5 Questions With Sonia Yoshizawa, Early Childhood School Assistant Director and Pedagogista

One year ago, Sonia Yoshizawa came to St. Margaret’s to serve as constructivist-in-residence, where she led a full week of professional development, conversation and observation in the Early Childhood School. 
 
Ms. Yoshizawa’s visit had an impact on everybody—including herself. This summer, Ms. Yoshizawa returned to St. Margaret’s permanently, as she accepted the role as the Early Childhood School’s assistant director and pedagogista. 
 
As the 2022-2023 school year gets going, Ms. Yoshizawa took time to talk about her return to St. Margaret’s, her responsibilities as pedagogista, and how decades of research-based work in early-childhood education shaped her view on how children learn. 
 
You came to St. Margaret’s a year ago as constructivist-in-residence. Why did you choose to return to St. Margaret’s full-time as pedagogista?
 
I returned to St. Margaret’s because the school offered me what I was seeking out for a long time: an opportunity to work and grow with constructivist teachers. I believe my past experiences as an early childhood teacher, a preschool director at an international school, an early childhood mentor, and my passion for believing in each child’s potential as they construct knowledge led me to this position. 
 
A few years ago, Dr. Cris and I were both briefly introduced to each other as new Board Members of the Association of Constructivist Teaching (ACT) organization. Through this connection, she invited me to visit SMES, and I spent a wonderful week having conversations and presenting to the SMES faculty, staff, and parents. It was a week-long experience that was definitely memorable, unlike any other presentations and workshops I have ever done before. The transition from Tennessee to California was a geographical challenge, but a positive one. In this job as a pedagogista, I feel I am finally giving back what I have learned all these years with constructivist mentors and what I have experienced as an early childhood educator. My job as an assistant director and Early School pedagogista is filled every day with gratitude, passion, learning, and nurturing…a true constructivist environment based on the “hearts and minds” of each child, staff, faculty, and family. 
 
Tell us more about the role of pedagogista. What does that word mean, and what are your responsibilities as pedagogista in the Early Childhood School?
 
As a Reggio Emilia-inspired school, the Early Childhood School adopts the same Italian vocabulary to define professional positions used at Reggio schools in the province of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Considered to be the best schools in the world, Reggio Emilia schools have administrative roles and names that are unique to the United States. Pedagogista is one of these specific roles, defined as an active discussant that guides educators, works with them on observation and documentation, collaborates on projects involving publishing, curates exhibitions, and conducts professional learning and development for educators and families. My role focuses on cultivating an atmosphere of reciprocal respect and support for educators and building relationships with teachers, children, and families. I also enjoy scaffolding teachers and participating in rich discussions that occur during the division meeting.
 
How do you see children learning in the Early Childhood School?
Learning is everywhere. It can happen in the outdoor or indoor environment, at the time of drop-off, or even during lunch. Learning happens when children are actively engaged with objects and materials, or in a social context, observing or listening to peers and adults. I was first taught to be a Piagetian, believing in the developmental stages and observing the child as an individual. As I matured in my education, I also became Vygotskian – or for a silly and better term, ”Piagotskian,” a combination of two. Vygotsky views learning as a social process, and that children acquire their understanding through collaboration with others. I do see the role of an adult playing this part. When a child is trying to solve a problem, say a block structure, and it keeps falling repetitively, a teacher asking a focused question on the issue (stability of blocks) without providing a solution, may just be the “a-ha” moment for that child to problem-solve and proceed with the construction of a block structure. Vygotsky calls that ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development, which is developed through interaction with a child and another person. 
 
Besides being an educator, you are also an author. Tell us about some of your published work as it relates to early childhood education.
I have co-authored three books with scholars. The first one, STEM Learning with Young Children: Inquiry Teaching with Ramps and Pathways is a research-based book written in collaboration with constructivist researchers. The Ramps and Pathways project was a federally sponsored project that brought meaning to how STEM can rely on active co-construction between children. 
 
My second book was Nurturing Creativity: An Essential Mindset for Young Children’s Learning which was focused on inspiring teachers who work with creative children. Using anecdotes and photographs from numerous Reggio-inspired approach schools, this book was written because my co-author and I strongly believe in children’s thinking and their strong capacity for creativity that thrives when nurtured by teachers. 
 
My most recent book, Investigating STEM with infants and toddlers is written for infant and toddler teachers. Early STEM does not begin only in preschool, but it starts in infancy! This book presents content and pedagogy to help guide the integration of STEM experiences into infants’ and toddlers' classrooms. 
 
What is your favorite part about working with young children?
I love “seeing” their minds. Children remind me that no two children think alike. Famous psychologists and theorists, such as Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget were also intrigued about learning how their mind works. What is knowledge? How do they learn? These were huge questions that led all progressive educators to reflect, question, discuss, and come up with several theories. When I am with children, one thing comes first to my mind: Respect. I respect their play, imagination, creativity, and value their thinking process. I observe and listen to them, and they give me a glimpse of what goes on in their brain. Whether they are questioning why the two different-sized bottles fit the same amount of water or listening to a story about how a Band-Aid fixes everything in the world, I just love listening to them because they give me so much to learn. The joy of working with children is not about witnessing the product of an activity. It is the process that reveals the depth of their unique learning. This is why the teachers work on documenting this fascinating process and make the learning visual for the parents and other educators to see. You will then see how children construct knowledge by making mental relationships – defined by Piaget as “intelligence.” It is wonderful to see that in children.
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