On Display: Acorn School

Within our classroom we have become very inspired by various approaches to early childhood education, which compliment our Full-Day Early Learning-Kindergarten Program document and the Ontario curriculum.  Our eclectic approach consists of constructivism, inquiry-based learning, play-based learning, math problem solving, Reggio-Emilia inspiration, Montessori inspiration, and Waldorf inspiration to name a few.  

This Friday I wanted to feature Acorn School in Richmond Hill and spotlight their commitment to the Reggio Emilia-Inspired Approach.

Fallen Found Autumn Items
Created by Students at Acorn School
I visited Acorn School      a few years ago for the first time, and all I had been learning through my Masters of Education on the Reggio Emilia Approach came to life!  I remember walking around in complete awe at the beauty and detail in the traces of learning throughout the school.  There were children engaged at the light table, documentation available to read everywhere I turned, creative use of materials such as a bamboo display with dried lemons painted and hanging from the ceiling, and educators who were completely in-tune with one another and totally engrossed in learning alongside their students.  My visit to Acorn School gave me great hope that this kind of teaching and learning were possible within our own Canadian context.

Light Table Transparency Provocations

Today I am fortunate to call these committed educators my colleagues and friends.  They continue to inspire me with their passion for early learning.  Here is an interview with Acorn School's owner/founder: Rosalba Bartolotti, and one of their kindergarten teachers: Crystal Mastrangelo.

  • Could you provide our blog readers with some background about Acorn School?

Crystal: Acorn School has been open for six years now and has been rapidly evolving since it’s conception. Rosalba Bortolotti opened the school after visiting Italy in 1994 and becoming deeply curious about the Reggio Emilia approach. Her desire to practice the approach is infectious and she inspires the minds of everyone connected to the school, including children, families, educators, and the greater community. Acorn is truly a magical place where learning is rich and children are treated as unique individuals who are curious about and capable of making meaning of the world around them.

Van Gogh Provocation
Rosalba: The interesting thing about Acorn is that everyone who is part of the school is connected in one way or another. Whether it be through a family member, a brief encounter years ago, or a friend of a friend, everyone who has touched Acorn was somehow meant to be a part of it’s community. I believe this to be a true testament to the Reggio Emilia principle of relationships. Community and a sense of connectedness is the very existence of Reggio Emilia, everything else just falls into place. Humans innately learn from one another, as do children. Without relationships, can the diverseness of learning occur?

I was introduced to the Reggio Emilia Approach through my Early Childhood Education program at Seneca College. I became deeply intrigued by this progressive approach to teaching and I appreciated the way it challenged my thinking. The Reggio Emilia approach challenges us to rethink education and our perception of a child. What are they truly capable of?

  • If you had to highlight part of your practice that you are most proud what would it be and how might it benefit others?

Rosalba: The connections that I have made with other professionals around the world and seeing that what we do at Acorn School is valued and is inspiring for others. At the same time, those professionals help us value our practice more and make us a stronger school community. Inspirational people have visited Acorn continue to inspire us. They validate our practice, but also challenge us to keep evolving and questioning.

Lella Gandini visits Acorn School.
The most influential visit we had was from Lela Gandini, the North American liaison from Reggio Children. Lela put things into perspective for us. Not only did we hang on every word she said, we also listened to what she said. She didn’t beautify everything, but she questioned and critiqued our practice in a very constructive way that made us realize that our work is valuable and worth what we do with children. It validated my being with children, and my purpose for being with children.

On another note, as educators, we observe, we listen but do we think about where we take that observation? We say we listen to children but we are not sure where that can go next. When we observe and listen we must consider the interpretation to be ongoing and thinking about where the learning should go. What is the educator’s or parent’s responsibility of taking it to the next level? We need to be more interpretive of children’s work and their thoughts. We are responsible to build children’s rights and must support them because they have a voice. It is through us that they may be heard. The interpretation then becomes reciprocal because it involves children, parents, teachers, and others.

Crystal: I am most proud of the way we are constantly reflecting on our practice. We are always discussing what our children do and say and ask each other (teachers) what they think it means. The work we do with children is never stagnant and we are constantly trying to understand the children’s deeper thoughts while trying to push them to think deeper themselves. There is always something more to what a child shows you on the outside.

Showcasing some of Acorn School's winter collage
work that the kindergartens completed with
their Art teacher Tiz D'angelo Merion.

  • During my visit, I was most fascinated by your atelier (art studio) and the beautiful art pieces around your school.  Can you describe how you achieve these results with your students?

Materials used at
Acorn School.
Rosalba: My experience with an atelier is based on when I would go to Italy and see that it was more than an art studio. The atelier is the school. You walk through the school and children work on their projects, which are interpreted in different ways according with what they use. They use diff types of media to represent their thinking. It’s not just done in a single room it becomes the school. And the atelierista (the artist) is there to support not only the children but the teachers to extract thoughts that incorporate theories from their projects.  They are supported by the teacher and art teacher through some sort of representation.  IT COULD BE COLLAGE, PAINT, CLAY, SCULPTURES; IT TAKES ON DIFFERENT FORMS.

I use the book Art & Creativity by Vea Vecchi often.  In the book Vea states that she brings out the concept of life into something. For example, she goes deeper when children draw leaves, they make the connection that the tree produces something. That when they die they don’t produce apples. She connected it to life and death. She tells us to look at their work with a different perspective. She talks about the hundred languages and how they are crucial in the work we do with children.

She talks about the importance of organizations and the tools we use and the tools being pedagogical documentation professional development is digging deeper into childrens thinking. It becomes our work. We use it to support our theories and to support our ideas. Everything connects. Your professional development connects with the hundred languages, it also connects with the environment. Your environment had to be set and ready to support. Ask yourself, do you have other means of media that the children can use beyond pencil crayons and crayons that the atelierista (art teacher) can use with the children?

Acorn School's Art Studio
Crystal: Having an atelier (art studio) in a school can be a very powerful tool. Thinking about the theory of the hundred languages of children and how they need to express their learning through different media. Art becomes a language where one makes learning visible. I wonder if this teaches children and others to think about differing perspectives or to understand the concept that people interpret things differently?

It’s important to understand that you don’t need an art studio to be able to provide meaningful art experiences. You also do not need to be an artist. What you do need, is a profound respect for children and their ability to create beauty from anything. To start, we must look at the project work and interests that are occurring in the classroom and question how they can be represented in a different way. Provide children with real and high quality material and tools.

  • What is your image of the child?

Rosalba: The image of the child is complex yet simple. How do we see children? We do need to consider that children have potential, the capability of learning, in their own ways. They are competent and eager to take on challenges with the support of an adult. Carlina Rinaldi helps us put this in perspective when she says seeing children as unique subjects with rights rather than simply needs. They have potential, flexibility, and the desire to learn.

Many theorist including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Erik Erickson have influenced Reggio Emilia.  Not only is the image of the child important for us to conceptualize but we need to look at the image of ourselves as educators. What is the image of the teacher? Who are you as an educator?

One form of documentation at Acorn School.

  • What advice do you have for educators new to inquiry and documentation?

Rosalba: Question what your relationship is with the children, the school community, and your classroom environment. What is your image of yourself as an educator? What is your vision? Why do you do what you do?

Crystal: I think it’s also about finding your place and sense of peace within yourself. If you aren’t centred and balanced, you won’t find the motivation or inspiration to take on the challenge of transforming your pedagogical practice. Moving into a constructivist approach challenges what we’ve known since we were children and the traditional approach to education. That being said, we must consider how the world has evolved and the fact that we are preparing our children for a future that is unknown. Inquiry challenges children to think critically in a world that requires innovative thinking and creativity.

Opportunities to question and theorize.
To understand inquiry you must first journey into your own inquiry where you live and breathe an inquisitive spirit. Start by questioning what it really means to inquire. It simply requires one to question and wonder. If you do this yourself, you instinctively model such behavior for your students in the way you act and speak, but also in the way you live your life outside of school. Moving from a practice where the adult is considered the fountain of knowledge and the predictor of what children need to learn to a practice where one encourages children to challenge themselves and make their own meaning can be very difficult. One thing I have learned is to let go of pre-conceived expectations. “A constructivist oriented teacher is constantly questioning and learning and is experimenting as he or she goes. A constructivist teacher is in constant learning mode.” (Chaille, 2008, p. 48). I find this to be true within my own life, even outside of my role as an educator. In life I am always wondering and questioning. I enjoy taking on new challenges and experiencing something new. I believe this is what helps me impart a sense of wonder to the children I work with.

In order for inquiry to be authentic, the adult must hold a certain respect for the child and their ability to make meaning. This means to consider their thoughts and interpret them, while also having a sense of awe and wonder about children’s existence.
I leave you with this quote by Christine Chaille, “…only by being surprised by what children are capable of and by their unpredictability will you be able to go in new directions yourself” (p.48). In other words, to facilitate inquiry based learning you must hold a sense of openness to learning yourself that then supports the children you work with.

Acorn School, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada.

Thank you to Acorn School for giving me the honour of displaying their practice and inspiring our blog readers.  

Be sure to visit Acorn School throughout the year @

Acorn School Website 

Acorn School Blog 

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Please consider leaving any comments
or questions for Acorn School below.

Share your thoughts :

  1. The educators at Acorn are so inspiring! Wow! I feel I have so much to learn about documentation.

  2. Yes they are!!

    Documentation is a journey, and I feel like I have just begun! There is so much to learn!

  3. Amazing school!! How did you get the leaves to stick to the window so beautifully?

  4. Unprofessional, rude and absolutely unacceptable. Contacted Acorn School in Richmond Hill numerous times by phone/email and left messages but no one has the decency to returns the calls/emails/messages for 2 weeks. This reflects how incredibly concerning the poor conduct would be for a parent to not have access to contact the school to get in touch with her child. As a school, this is absurd and shocking. All parents should be concerned about this school's conduct, reliability and lack of professionalism.

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