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Elmwood Franklin School Lets Students Choose Classroom Topics

Author: Michael Tkaczevski

Elmwood Franklin School, a pre-K to eighth-grade private school in the city of Buffalo, has adopted the “Reggio Emilia” curriculum philosophy in which children decide the topics of class lessons.

Reggio Emilia allows the children to learn about a subject in-depth or go from tangent to tangent, depending on how the children express interest. The teacher still leads the class by introducing topics the children choose, organizing projects and hands-on activities.

Sarah Duddy, Head of Lower School at Elmwood Franklin, said Elmwood Franklin gradually implemented Reggio Emilia to focus more on teaching children critical thinking skills and to cultivate the students’ creativity.

“At the heart of the philosophy is that when children are young, there is so much learning going on because they are curious,” Duddy said. “They want to figure things out. They are creative.”

Duddy said students could, for example, want to learn about trains. The class could spend a month or longer learning about train construction, physics, fuels, etc., or could learn about different modes of transportation from week to week.

Physical activity, recess, nap time and field trips are also part of Reggio Emilia. The playground features a greenhouse, musical instruments and a loom with which children can weave designs.

The school still teaches mathematics in a structured way. The teacher will revisit concepts from week to week and year to year to develop the children’s skills in what Duddy refers to as a “spiral” method. She said Elmwood Franklin likes to balance progressive teaching techniques with traditional techniques.

From third grade to eighth grade, students have a week of standardized testing. The exams test both the students’ mastery as well as teachers’ performance, but the teachers’ salaries are not tied to the test scores.

Duddy said Reggio Emilia is effective at improving education for children with learning disabilities, emotional troubles or living in low-income families. Teachers can have oversee a child’s learning and behavior personally, and discuss with the parents what skills and concepts the child should develop.

“Communication is key,” Duddy said. “It’s all about communication between the teacher and the child and family.”

Because Reggio Emilia is helpful for low-income families, Duddy said she believes Reggio Emilia could work in public and charter schools, but implementation might be slower because public and charter schools must fulfill certain federal and state curricular requirements.

Elmwood Franklin came in contact with Reggio Emilia at multiple conferences and from meetings with Debbie McCoy, preschool director of the Woodbury School of the Strong National Museum of Play. Duddy said that the philosophy meshed well with what Elmwood Franklin was already doing.

The Reggio Emilia education philosophy originally started shortly after World War 2 in the Italian town of the same name. Loris Malaguzzi, a teacher in the town, worked with parents to formulate the philosophy. Malaguzzi believed that education should react to the “hundred languages of children,” meaning teachers should acknowledge that children express themselves and learn in different ways.

For now, Elmwood Franklin will continue to evaluate the effect Reggio Emilia has on its students and work with other schools that have implemented Reggio Emilia.

“What’s great about [Reggio Emilia] is that we can be open but also intentional about what the child gets out of their education,” Duddy said.

Photo: Elmwood Franklin


Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

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