A City That Values Its Children
By Svetlana Stanislavskaya, Enrollment Administrator
In the middle of July, Parul Chandra, Karen Robinette, Chia-wa Yeh and I traveled to Massachusetts to a conference about the extraordinary childhood education program in a city in Tuscany. With 90 other American educators from 12 states, we listened to the experts in the field, viewed slide show presentations, asked questions and participated in discussions and creative workshops.
During the two-day event we learned about the city-wide system of schools and educational spaces of Pistoia, Italy, from leaders of that city’s education system. Professors Susan Etheridge of Smith College and Jeanne Goldhaber from University of Vermont, both fortunate beneficiaries of sabbaticals in Pistoia, also shared their experiences, while Lella Gandini, U.S. liaison for the Italy-based Reggio Emilia child education program, helped us bridge our cultural contexts by providing translations and interpretations.
Why was Pistoia chosen as a focus of the conference? What makes this small town stand out as far as services for children? Why is the mayor of Pistoia well versed in describing the importance of preschools and the teaching that goes on in them? Why is he concerned how children grasp, elaborate and modify the elements of knowledge that their environment offers to them?
Pistoia has been experimenting in the field of comprehensive, family-centered education and care for the last 40 years. Presentations made by leading policy experts, researchers, teachers and the city’s pedagogical coordinator provided a portrait of a distinctive and evolving approach to creating an education based on relationships. The result is an educational project rooted in community and giving children a sense of belonging.
A picture (in this case a slide show) was worth a thousand words. A slide show with a passionate narrative represented Pistoia with enthusiasm, skill, precision and insight that made our hearts and eyes smile. The stories of children’s various urban experiences unfolded and we saw teachers and parents accompanying children, walking hand in hand into a museum, library, theater, church, city hall, bakery, and chestnut mill. Then they brought their memories and impressions of these trips back into the classroom for more reflections, conversations, drawings and discussions.
Pistoia has recognized that the city, so full of life and culture, is a great resource for children’s education. Partic-ipants learned that behind the scenes, the city council’s pedagogical coordinator and director of education meet with the teachers and have long discussions on topics. These include the experiences that helped the children grow emotionally and intellectually, learning opportunities that exist outside the classroom walls and how to assure that the themes embrace the interests and cultures of families in the schools as well as take into account the individuality of each child.
As a result of these explorations, the city published Per Mano (Hand in Hand), a guide to the city as seen through the eyes of the children. It contains photographs of old town squares and streets, children visiting various neighborhoods and buildings, individual and collaborative drawings, as well as children’s words that show Pistoia’s multiple dimensions. One child says, “You meet other people” (in a piazza), “and you can go on a bicycle like lightening.” Another child observes, “In the past there were guards, now there are TVs to watch all the people.” The guide reflects the children’s understandings and ideas about how their city relates to their own lives.
The conference took place in a unique setting—The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art—located in Amherst, Mass. The museum was conceived and built with the aim of celebrating familiar and beloved images and fostering connections between visual and verbal literacy. As we walked through the museum’s Great Hall, the colors of Eric Carle’s prints and original drawings brought back memories of the Eric Carle gallery in our school. Similarly, colorful Carle prints donated by Helen and Peter Bing welcome children and adults who walk through the school’s Two’s hall. Both our school and the museum foster appreciation of art and childhood, and both have benefited greatly from the vision and patronage of Helen and Peter Bing.
A beautiful art studio at the museum provides visitors of all ages with the opportunity to explore their own creativity. Before leaving, participants enjoyed using the studio during a “hands-on, minds-on” session. The activities highlighted for them the interconnectedness of art and expression with learning and development and led to appreciation of the creative process and various art forms. The conference time allowed the attendees to visit the Hampshire College Children’s Center and Fort Hill Center at Smith College. The teachers reflected on their programs and shared documentation of their on-going work inspired by their recent visits to Pistoia.
Last year, Bing Nursery School went through an extensive self-study process in preparation for National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation, which involved a detailed analysis of the quality of the program at Bing. As a result, Bing has been re-accredited by NAEYC, meeting all standards of excellence. Having gone through this experience recently, it was valuable to hear the thoughts of the Italian educators on the continuing improvement of their services for children. Participants concluded that the search for high quality is driven by collegial collaboration and continual professional development as well as a need for improving documentation of children’s ideas, activities and discoveries as tools for assessment and advocacy.
While the challenges of creating a child-friendly city seem daunting, it was essential and energizing to learn about the international trends in early childhood education. All conference participants applauded the citizens of Pistoia for promoting social responsibility for children and respect for their teachers.