Italian teaching philosophy works in Jewish preschools

Italian teaching philosophy works in Jewish preschools

The northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia may be far removed from Pittsburgh, but a 67-year-old teaching philosophy that arose from the city’s devastation after World War II is having an impact on local Jewish preschools.

Children from three area pilot preschools, as well as the community’s other Jewish early childhood programs, are benefiting from the internationally recognized Reggio Emilia-inspired early childhood initiative.

“The pilot project was part of the National Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), which dissolved last year due to lack of funding. The initiative is proceeding here thanks to support from the Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “The Reggio philosophy is well-suited to the Jewish experience in teaching,” said Carolyn Linder, AJL director of early childhood services, and coordinator of the pilot program. “Both are reflective, as in talmudic tradition, seeking layers of meaning in experiences. Both are collaborative, emphasizing the importance of group participation. Both are concerned with the emotional well-being of each individual.”

The three Jewish preschools taking part in the pilot program are Beth Shalom, the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill and Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills. Each school has two consultants to help define the program. In addition, most of the other Jewish early childhood programs’ directors and educators in the area attend monthly training sessions.

The Cyert Center for Early Education at Carnegie Mellon University, whose philosophy is influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach, is partnering with the AJL.

The Reggio Emilia approach emphasizes dynamic learning environments that are child-centered. It views parents as essential collaborators in the educational experience of their children.

The Pittsburgh JECEI Pilot explores the Reggio Emilia approach through seven Jewish lenses: Masa (journey/reflection and renewal); B’rit (covenant/belonging and commitment); Tzelem Elohim (divine image/dignity and potential); K’dusha (holiness/intentionality and presence); Hit’orerut (awakening/amazement and gratitude); D’rash (interpretation/inquiry, dialogue and transmission); and Tikkun Olam (repair of the world/responsibility).

Chelsea Bailey, a consultant with the national JECEI office, is now a consultant hired by the AJL; she travels to Pittsburgh from New York every three to four weeks to work with two of the pilot schools.

“The program is designed to help infuse early childhood experiences with Jewish life, learning, values and ideas in a way that are consistent with the rest of the early childhood curriculum,” Bailey said.

She noted that Jewish ideas are consistent with core value of the Reggio Emilia approach.

“There are core human values expressed through core Jewish ideas — fundamental Jewish concepts — that are the foundation of our work with the teachers to increase their knowledge of children and teaching and pedagogy to build successful, Jewish early childhood programs.”

Bailey called the Pittsburgh JECEI pilot “a model of collaborate community change in local Jewish preschools that can be adopted by other Jewish communities wishing to increase the quality of their early childhood programs.”

None of the three preschools’ Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum will be identical.

Although the initiative is still in its early stages, teachers, children, parents and leadership in each of the three programs are already experiencing the impact of the JECEI model.

For example, JCC teachers are experimenting with using documentation, a key Reggio process for more deeply understanding and supporting children’s learning.

Teachers at Beth Shalom are exploring ways to integrate the JECEI Jewish lenses into children’s everyday classroom experience.

Teachers, parents and lay and institutional leaders at Ohav Shalom have come together to identify the core institutional values that will shape the philosophy, environment and curriculum going forward.

Bailey expects the three schools to dramatically increase their success as they continue to incorporate the model.

“It allows schools and institutions to reflect thoughtfully and deeply on experiences they wish to create for children in their programs,” she said. “Over three years, it can be completely transformational.”

(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at

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