A new way to learn

Next month, Tara Patrick-Hines and Chelsea Brendtro, teachers at PSU’s Helen Gordon Children’s Center, will travel to the ancient Italian town of Reggio Emilia for 10 days.

Although spending time sipping cappuccino in the town plaza could be tempting, the two are visiting for another cultural study: learning the early childhood education technique that originated there.

With a population comparable to that of Salem, the Italian city has earned the respect of educators worldwide for its unconventional style of community-based learning that has been in use at the Helen Gordon center for the past six years.

Originally conceived during the reconstruction era that followed World War II, the people of Reggio Emilia wanted to invest in their young children through the public school system. Slowly growing in popularity over the years, schools outside of Italy have begun to use similar systems reflecting these same values.

Patrick-Hines and Brendtro follow eight of their co-workers who visited Italy in February, all of whom spent their own money on the trip. Last year’s auction paid for program costs, but participants must pay the rest. The center will be holding its annual auction April 27, with a fundraising goal of $25,000, money that will be used for subsidizing tuition for low-income families and future professional development for teachers.

“I’m so excited to see more of what we’re capable of doing here, putting all the little thoughts I’ve had together over the years into cohesive ideas,” said Patrick-Hines, 25, who teaches 2 1/2 to 3 1/2-year-olds in the Turtle Room at Helen Gordon.

At the center for the past five years, Patrick-Hines tries to make her students’ learning her biggest priority, resisting the urge to get caught up in her deskwork.

“I try to take a step back and really see what the children are interested in, try to be a little person and understand how they are thinking,” Patrick-Hines said. Teachers routinely offer a “provocation,” setting up the learning environment and observing how each individual child reacts.

Where one child might choose to draw a bouquet of flowers set out on a table, another might want to dance like the flowers. There are no “wrong” responses, just chances for the kids to express themselves and for the teacher to learn how each one likes to interact.

The transition to the Reggio approach corresponded with a shift in the thinking of the total movement of the early childhood field.

“It’s not a canned curriculum, where one day you open the box and adopt a new method,” said Ellie Justice, a co-director of the center. “We were always child-centered and valued connections with the community, which is a large part of what Reggio is about. It was a natural progression.”

The children work on projects, together with their families and teachers, researching and examining how everyday things work in the world. Teachers document their progress and encourage participation from the community outside the school.

“Right now our Meadowsuite class of three and four-year olds are studying tulips, and the parents are going with the kids to the tulip farm in Woodburn, so that parents can start actively studying alongside their kids,” said co-director Will Parnell, providing an example. “‘Studying’ means drawing, painting, and building out of wire. Writing poems about the flowers and using their languages, whatever they may be.”

Working on keeping staff trained and inspired in tough economic times has been challenging for Parnell and Justice, but has been a priority nonetheless. “Even though one of the main educators from Reggio was here in October to speak with us, it is not something that can be grasped from a book or a lecture, it is not the same as seeing the classrooms in action,” Justice said.

Unlike Portland, the taxpayers of Reggio Emilia have heartily supported the early childhood education of their youngsters to the tune of 13 percent of their city tax. Four years ago the center received a grant for $240,000 helping to offset costs for training and development and providing tuition assistance for Portland State’s neediest families. All of that money has been spent, and Parnell is hoping that this year’s proceeds from its annual auction can continue to do so.

Parnell is grateful for the support of the PSU community and especially the Student Fee Committee over the years. As the largest early childhood educator in the state, those funds have allowed tuition to remain low for faculty and staff, and have further subsidized costs for PSU students.

The 3 percent that the SFC cut off the top of next year’s budget is a challenge, but not one that cannot be overcome. Amounting to over $24,000, some of that amount could be saved during maternity leaves.

“We’re handling our cut. We’re actually planning for it, shifting some responsibilities and cutting back in some places,” Parnell said.

Having more work-study employees on their payroll could positively impact the bottom line for the center. “When I started here I had about 15-20 work-study students working at the center, and that saved us about $40,000 each year,” Parnell said. The federal government pays for 90 percent of the funds a work-study student earns, leaving the balance for the university to cover.