Everything King Midas touched, so goes the myth, turned to gold. A hint of that tale can be found in the principles behind the Center for Jewish Education’s new REmida Project: Everything reused in the Remida room turns to gold, if not literally then figuratively, say the project’s coordinators. Together, 28-year education veteran and director of CJE’s early childhood services DJ Jensen and associate Monica Gwon are using an Italian-based educational philosophy to transform the way children are taught in both Jewish and secular preschools throughout Baltimore.
The project’s concept is rooted in the Reggio Emilia style of teaching, which researchers say enables preschool children to practice “emergent learning.” Instead of receiving what educators call frontal teaching, such as when a teacher holds up a picture to a room full of children and announces that “this is a duck; it goes quack, and it starts with D,” the Italian technique, contend Jensen and Gwon, who train teachers at the CJE facility in Park Heights, creates more independently thinking, problem-solving children.
This is not the “toilet-paper-rolls art project” approach, explained Jensen, who serves as liaison to directors of all Jewish preschools. Itself made of recycled materials, the Remida room at CJE is a bright, cheery space that contains thousands of objects, some identifiable with their original purpose and some not. Colorful plastic, wood, paper and metal objects, large and small, thick and thin, smooth and rough, all donated by businesses and individuals, fill the room. All kinds of castaway objects sit neatly organized and tucked into cubbies, boxes and shelves awaiting the eventual purpose to propel the imagination of a teacher into the realm of Remida. With training, teachers can in turn invoke that sense of discovery and imagination in their students.
One snowy Sunday morning, about a dozen teachers from Jewish preschools arrived for Fantastic Plastics, one of an eight-part series of Remida classes. Participants first viewed a short video of students in action at a Reggio Emilia teaching facility in Italy. They briefly explored the materials in the room and took on an assignment challenging them to think openly about the experience and relate it to how they would work through the emergent learning thought process with their students.
“I came here wanting to know how to bring alive materials in the classroom,” said Rivka Malka Rubenstein, a teacher at Ner Tamid Montessori preschool, “so that the children can be self-motivated and use everyday materials to create their own world.”
The teachers thought they were choosing materials with a specific project in mind. Jensen, though, challenged them further.
“Now what if I asked you to use your materials to represent tikkun olam or to use your materials to represent sharing or to represent welcoming a new person coming into our classroom, what might be different in your approach?” she asked. “Would it be harder? Would it be harder for a short time, until you had a mind shift?”
Her class of teachers nodded in the affirmative.
She tasked them to create something together with the mishmash of materials they had individually collected. After a very brief discussion an enormous map began to take shape on the table they shared. Representations of people, water, clouds, green areas and space ships appeared, and as they worked collaboratively, new ideas spilled out, as they shared “Eureka!” moments of what a red plastic bottle top, a computer keyboard key or a piece of textured plastic bag might represent on the map. It sounded as if the room had been injected with a shot of high-test coffee.
Jensen and Gwon prodded them about the experience while they worked, urging them to refer back to what they could bring to their students in the classroom. Jensen challenged them to allow their pre- schoolers something they are so often denied: the opportunity to represent the ideas that are in their heads. Jensen acknowledged that teachers shouldn’t wait around for students to come up with the ideas, but when they are there, to follow a child’s lead because it indicates what they are naturally curious about. Teachers can provoke ideas by offering materials that spark interest, then let students think and discover for themselves. By always telling children what something is for, you limit them based on your own competencies, said Jensen. Children benefit from exploration.
“Part of it is just saying, ‘What are the children thinking and how can I give them materials to represent what they’re thinking?” Jensen told the teachers. “What can I give them to create that? You can ask, ‘Is that all you need? What else can I give you?’ And not just give them the answers.”
As the teachers cleaned up the materials, a discussion ensued about one of the biggest challenges of all: convincing parents of the merits of the process.
Jensen and Gwon noted that if parents don’t understand the process and underestimate the value of how their children learn, they won’t accept the idea of the REmida Project and will think of it as a glorified art room. Educating parents, they explained, is a combination of helping them understand that their children are much deeper thinkers and are more competent than they imagine and that they’re being slowed down by the more rigid methods of learning things such as letters, colors and numbers at an early age. Though research exists to corroborate emergent learning teaching methods, altering the time-honored and traditional paths of learning is still a difficult task.
“And what I beg from those parents is to take a deep breath. Call me; I will walk them through (the emergent learning process),” said Jensen. “The children will learn how to read and write, but let them use those first five years to build a vocabulary, increase their experiences and to question and to problem solve and to negotiate because that’s really the stuff that our brains are made of.”
That “buy-in” might be secured most efficiently if parents trust a simple comment made by one teacher after experiencing the training: “Your kids are way more capable than you think.”
To donate materials from your business or home to the REmida Project, contact Monica Gwon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410.735.5016.