In the heart of Wicker Park lives a little hidden gem of a school where children and their families gather to celebrate their love for Italian culture. At Scuola Italiana Enrico Fermi (SIEF), children learn according to the Reggio Emilia tradition in a welcoming and friendly environment, embraced by the Italian culture. Established in 2016, SIEF welcomes preschoolers, kindergartners and first graders, with a plan to grow up to eighth grade.
“Everybody has a reason to connect with SIEF — through one’s own culture, through the appreciation of the Reggio Emilia approach, or through the international environment where children grow as a part of a global community,” says Amy Ewaldt, SIEF director. “We hug and tell stories, we share recipes and celebrations, we tickle each other’s babies. SIEF is a close and welcoming school.”
The child at the center
In a Reggio Emilia classroom, the teacher takes on the role of a researcher by carefully observing the natural, innate curiosities of the students and encouraging them to pursue their interests. “In kindergarten this year, one student was interested in the Great Chicago Fire and brought in a library book to open a conversation with the class, which led to a study. Other students created their own science lab in autumn and have collected specimens, made drawings, written their own books and sculpted fossils,” Ewaldt explains. And that is just one small slice of SIEF’s student-led inquiries.
Recognizing that some projects require more time than fits neatly into a morning or afternoon, SIEF is committed to the makerspace philosophy that allows for longer-term project development. “Children have the agency to create and imagine and invent in the ways they need to, alongside their teachers,” Ewaldt says. “Then, they can save and revisit their project work over a long period of time. It doesn’t have to be done in 30 minutes or even a week. Teachers help to guide them to a final outcome that is presented to the community.”
Students explore American and Italian authors like Lois Ehlert and Nicoletta Costa and then craft their own books, which is an appropriate and effective way to introduce early literacy and a love of reading. Children have a rich array of books, materials and manipulatives for mathematics and science-based inquiries.
When students gather for lunch, they wash their hands and wait for everyone to assemble. Students and teachers prepare the tables, sit together and offer buon appetito a tutti, enjoying their meals while discussing their days, bonding with friends over food in a very Italian way.
“When I walked in the first day, it just smelled right,” Ewaldt recalls. “SIEF is a joyful place, where you just feel good being here.”
Lighting up with language
SIEF is a bilingual school, where students are immersed in the Italian language. Italian native teachers communicate in their mother tongue, scaffolding progress and building children’s expressive and receptive language skills. Greetings, stories, fingerplays and songs, books, conversations, questions, games — children grow in their language proficiency daily by asking their peers questions and by playing, creating and telling stories. Beginning in kindergarten, children also work on learning standards, skills and assessments in English as well.
At this critical early age, language lights up a child’s brain; being bilingual offers new cultural perspectives and perceptions. SIEF works with founding member and DePaul University Italian Department faculty, Anna Maria Fantuzzi, who helps to steer curricular development. “Children are following both the American educational standards as well as the Italian learning standards. At SIEF, you have more tools to meet and exceed standard educational requirements. We look at the child as a whole, through bi-cultural and bi-lingual contexts. SIEF builds empathy and imagination that there is a sense of other in the world,” she says.
The Reggio Emilia approach embraces the idea that there are 100 languages of children. “What is the language of paint, of clay, of mathematics, of magnetism? We’re looking for all of those languages all of the time, and Italian is thoughtfully integrated throughout,” Ewaldt says.
SIEF’s specialty music classes, body movement classes, and ateliers are at the center of the curriculum, available for students to gain numerous means to express themselves and understand the world around them in meaningful ways.
Ewaldt adds, “Childhood is a foundational time where we are learning how to think, forming our minds. We welcome families who want to take the journey and experience this community together. We love to open conversations — let’s explore and see if SIEF is the right fit for your family.”