Reggio Inspiring Classrooms in British Columbia

I am part of a group of educators in the Vancouver School Board, considering various inquiries about aspects of Reggio Emilia inspired practice.  We came together with other like-minded educators in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia to participate in a school visit to Opal School in Portland, Oregon during our Spring 2018 vacation.  Ninety British Columbia teachers converged on the Portland Museum where this model of Reggio inspired educational practice is housed.  We had three days of intensive presentation, observation, engagement, reflection and discussion.  In trying to make sense of the myriad of perceptions and information, I sought out books.  Fortunately, Portland is also home to my new favourite place – Powell Books.  This bookstore of all bookstores, takes up an entire city block, has new and used titles and is staffed with knowledgeable readers.  I found what I needed for the learning to continue.

Reggio Emelia Classrooms started in Northern Italy just after World War II in an effort by educators, parents and the municipal government to “produce a reintegrated child, capable of constructing his or her own powers of thinking through the synthesis of all the expressive, communicative and expressive languages.” (C. Edwards, L. Gandina, G.E. Foreman, eds. 1993, p.305).   Essentially people came together in the belief that providing rich experiences grounded in basic human rights for children from 0-6 years old was the best strategy to prevent another emergence of fascism.  Building connections and respectful relationships between child, parent, teacher and the community was a foundational premise.  Although it is widely accepted that it is not possible to transport educational ideas intact from one culture to a totally different context, there are ways to implement certain principles and ideas inspired by the Reggio experience.

Loris Malaguzzi, the father of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education,  developed a metaphor that is very instructive in understanding the Reggio approach.  His premise is that the relationship between the teacher and the student is much like throwing a ball, or as Vygotsky framed it, providing “scaffolds” to support young learners.  The teacher must be able to listen and catch the ball thrown by the child, then toss it back in a way to extend the learning and maintain the motivation of the child to continue the game, aka for the child to continue to ask and answer the questions he or she cares about.

An exhibit toured the United States in 1987 called “The Hundred Languages of Children”  that provided the context and the educational process of the Reggio Emilia schools with a display and explanation of photographs, samples of children’s paintings, drawings, collage, constructive structures and explanatory scripts and panels.  In 1996, editors Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini, and George Forman brought together a collection of essays and perspectives by influential thinkers and educators in what has become “a bible” of Reggio Emilia thought in a must-read book called The Hundred Languages of Children:  The Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education.   The “hundred languages of children” refers to the multiple ways that young children grapple with their questions and create meaning, including drawing with various media (crayons, coloured pencils, pastels, charcoals, sticks…) on various surfaces (paper, glass, sand…), painting, plasticine, clay, murals, photographs, plays, skits, water, mud, wood, mirrors, light table and … , as well as with oral language.  As Malaguzzi emphasizes “(t)he wider the range of possibilities we offer children, the more intense will be their motivations and the richer their experiences” (p. 73).   Malaguzzi likened setting up the atelier, or space, for stimulating and meaningful centres of activity, to the setting up of ‘market stalls” where customers look for the wares that interest them, make selections and use them for their own purposes.  With familiarity exploring the materials, comes the possibility of them being used as a tool for communication.

In Reggio Emilia schools, students are encouraged to ask questions and set up investigations or projects to find answers.  “(T)he actual theme or content of the project is not as important as the process of children thinking, feeling, working, and progressing together with others.” (p 194)  However there are some general guidelines and principles in Reggio project work (p.210)

  1. Groups of 5 or less activate the most intense learning and exchange of ideas
  2.  Establish and maintain reciprocity / a sense of “WE”
  3. Graphic and verbal exploration
  4. Teachers work collaboratively to develop the project questions, comments and interests of the children involved
  5. Ample time for students to come up with their own questions and their own solutions
  6. Bring the knowledge and experience of the small group back to the other children and adults in the school.

The educators at Reggio Emilia schools invest heavily in documenting student work.  This documentation may include recordings, observations, transcriptions of children’s dialogue and photographs of key moments.  One of the purposes is to reflect back the learning process back to young children to help develop their meta-cognitive thinking.  In addition, the “systematic documentation allows each teacher to become the producer of research, that is someone who generates new ideas about curriculum and learning, rather than being merely a “consumer of certainty and tradition.” (p. 157)  Regular meeting and discussions happen between teachers to assist in selecting documentation for display to parents, program planning and problem solving.   Intellectual conflict is valued and understood as the engine of all growth in Reggio for both teachers and students.  “Children’s work (drawings, verbal transcripts, symbol making) is incorporated into the classrooms and school hallways by means of large and dramatic displays, and reflects the serious attention adults pay to children’s ideas and activities.” (Lillian Katz, 1990, p.217)

Reggio Inspired Opal School is both a private pre-school with two classrooms and publicly funded Kindergarten to Grade 5 Charter School with four classrooms.  It represents an “ecosystem” or a Reggio inspired approach to learning based on the core belief that each child is capable, competent, creative, and filled with skills we need in the world.  There was a very respectful way in which adults talked and interacted with students.  They took the time to slow down the interaction with the purpose of trying to understand the child’s perspective and helping the child to ask the questions and come up with a plan to understand.

The school has a long wait list and entrance is determined by a lottery.  It is extremely well funded and provides students with a wide range of materials to express their learning and many large professionally prepared samples of documentation.  We were invited to be observers or listeners in the “ecosystem” and to look for examples of playful inquiry in the four  K- Grade 5 classrooms, as well as adopt a willingness to be transformed.  Popsicle sticks at the door controlled the number of observers in the room to keep disruption of the learning environment to a minimum.

The day started with a Morning Meeting time.  Project work was introduced with a provocation, a stimulating event, question or activity to motivate students to consider the topic.  Explore time or project work provided the opportunities for collaboration.  Students generally worked in small groups exploring a topic while one of the two teachers was transcribing discourse on a laptop computer.  There is no library, cafeteria or gym in the museum so the classrooms, playground and museum grounds need to fulfill these purposes.

All of the activity in the school has a learning intention to guide attention.  “Intention setting keeps educators from getting too far ahead or falling behind the students” according to Opal School staff (March 2018).  Learning in not theme based.  The emphasis is on learning to learn, developing empathy and agency rather than learning content about the topic.  It is a particularly strong model for developing project based learning with a proclivity to action.  Students are encouraged to explore big questions that will motivate learning over time.  Topics included:

  • Impact of plastic water bottles on the environment
  • Refugee Crisis
  • Culture of Hate
  • March Against Guns in Schools
  • Contributing to the Vietnam exhibit in the Museum about Tet

Reggio Emilia Inspiration for Schools in British Columbia: 

Although Reggio programs were designed for children from birth to 6 years, many of the principles holds true for older school aged students to be nurtured in the same supportive context by educators, parents and community partners.  Many educators have embraced many of the principles and philosophies of Reggio Emilia Schools and they can be found in the New Curriculum in British Columbia.  Yet, there are other aspects to consider as well.

  1. Student Centered Learning:  I love the quote by Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the program in Reggio Emilia: ” We wanted to recognize the right of each child to be a protagonist and the need to sustain each child’s spontaneous curiosity at a high level”. (p. 45)   Viewing the child as competent and capable of learning is a large step away from the notion of the child as a “tabula rasa” or empty vessel.
  2. Inquiry:  We can develop schools that encourage students to ask complex questions, plan investigations, and believe in themselves as capable and competent learners, even when faced with cognitive dis-equalibrium.
  3. Acknowledging the Role of Conflict:  Reggio philosophy acknowledges the role of conflict in coming up with the best solutions.  Students are encouraged to disagree, debate and problem solve independently.  Teacher discussion is much the same with problem solving involving listening to all of the viewpoints presented.  Deference to authority has not had any place in Reggio philosophy due to the WWII experience.   I believe students and educators would benefit from more rigorous debate, lively exchange of ideas and problem solving opportunities.  Decisions should be based on clear thinking not alliances.
  4. Learning Intentions:  As we are dealing with school aged children, there is a curriculum that we as educators are responsible for covering with our students.  Using provocations to engage students in a topic and teaching students to set a learning intention has benefits to both motivation to learn, making connections and considering a direction to pursue.
  5. Multiple ways to explore questions and communicate learning:  In many ways our curriculum in British Columbia is doing just that.  Inquiry is encouraged but the variety of ways to communicate not yet fully understood.  An atelier (studio / lab) for exploration may not be a reality in schools in British Columbia, but the exposure and ability to explore questions using a variety of media is possible.  In many of our schools, the accessibility of parks, beaches, forests and farm land provide access to materials not often readily available in urban settings.  That being said, the funding to allow exploration of a wide range of artistic expressions would open up amazing possibilities.
  6. Communicating Student Learning:    I believe the new ways of reporting to parents is continuing to be a positive development in nurturing relationship with students, parents, educators and community partners.  Reporting from teachers continues to be important but one avenue of communicating student learning to parents.  Mandatory student led conferences indicate the importance of student voice in learning.    Parents are also frequently invited into informal events which allow them to gain greater insight into the learning process of their child.  Large displays which documents student learning in diverse ways and sharing project outcomes and actions also brings a better understanding of the role of play and inquiry in the learning process.
  7. Documentation to develop Meta-cognitive Skills:  Teachers currently use a variety of means to document student learning.  However the documentation is frequently used for assessment purposes.  There would be real benefit in putting a greater emphasis on using documentation as a tool to help students develop their metacognitive thinking skills.
  8. Professional Development:  As John Dewey put it, educators are called to adopt a stance of “learning to learn”.  Educators are involved in daily conducting of systematic research on daily classroom work for professional development, curriculum planning and teacher development.  The obvious benefits of this process make it very worthwhile to facilitate common prep times in schools to allow teachers to meet for these purposes.
  9. Designing schools to facilitate collaboration:  In Italy, there is high value placed on art and aesthetics.  Historically, designing public spaces includes not only the aesthetic but the priority of facilitating social interaction.  Our schools need to be designed or transformed into spaces and places to invite collaboration and indicate that we put high value on the education of our students.
  10. Creating Mutually Beneficial Community Partnerships:  Creating the Opal School in the Portland Museum opens up a range of options to consider.  Young Opal students were able to contribute to the curated Museum display teaching about the Tet celebration in Vietnam.  What a powerful way to demonstrate the power of the inquiry project to the students, parents, community partners and the public.  No wonder there is such a long waiting list to attend.
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The Science of Art

Dana Mulder, one of the Tecumseh staff members, gave us the opportunity to experience the Science of Art last week.  She has developed a considerable amount of background knowledge through her work providing programs at Van Dusen Gardens and provided an after school session for interested staff members on dyeing wool from natural materials.  My experience to date with dyeing anything has been Rit dyes out of a package.  It felt like a whole new world was introduced.

Dana not only taught us about the natural dyes used historically but also the stories and collection of the plants and insects that they were derived from.  The Brilliant History of Color in Art by Victoria Finlay, Wild Color  and Quilt History also provide a plethora of information for further exploration.  We learned there are three types of natural dyes derived from three different sources.  There are natural dyes obtained from plants (indigo), those obtained from animals (cochineal), and those obtained from minerals (ocher).

We used ALUM as the mordant to facilitate the chemical reaction that takes place between the dye and the fiber so that the dye is absorbed and brightens the colour slightly.  Other common mordants are: IRON (or copperas) which saddens or darken colors, bringing out green shades; TIN to brightens colors, especially reds, oranges and yellows; BLUE VITRIOL which saddens colors and brings out greens and TANNIC ACID used for tans and browns.  Some dyes like walnut hulls and lichens do not require mordants.

I chose the cochineal dye, not for the smell, but for the story and for the rich, red colour.  Historically cochineal was a valuable commodity, only beat out in trading popularity in Europe by silver and gold.  These dead insects, hence the smell, are ground with the mortar and pestle into a fine powder that is mixed with the alum for a beautiful colourfast dye.

As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers.  Knitting, crochet and embroidery projects were clearly enjoyable but also had a specific utilitarian purpose.  Creating clothing, decorating pillow cases and saving money were a driving force.  I learned to appreciate these endeavors and continued to pursue them and teach them to students as hobbies.  Dana’s session provided us the opportunity to consider the cross curricular connections implicit in the craft. Her dyes included crushed marigolds, dandelions, leaves and the cochineal insect.  Dana also provided information on respectful harvesting, although I have grand aspirations of our students stripping the ground of all traces of dandelions in spring to deal with this pernicious weed on our school grounds and use them for something purposeful!

The new curriculum in British Columbia gives educators the opportunity to consider the things that we do in schools through a new lense.  Dyeing wool no longer belongs solely in the realm of arts and crafts.  It becomes part of science, the stories of history and Indigenous practices, as well as outdoor education.  It also provides a high level of engagement that was able to keep educators at school after a week of parent-teacher conferences and preparing for professional development sessions the following day.  It continues to hold our attention as we shake our jars daily to distribute the colour and imagine the final outcome.  Special thanks to Dana for opening our eyes.  My Nanny Keenan would be thrilled .  She had fond memories of this long-haired sheep on the farm in Brandon, Manitoba.  I can only imagine what she could have done with these dyes!

 

#WelcomeSyrianRefugees

imageOn December 10th, 2015, Tecumseh Elementary School paused to celebrate Human Rights Day and to consider the plight of Syrian refugees.  If you had a chance to read the Welcoming Syrian Refugees blog (Dec. 2015), you will remember that Marion Collins was reading Hannah’s Suitcase with her students and we had the idea to create peace art with the old wooden suitcase that my paternal Grandmother brought to Canada in 1947 to start a new chapter of life with her four young children.   With the help of the grant from Promoting a Culture of Peace for Children Society, the suitcase has become an inspiration for representing ideas through art, reading, writing, listening, speaking and caring.

One side of the suitcase is decorated with messages of welcome to the Syrian refugees. The other sides are decorated with Jackson Pollock inspired art by Grade 3 students. Each colour represents each individual in Canada with all of our similarities and differences.  The finished masterpiece is the representation of all of us coming together to create something beautiful.  Tanya Conley’s students also made flags of the countries of origin of Tecumseh students and of the suitcase.  A local artist, Larkyn Froese, came into help the Grade 3’s with applying the flags on the project.  Grade 6 students wrote messages of welcome on fabric squares and sewed them on items of clothing to be displayed coming out of the suitcase.

The artwork became a catalyst for more questions and an inspiration for the reading and writing of Tecumseh students.  With the help of a grant from ReadingBC (The British Columbia chapter of the International Literacy Association –ILA), Ms. Collins continued to expand the project to include a literacy component with the entire school.   The experience of leaving home and family behind is a difficult experience as an immigrant and as a refugee. Many of the parents in our school community have given up good jobs in their home country and work hard, often with more than one job, to provide better opportunities for their children in Canada.  Ms. Collins spearheaded a writing project with intermediate students to interview their parents and discover family stories of hardship and triumph.  Several albums have been filled with the interviews and photographs for display with the suitcase.

This same family history vein was pursued by Ms. Conley’s HumanEYES art based initiative that celebrates the diverse life experiences of young people throughout the Vancouver, Coast Salish ancestral lands.  This project documented inter-generational and inter-cultural storytelling and celebrates the importance of family and maintaining cultural roots.  The project culminated with an intergenerational cookbook filled with recipes, art and family photographs of her 4th graders that has been included in the suitcase as well.

Ms. Collins, her enthusiasm and the desire of staff to get involved resulted in almost all of the classrooms in the school taking part in the project.  Several classes stopped to consider the notion of taking flight in war-torn areas with very few belongings.  They learned many refugees leave home with a house key in the hope their home will survive the war or as a memory of what was.  Several intermediate classes of students designed hamsa handsan old and still popular amulet for magical protection from the envious or evil eye in many Middle East and North African cultures.  They created keychains with the hasma hand, a key and a fimo sculpture of what they pack if they needed to leave home in a hurry.  Primary students wrote and drew about what they would bring and have created albums of their ideas for inclusion in the suitcase as well.

The #WelcomeSyrianRefugees project was first featured at the United Way luncheon for Syrian Refugees that was hosted at Tecumseh Elementary school this Spring.  The most common reaction from the adults viewing the project has been tears.  In the barrage of negatives on mainstream media and social media, there is comfort that Canadian children are welcoming their Syrian children with open arms.  There is also the hope that there are many Canadian adults who are doing exactly the same thing.

Note:  The title #WelcomeSyrianRefugees came from the Twitter handle of the same name that expresses messages of welcome not just to Syrian refugees.  This project will be on display at the Vancouver School Board during July and August 2016.  Our goal is for it to be displayed at a variety of venues as a way to warmly welcome refugees as they begin a new chapter of their lives in Canada.

 

Inspiring Artistic Expression In Nova Scotia

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Nova Scotia

I was welcomed into the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia with over the top friendly and helpful Maritime graciousness. Maritimers bring the Canadian “nice” to a whole new level.   I gravitated first to what I was most anticipating, the Maud Lewis Gallery.  To my delight her entire house with all of the surfaces, including a good part of the stove, is covered with what is now iconic Maritime folk art.  Learning about the person and her challenges with childhood arthritis brought a new level of understanding to art for the pure delight of creation and celebration of everyday surroundings.  Her art didn’t emerge from limitations on her life due to her physical challenges but her ability to delight in the life she was living.

The gallery tour started at 7:00 pm but many regulars had decided to wander through the gallery on their own.   The docent was a gentlemen named Ian (I think) and had a wealth of background knowledge and had met many of the artists showing in the gallery.  The tour started as a consideration of the show by the well known Nova Scotia artist, John Greer and his show “Retroactive”.   In the very best of teaching strategies, Ian provided not only the background, but shared stories about the artist, the installation of the show and posed questions about the works.  I learned that  John Greer also has a studio in Italy and gets his marble from the same quarry as Michelangelo.  Imagine there still being marble left!  Ian was able to encourage close consideration of the art by evoking thinking with “I wonder” and prefacing questions with “There is no right answer but…”.   What began as a standard gallery tour emerged into one of the most amazing discussions of art.

Alex Colville's Prince Edward Island inspiration
Alex Colville’s Prince Edward Island inspiration

The “Terroir:  A Nova Scotia Retrospective”collection drew me in immediately with the wine references.   The permanent collection of Nova Scotia is explored in relation to the soil, topography and climate.   Early paintings of the Maritimes and early contact with the Mi’kmaq nation were done in Europe by artists who were using early maps and records of battles by early explorers and traders.  They were followed by the work of Arthur Lismer, Alex Colville, Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt and so many other interesting and reknown Canadian artists.  A great addition was the Contemporary First Nations Arts from artists such as Ahmoo Angecomb, Carl Beam, Edward Ned bear, David Brooks, Norval Morrisseau, Daphne Odjig, Jane Ash Poitras and Alan Syliboy.   Ian ended off the tour by asking if I wanted to see his favourite piece in the gallery.  It was both an honour and a privilege to be asked.   To my amazement 1 hour and 40 minutes had passed in what felt like a mini-course on Canadian art.  Hands down the best gallery tour that I have ever taken.  If I had been more on the ball, I would have taken down his complete name so I could send a personal thank you card.

Ian underscored the importance of engaging in the stories of the art that is created and selected for showings.  My daughter recently moved into an old house with a friend and promptly started painting the wall of her little “studio” off her bedroom.  Like Maud Lewis, it is an exploration of her own creative impulses and making sense of her world.  This is what I want for the students under our care.  How can we provide the opportunities and experiences so that they have the basic skill and confidence to explore their ideas and express themselves artistically?  I have “DuckDuckGo’ed” and will be looking at ways to expose our Tecumseh students to some of the opportunities in Vancouver to expand their artistic horizons in Vancouver.   I have always encouraged parents to attend Super Sundays at the Vancouver Art Gallery but this year, we will be heading to the Gallery this fall for a start where I can start sharing some of my stories.

The Huntington Library Opens My 7 Year old Eyes

As a kid, I lived in Vancouver with my Mom and did the trek down to Los Angeles every summer to visit my father.  Going to the Huntington Library was as predictable as going to Disneyland and Knots Berry Farm, albeit, not quite as anticipated.  My step-mother chuckles every time she recounts me as a little girl with ringlets and my look of frustration and the memorable quote ” Not Bluey and Pinky again!”  And yet, this experience as a child and future experiences with museums around the world, are now highly valued.  This summer I was amazed with the additional gardens and exhibits, and that Huntington Library is now a tourist attraction.  I entered the room with The Blue Boy and Pinky and delighted.  The Ellesmere Chaucer and the Gutenberg bible were reunions with familiar friends.


It certainly led me to reflect on the childhood experiences that helped me to learn how to look at art.  I remember that my childhood eyes saw two friends.  Pinky was obviously just having a lot more fun that Bluey.  After all, they were in the same room.  I remember my surprise when I learned that they were painted by different artists and that when I looked at them more closely, it was obvious.  In order to draw kids into art, they need to be exposed to it and taught that they too can engage in the process.

The summers that I taught teachers in Fuyang, China, I was amazed that ALL of the teachers knew how to draw.  Part of their education included art instruction by teachers with training and proficiency in the area.  They all understood and practiced the basics of drawing which emerged to real talent in many.  When my own children were young, they regularly took classes at Place Des Art in the French Quarter of Coquitlam.  Once a month, The Vancouver Art Gallery had a Super Sunday filled with sessions to get families engaging in art and interacting in various ways with the work of Emily Carr, The Group of Seven and featured exhibits.  On their first trip to Europe, at 7 and 9 years of age, they went in the Roman ruins, the Leaning Tower, the Uffizi, Galleria Dell’Accademia and the Duomo in Florence with their sketchbooks.  That fall our daughter came home from school to tell me that she shared her drawing of The Birth of Venus at school because she didn’t think the kids were ready for David.

I am wondering about how we engage kids in all of the aspects  in the world of art.  I unfortunately didn’t grow up well developed drawing skills.  I remember one of my Kindergarten students snickering as I was using my Ed Emberley book to draw something on the board.  Another protective 5 year old, turned around and exclaimed “Knock it off! She’s doing her best!”  I am creative and can help students to develop artistically in some ways but need to draw in the talents of others as well.  Fortunately in my school, we have amazing number of talented teachers who share their skills with their students.  I’m wondering how we get children to connect what they are doing in schools with that of the artists of the past and of the present?  How do we get them to see themselves as artists?  How do we open up the possibilities for their continued professional or leisure activities as artists?