Believing in the Potential of Children

During the last afternoon session of the conference, there was a session truly encapsulated the entire week.  I know it I can’t do the session justice in words, but in essence, it was about a year-long project with 5 and 6 year olds to create a art piece for a scaffolding facade in town.

The project had many, many layers to it including research, vision, drafts, revision, collaboration, implementation and celebration. It took a year to complete! A year!  But the year was filled with purposeful trials, extensive debate and collaboration (among the children), tangents related to the project and so much more.  The resulting artwork on the scaffolding facade was a gift to the city, but the true gifts here were the gift of time and an honest belief in the potential of the young children.  The RE schools, show an intense belief in the competencies and potential of children.  Ideas are not judged or put aside.  Comments are not too small to investigate.  Artwork is not just art, but an extension of inquiry.  I marvel at this both the amount of time given to the project in such rich ways and the ability to put aside adult assumptions and trust the children.  But when done, with trust and time and no assumptions or judgments – the result was breathtaking.

Listening

In the world of Reggio Emilia education, listening, really listening to children is a fundamental belief.  Adults listen to children because they believe that they have wonderful, deep and intelligent ideas to offer and from those ideas, the learning context or experience can be created to further extend or challenge them.  It is an idea that is very radically different from our view in American education.  It is one where the children help the teacher set the agenda and it is only through true listening, responsiveness and observation can the teacher gather clues about what opportunities to provide next.

The work is incredibly responsive and intentional.  It allows for consideration of children’s true and honest curiosities and it demands TIME and truly PRESENT LISTENING.  In Reggio Schools the student are expected to be observers and interpreters of their peers rather than parallel learners.  Additionally, in Reggio Schools there is a lot of careful observation work done through natural objects, manipulated objects, use of outdoor space and the integration of art materials to observe.  It is partially through this careful observation and documentation that students learn to ask detailed questions that lead to inquiry.   Additionally, teachers can “listen” to student ideas by analyzing this work – although not verbal, it is expressive.  Finally, the image of the teacher is decentralized so that the teacher is a participant rather than the one who imparts all of the information.  In this role as a decentralized adult in the room, the teacher can observe the conversations more closely by taking notes, taking pictures or suggesting a new material for exploration.

Listening in this way validates a child in so many ways.  In what ways can we improve our opportunities for observation and listening in the work that we already do?

Accountability vs. Trust

In the Reggio Emilia world of education there is an organic sense of trust of the students, teachers and families that is both shared and intentionally cared for.  It is with the trust, this belief in competence and capability that underlies the incredible worlds of the Reggio Emilia schools.

Among other things, this sense of trust leads to great depth of learning, unimaginable stamina when working with projects, introduction of materials (mostly repurposed) and an autonomy and sense of independence that is admirable to say the least.  While visiting the schools today there were several times when children were in spaces where there was no teacher in sight.  When asking about this later it came back to the sense of autonomy and independence that is fostered from birth in both the Infant/Toddler Centers and the Pre-School Centers.  The children do know that teachers are close by, but they are given the space, the chance to explore the field or another school space without question.

The teachers in RE are constantly observing and planning their next steps with the students – it is formative assessment with purposeful intentions at its purist.  The notion of the assessments that we do (amount and kind) are not mentioned here.  In debriefing this with others, one fellow study tour participant noted, “it’s because they trust that they don’t have the accountability that we do.  We aren’t trusted.”  How true.

Beyond the assessment implications, and the autonomy that is promoted, the trust allows for a variety of materials in the classroom that we would not normally think of as appropriate for 0-6 years olds.  We wouldn’t “trust” that they wouldn’t get hurt or that they wouldn’t eat them or that that wouldn’t break them.  And yet, these materials are respected, revered and inspire amazing inquiry projects and conversation.  Some materials include: natural treasures (sticks, stones, pebbles), textiles (fabrics, tiles, clay), glass paint jars, melted plastic bottles, large tree stumps and so much more.   There are so many repurposed items in the space that are added to allow for color investigations, building investigations, sound and movement inquiries.   There is a trust that these are items of beauty and that they are to be used to create – and they are.  And because these young children don’t see them just as glass tiles or water bottles or cardboard tubes, they are readily able to use them for anything – teaching the adults what the true possibilities are.

This trust allows for space.  Space to wonder. Space to learn. Space to observe.

And with that space, comes brilliance.

Constructing vs. Instructing

Spent an exhausting and exhilarating day in Reggio Emilia today learning about the Reggio Emilia history, values, and even getting a chance to spend some time at one of the 0-3 Infant/Child Centers.  Given that this is my first go-around with the RE philosophy, there was much that was said today that gave me food for thought.  However, there is one notion tonight that is still giving me cause to stop and revisit it.

It is the idea of children constructing knowledge rather than being instructed.  Constructivist ideas are not new to me.  In the elementary school where I work, we do honor children constructing ideas, exploring materials and working on project based assignments – all with the idea to construct some theories about the content presented.  What is new, is that there isn’t an adult agenda per se – it is truly about having the children construct theories, communicate them, try them out, revise them and it isn’t about what the adults think they should know.  This is huge.

During the visit to the 0-3 Infant/Child center the depth of learning was incredible.  The construction of ideas, testing of theories and expression were undeniable.  How then, do we bring this idea of truly constructivist thinking into the elementary world where there are Common Core Standards to teach to, formal tests to administer and a very large list of what we must instruct?  Can we revisit the idea of these standards not as a list of what we must instruct, but as a list of opportunities for children to construct?

Fostering the Big Picture

Dream.

Imagine.

Persist.

Envision.

Invent.

Collaborate.

Communicate.

Aren’t these the qualities of successful leaders, visionaries, entrepreneurs, writers, and all those who have done something different than those who came before them?  Aren’t these the qualities that we want to foster in our children through education?

Grant Wiggins, in his Understanding By Design approach, talks about starting with the end in mind when planning lessons.  What are the essential questions and enduring understandings that we want the students to know and come away with?

Visionaries do this too – they see the big picture and then work backwards to make their vision come true; with persistence, collaboration, revision, determination and confidence.

So, in an educational day that is filled with segments of content instruction, how do we then foster seeing the big picture with children.  How do we help them understand that working on engaging leads in Writer’s Workshop will translate to be able to share opinions, sell an idea, publicly debate and so much more?  How do we help them understand that learning math facts about addition and subtraction will ultimately lead to their financial literacy and ability to navigate economics as it relates to their own lives?  We have to look for ways to not only integrate content with meaningful lessons but to also find a way to foster the big picture – not just be saying, “this will make you financially literate,” but by allowing for opportunities for children to see the significance, try it out and make those connections.  The more relevant and applicable the content, the more motivated and creative the students will be.

Our challenge then, is how to do that. In an era of more and more standards, more formalized curriculum direction and less time to teach (factor in lunch/recess, emergency drills, announcements, assemblies, school spirit days, etc.), we must find a way to ensure that our teaching allows for us to start with the end in mind and that it fosters opportunities for students to see the big picture.  Without that, I’m not sure that all of our isolated content instruction will matter as much.

On time and having your own agenda

In preparation for my trip to Italy, I watched with delight the YouTube video called CAINE’s ARCADE.  Then recently, during a pre-Italy meeting with folks in NYC, we watched some more videos from the Reggio Emilia schools that demonstrated young children working on their own agendas when creating a waterwheel – crafting, revising, experimenting, implementing and celebrating their work.

Both of these experiences left me wanting to hide all of the electronics in my house, all the devices that give instant gratification and give my children more time to problem solve, imagine and create.  Well, I didn’t hide all of the electronics, but I did start to pay more attention.  And when I did, I was delighted.

This past weekend, my son Max created a huge train track in the middle of my house.  He and his sister worked together initially to build the track, make the connections and imagine the train town.  Later that day, when his sister was out, Max decided to revise the track – it wasn’t what HE was thinking.  He took most of it apart and began to rebuild – adding a branch of track through a doorway and connecting to another branch through another doorway.  Later, he created a small circle track – finding just the right curve pieces to make the circle work.  He was proud of his efforts.  I noticed how long he stayed with this activity.  The amount of vision and re-vision that this took.  And then, the play that occurred with it up.  Each day, I ask Max if I can put it away (it is in the MIDDLE of the floor and all walking paths!!).  Each day so far, he says no.  He is still playing, adding, revising and working on his train tracks.  For me this is poignant for a few reasons:

1) For the last 6+ months, Max has been more of a lego kid: enjoying the kits, putting them together and then sometimes creating his own builds.  But the trains and train tracks have sat untouched.  So what was it on Saturday that spurred him to pull them out and start building?

2) He clearly had a vision.  I didn’t ask him to build with them or say, “how big can you make your track,” or “I wonder if you could build through the doorways.”  He set out with a vision and created it.  He problem solved the pieces that didn’t fit and was okay with dead ends.  He made it work.

3) Max benefitted initially from the collaboration with his sister, but then revised it later with his own image in mind.

I was proud to see that I don’t have to hide all of the electronics, but loved watching the attention Max gave his train tracks when following his own agenda and having the time to do so. How can we allow for more of that in our busy, busy lives?

 

Off to Italy

Tonight I leave for Italy on a 10 day half-vacation, half-work related tour.  My blog posts will be related to my experience with the Study Group in Reggio Emilia Italy.  For me, my blog posts will serve as a way to filter and process the experience through my lens as an Elementary School Administrator.  If you are interested, I hope it gives you insight as to the philosophy of the Reggio Emilia approach.