Exploring materials is a bridge to other avenues of expression, such as drawing, collage, construction and sculpture
Saving a trace or memory of an experience is so important to the art of learning and teaching
Collecting materials and ideas for a project on one day, then inviting children to wait overnight to think them through, builds a sense of anticipation and allows for changes in plans and new ideas
Instead of giving children a model on which to base their work, ask, “How could you make ___ from your materials?”
I hope that you will visit Amy’s blog and that you will share some of your own experiences with this project. If you have thoughts or questions about any aspect of this study, please post them on the “make a comment” space for my blog. I have a feeling that there are many teachers who read our blogs who will have many interesting suggestions and stories to share.
In response to the unfortunate atmosphere of teacher bashing that we are living through, I would like to focus on some wonderful work being done by a group of hard-working teachers in a public school in New York City.
Here’s a bit of background information about this barrier-free, pre-k – 5 school, located on the Lower East Side, which is situated in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. The ethnic breakdown is approximately 75 % Latino, 20 % African-American, 3.5 % Asian and 1.5 % ‘other’. Many of the children live in shelters or foster homes. There’s a large special needs population, often transferring into the school mid-year. Because of the No Child Left Behind legislation, families from other areas of the city transfer their children into this hard-working, caring school and, because children are traveling long distances, there’s a major problem with lateness and absences. This year, the heavy-duty budget cuts came down hard on this community. Without any significant PTA fundraising, staff is often forced to reach into their own pockets if they want to provide any extra materials for their classrooms.
Four years ago, I was approached by their network leader, Dan Feigelson, and asked if I could do some consulting work here with the kindergarten and first grade teachers. He was familiar with the inquiry and Choice Time work that I had done in my own classroom (we had been colleagues at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn) and thought that the children would benefit from more exploration and playtime. The principal, a former pre-k teacher herself, was in agreement.
The school already had a long-term relationship with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The children were making progress in learning the technicalities of reading and writing. However, they were challenged when the content became more complex. Because of personal stress in their lives, children had difficulty working collaboratively and in resolving conflicts without resorting to violence. The administration believed that the children needed more opportunities to learn and practice positive social skills and to engage in abstract thinking. They decided that the place to begin working on these problems was in the early childhood grades and that is when they decided to approach me.
Here were some of my impressions when I first visited the school: very hard-working and committed staff; positive tone in the classrooms; I did not hear teachers yelling or using harsh words when disciplining children; kindergartens had an unplanned form of Choice Time (really more like free-play) for 20 – 30 minutes at the end of a day filled with all academics; classrooms had very little organization of centers and practically no sense that children were expected to use materials independently (in the block ‘center’ were math manipulatives, dramatic play, teacher-materials stored, etc., there was no visible art center); first grade classrooms did not have Choice Time at all (occasional ‘free play’ as a reward for good behaviors); there were no blocks in the first grade rooms and a very small collection of blocks in the kindergartens.
Drawing on the Reggio Emilia philosophy of considering that the classroom is the second teacher, we first worked on room environment. I wasn’t sure if I was putting the cart before the horse, but it seemed like a concrete way of beginning. Major changes were made in the ‘look’ of the classrooms. The principal also ordered unit blocks for all kindergarten and first grade rooms. To my delight, the teachers began noticing immediate changes in the way that the children were using materials and in the general classroom ambiance.
We then planned out some studies that the teachers thought would interest the children, support their curriculum and also interest the teachers. The first grade teachers wanted their inquiry project to have a social element to it. They thought about the day-to-day lives of the children, and what would be important to all of them. Most of the school population, rather than using private physicians, either went to the emergency room of the local hospital or to a nearby clinic. This is where the teachers wanted to begin…with a study of the EMS. This also morphed into an ambulance study because of the children’s interests and questions.
They visited the local clinic, had a doctor and a nurse visit the classroom, and examined up close an ambulance that visited the school specifically so that the children could explore the inside and outside of the vehicle and interview the EMS workers. Some children became fascinated with bones and what was happening inside their bodies. In the classrooms, ‘hospitals’ were created along with x-ray rooms (overhead projectors, old x-rays). In one first grade room during their choice time, I observed a boy, doll in arms, racing to the “x-ray” room. “My baby hurt his arm. He’s crying! Help me”. The doll was quickly put on the overhead projector and the “x-ray technician looked at the shadow on the wall. He held up an x-ray, looked at it and said, “Your baby has a broken arm. Take him to the hospital!”. He wrote a little note on a pad, gave it to the ‘father’, who took it and rushed back to the classroom hospital, where the baby’s arm was carefully wrapped up with an old ace bandage. That same day, at Choice Time in another classroom I noticed two girls tracing the body of a boy on butcher paper and then, using a book as reference, drawing in the bones for the body. At the same time two other children were using the overhead projector to trace an image of an ambulance. They kept turning it on and off to check their work. This drawing was going to be the ‘plan’ for an ambulance model that they would later create out of cartons and other materials.
The Kindergartens began with a study of the local firehouse, making many field trips there, exploring the firetruck, interviewing the firefighters, checking out their own homes for fire exits and smoke alarms and creating their own home-safety plans.
This year is my fourth year working at this school. Some of the studies that have taken place are a kindergarten exploration of “Beautiful Stuff” ( children brought in ‘found’ objects from home like buttons, toilet paper tubes, broken pieces of jewelry, wood scraps, etc., sorted and labeled all of the ‘booty’ and brainstormed for ideas on how to use these materials in different projects) , a study of the local bakeries, a neighborhood garden study ( I watched children in the block center creating different areas for a classroom garden, using sketches that they worked on together. There were children in the science center planting seeds in small pots that they decorated. When they were finished planting, they brought the pots to the block center where they were put in the ‘community garden’.), a first-grade study of bridges, particularly the Williamsburg Bridge and a study of the NYC subway system. Each first grade class designed and built bridge towers outside their classroom doors and then connected them across the corridor to make one large suspension bridge!
When I asked the teachers if they noticed any positive changes since we began our work, here are some of the things they shared with me:
They noticed that
o Children were becoming more verbal
o The children who are their ‘struggling learners’ are participating more in class work and discussions
o During Choice Time and Inquiry-study time, children with behavioral issues are becoming calmer and more cooperative
o English Language Learners are talking more and sharing stories, possibly because there is no fear of coming up with a right or wrong response
o There is a noticeable carry-over to the writing being done during writing workshop since the children have more shared experiences to draw from
o Field trips have become more purposeful and the children can understand the purpose of each trip
o Parents have told the teachers the their talk about things that they are exploring in class and use a lot of new vocabulary.
o The teachers are more supportive of each other
o There is more professional collaboration
o There’s more of a feeling of a grade-community
o Teachers, along with children, feel a pride in their work
o The cluster teachers have come on board and are planning lessons to support the classroom studies
In a recent email to me, one of the kindergarten teachers wrote about some of the changes that she and her co-teacher made in their classrooms, “ Our block area has been enlarged. Therefore the children have more room to build. We have “blueprint paper” for them to draw their ideas first before building and pencils as well as post- it’s for labeling their building. The art area is more accessible as well as all the different mediums that they need. The dramatic play area is changed with each study and discussed with the children beforehand. There are papers in each work area for the teacher to make notes about what the children are doing, what we think and how to proceed, as well as writing (down) what the children are saying. The room was not as organized and now the children have access to the materials and their projects.”
The children created a market in the pretend center when they studied The Essex Street Market
Building The Essex Street Market in the block center
I am noticing that the flow of the day is much more ‘child-friendly’. Kindergartens have Choice Time for an hour every morning. They go on more neighborhood trips. The first grade has Choice Time at least twice, sometimes more, each week and they too go on curriculum-related trips more often.
When we discussed future professional goals, the teachers asked if we could focus more in depth on using documentation and assessment to help in planning whole class and small group projects and investigations.
These teachers have worked so hard and been so admirable in their professional growth. Their classrooms breathe with imagination, inquiry and a real life force!
On June 10th, two of the teachers and I will be presenting a workshop at Lehman College in the Bronx, NY. The conference is An Early childhood Education Conference: The Reggio Emilia Approach in 21st Century Urban Settings. Our breakout group is titled CHANGE! – DEVELOPING INQUIRY-BASED SOCIAL STUDIES PROJECTS AND CHOICE TIME CENTERS IN KINDERGARTEN AND FIRST GRADE CLASSES AT P.S. 142M. If you’re in the area and would like to attend, you can email Carol Gross at [email protected]