Education Is Democracy

 Harold Gothson at the University of Vermont

Harold Gothson at the University of Vermont

It’s fitting that I write this on November 6, 2018, election day. (I voted happily and hopefully…what a privilege….)

I hosted Harold Gothson here in Middlebury, Vermont this past week. The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children had invited Harold to speak with them about his experience in Sweden where he and his colleagues have established a high functioning network of early childhood educators. I wrote about Louise’s and my experience with Harold in Sweden two years ago.

Harold has been an observer of and thinker about the Reggio Emilia approach since the 80’s and has integrated and adapted many of the principles and practices in his Swedish early childhood education context, especially with the collaboration of Anna Barsotti and Gunilla Dahlberg. Together they established the Swedish Reggio Emilia Institute.

The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children has declared their intention to develop a fully realized Strategy to achieve affordable access to high-quality child care for all Vermont families by 2025a lofty goal, even audacious in these times. When I first read about this initiative, I emailed the director, Aly Richards, to ask for a meeting. At our meeting, after listening to Aly’s description of their work and their intentions, Louise and I volunteered our support.

Besides imparting, in three different gatherings, many good ideas about organization and professional development, Harold challenged the administrators and educators with whom he met to think more deeply about what they mean by “high quality.”

Harold pointed out that much of educational research on learning most often is discussed as neutral in value issues or is turned into methodological advice…group learning is looked upon as a method instead of being seen as a basic aim for the learning process.

Harold described his Swedish colleagues’ profound connection with Reggio Emilia.

In Reggio Emilia, we met not only a celebration of beautiful principles and declarations about children. We met a local society experiencing the idea of preschools as a democratic force that inspires the development of the identity of a city. It was an idea that inspired not only teachers but also local political thinking and acting, as well as empowering a new citizenship by developing participation of families in the everyday life of the preschools. Here we could see and touch a practice that showed that democracy is not fulfilled by the pure right of voting. Democracy demands that the most important role of a school is to support the possibility to formulate and respect your own viewpoints AND to put your viewpoints in to negotiations with your peers so that you can learn together…and learn the strategies that turn conflicts into energy.

 Visting the University of Vermont Campus Children’s School

Visting the University of Vermont Campus Children’s School

Listening to Harold as he addressed the different groups I wondered if his larger, more complex aspiration for education was too much for his audience? For instance, was it not grounded enough in the practical matters of curriculum development? Apparently I need not have worried. The responses generated from a post visit survey indicate understanding and motivation. Here are a few examples:

This is a societal shift we are trying to make - it’s so much bigger that a bill or a funding ask. We really need to change the cultural perspective of early childhood and the value we place on our children.

Our learning environments - this includes the children and the families - should be seen and treated as learning communities where we practice the skills needed to understand and actively engage in democratic society.

The outside world is the “school,” the school building is the lab or studio. Children’s best learning is directed by themselves, with teachers as guides…a learning community in which the adults put the emphasis on wondering rather than conducting.

You can learn more, volunteer, and invest in the Permanent Fund and this on going work. Vermont intends to lead the way with strategies and models for other states and communities. We need this kind of leadership! Thank you to the Vermont Community Foundation, to the Permanent Fund, and thank you to Harold Gothson for inspiring us all to think widely and broadly about the dynamic, big picture and values that are the foundation to this vision.

Playground Design: Resources and Patterns

 Forskolan Emilia, Vasteras, Sweden

Forskolan Emilia, Vasteras, Sweden

I believe playgrounds are the heart and soul of a school. From my own experience, the sandbox is where real life happens and real growth occurs. As I wrote in In the Spirit of the Studio, Pedagogical Patterns (Chapter 13, p.175):

As a child, I loved the sandbox behind the house, next to the calf pasture in a barnyard on a 250 acre dairy farm in the middle of Vermont. My earliest memories are of constructing roads and villages with my neighborhood buddies. While we fabricated entire civilizations out of sand and sticks and straw, the calves grazed and blatted in the background. When we weren’t outside, we were inside the house “making”: trains of chairs for long cross country trips to California; dens of blankets over stools and chairs for secret societies; stage productions born out chests full grandparents’ and parents’ old clothes and shoes; grand banquets served from cauldrons (old tin pots) on fine china and silver (reclaimed dented plates and bent tin flatware). We even had a studio of sorts. My mother was an architect and she loved to sketch. I used to watch her drawing at her drafting table as I played with blocks on the floor at her feet. In our home, it seemed as if the possibilities for invention were endless.

So, the sandbox is both a place and a metaphor for me. It’s a comfortable place, just the right size, with just the right kind of natural and repurposed materials where a congregation of children can invent...endlessly. It’s also a symbol of how all of “school” can be organized and run.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who believes this. There are many inspiring developments in playground design these days and many resources available. We are thrilled to see Design and Play in print, a book based on the research and exhibit of the Design Museum in Boston, featuring playground design from around the world, now touring in San Francisco. From Asphalt to Ecosystems, a book by our colleague, Sharon Danks, also features playgrounds and outdoor classrooms from around the world and many practical, helpful strategies for design. We draw on these and other resources when working with schools and educators in playground and school design.

I designed and built the current playground at the St. Michael School in St. Louis and I’ve helped other educators design playgrounds.  We are currently helping to design a playground for a school in St. Louis.  I am always struck by one simple guiding principle: we might think of playgrounds in the same way that we think of classrooms…they are just bigger, so gross motor experiences are prevalent.  The importance of the organization of space and the careful choice of materials is the same.

Here are six overarching patterns that guide my thinking when designing a playground.

First: Spaces open from a building to a large open area covered with a soft surface, like the KORKAT two layer poured in place soft surface (choose a NEUTRAL color).  Think of the large space as a piazza…for running, biking, scooters, ball games, large gatherings…surrounded by ever more intimate spaces.  Think: a space for 20-40, or more…to spaces for 4-6…to spaces for 1-2.  

Second: Around the large open area, think of placing different small group (4-8) gross motor activities: swings, slides, monkey bars, sand boxes, climbing frames, etc.  

Third: Use the natural topography as much as possible…for a small amphitheater or a bridge. Here’s a slide build into a little hill.

Fourth: Use natural materials that present interesting physical challenges…as simple as 24-36 inch diameter logs cut into 4 to 12 inch disks…laid out in a flat area…for hopping, jumping…or just sitting.  They can also be rearranged by the children.  Here is a “vehicle” carved out of a log.

Fifth: Find materials that are as natural and generative as possible.  If I had my druthers you’d never see a plastic playhouse anywhere…or a plastic anything anywhere!  But you would see materials that could be “fabricated” into “houses.”  Like this one in a kindergarten in Lund, Sweden.  The predominant material here is pallets.  The kindergarteners put it together…note the photo of nails hammered in place (and an adult secured parts of it.)

 Vinden Preschool, Lund, Sweden

Vinden Preschool, Lund, Sweden

 Vinden Preschool, Lund Sweden

Vinden Preschool, Lund Sweden

Of course, the two most generative, and easily accessible materials are SAND and WATER.

Sixth: design spaces for 1-2 children around the periphery.  Usually, and somewhat ironically, the outside wall of the building affords lots of opportunity for this…especially when you think of water…sinks in counters along the building wall with work tables for an outdoor studio.  A building’s exterior inside corners can provide a place for a table and shelves. A pile of 4-6 foot tree limbs or pallet boards that can be formed into a teepee or a fort.  A 6 to 8 foot amphitheater dug into a slope.  

I just thought of a SEVENTH: build the playground in stages, starting with the big space and two or three of the middle and small spaces.  Observe how the children use the spaces.  Think with THEM what else WE might add.  Then create the additions, one at a time, and CELEBRATE each one. Or better yet, start by asking the children and the community, and imagining with them their dream playground, a strategy that Sharon Danks outlines in her book…and then, build it in stages.

 Forskolan Emilia, Vasteras, Sweden

Forskolan Emilia, Vasteras, Sweden

Returning to Reggio Emilia

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A month ago we took the train from western Tuscany and headed toward Reggio Emilia where we were able to spend two remarkable days visiting friends and colleagues. We are always thrilled to be back. To sit in what we think of as “our” piazzas, to sip cappuccino looking out the tall, open windows of our favorite B&B, to stroll past the Municipal Theater and the fountains where children play at all times of day, to savor our favorite tortelli verdi, to hug old friends and catch up.

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By amazing coincidence, we discovered that Stefania Giamminuti from Western Australia and Harold and Eva Gothson and Gunilla Dahlberg from Stockholm just happened to be in Reggio during the two days that we were and staying at the same B&B! We were able to spend time with them too which was a completely unexpected pleasure.

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We started by having a drink with Carlina Rinaldi at The Lady Bar, in the apartment complex where we had an apartment the year that we lived in Reggio and where Carlina has always lived. Marissa also joined us…she used to own the bar with her sister but has now retired. So touching that she wanted to see us and remember the days when we were there. Carlina told us of the projects that she is focused on, mostly with children of poverty and also with immigrant children who live in Reggio. She is dedicated at this point in her life to the populations that need this work the most. What a wonderful treat just to be with her.

We spent the next day at the Loris Malaguzzi Center taking our time in a new exhibit called Un Pensiero in Festa, translated A Festive Thought: Visual Metaphor in Children’s Learning Processes.

The introductions states: …Metaphor is a tool of [meaning making] that creates different ways of seeing the world. There can be no doubt that metaphor is a festive intuition…creativity, irony, analogy, harnessing paradox are presented here so that we might welcome them into daily life with more awareness.

In addition to this wonder of an exhibit, we were able to see Vea Vecchi and Tullio Zini, have lunch with Paola Ricco and Emanuela Vercalli and Tullio, reconnect with dear friend Marina Mori and Giordana Rabitti. We are always so grateful to be able to return to Reggio Emilia and become students again of the approach and the people that have inspired us and others for so many years. .

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When we returned home to Vermont, a friend suggested that we watch the new series, The Beginning of Life. What a beautiful documentary series that begins with a the voice and image of Vea Vecchi saying with joy and enthusiasm, Each child who is born is a kind fo surprise for humankind. The third in the series, Free to Learn, features interviews with Vea Vecchi, Claudia Giudici, Paola Strozzi, Chiara Spaggiari, and Simona Spaggiari as well as many beautiful clips of children in the schools of Reggio Emilia.

One of my favorite parts features Paola Strozzi explaining the importance of exploring relationships with children…relationships of shape, of stories, of function. She says that when we begin to explore relationships…for example cutting open an apple together and taking time to notice the seeds…it becomes a story of life. Within these relationships and connections among things we find ethics, beauty and meaning. This is what drew us to Reggio. This is why we return.

We highly recommend this documentary (available on iTunes) or the accompanying series (available on Netflix) It calls us all to revisit childhood with new wonder and within a broad, compelling, worldwide perspective.

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Ingenious School Design by Middlebury College Students

Last fall I received a call from a Middlebury College student who asked me to take a look at a project that he was working on with a group of friends.  They planned to enter their design in a nationwide competition for energy efficiency, "Road to Zero" sponsored by the US Department of Energy.  They entered the school design section were designing a new elementary school for the Town of Middlebury.  The school they created was a fascinating integration of simple form and state of the art, affordable energy systems.  In addition, their pedagogical goals determined thoughtful, innovative floor plans.

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Here is their stated goal:

Middlebury Elementary is designed to plant the seeds of curiosity needed to grow life-long learners who are stewards of the environment rooted in their community. Middlebury Elementary encourages curiosity-driven learning and engages students in exploring critical topics such as energy, food, and community. 

Through several conversations where we shared ideas about pedagogy and school design, these college students composed the following more specific goals: 

  • Inspire and provoke curiosity with an emphasis on experiential learning        
  • All building systems visible                                
  • Fluid spaces that create eddies encouraging student-to-student interactions                                Progressive learning-shifting away from traditional lecture teaching towards hands-on, interdisciplinary education                
  • Attract: Incorporate the character and needs of the surrounding community in order to create a vibrant hub for the town of Middlebury        
  • Beacon in Middlebury, and greater Vermont for progressive education and sustainable design to encourage stewardship of our environment. 

The floor plan they created to fulfill these goals features a layout like a small town with a town center, a main street with a variety of collaboration spaces and flexible furniture, and traditional classrooms that connect to the street through interior windows and that connect with the outdoors through windows at child’s height.  

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The energy efficiency of their building is remarkable…and the energy systems are largely exposed…visible and color coded…ready for myriad student investigations.

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The list includes: R-48 walls, R-75 roof exterior mineral wool, R-20 slab, Armatherm foam sill gaskets, air sealing, continuous barrier, geothermal heating/cooling, ClimateMaster heat pumps in each classroom, decentralized energy efficient heat recovery air ventilation systems, automatic daylight dimming LED lighting, occupancy sensor switches in large areas, Point Source and Decentralized water heating, 1,244 330W solar panels.

The cost analysis and energy audit on their school building revealed that construction costs would be lower than is the norm in the industry and that building would actually create more energy that it used, thus netting the school as much as $20,000 per year.

It’s not surprising that this group of ingenious, motivated Middlebury College students won the regional competition, and were therefore selected to present their project in Denver at the national competition…that they also WON.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creativity Inspired by Reggio Emilia

 Mural in the Diana School, Reggio Emilia, the year that we lived there. 

Mural in the Diana School, Reggio Emilia, the year that we lived there. 

Twenty-seven years ago this August my family and I were headed to Italy to live for the whole year in Reggio Emilia.  My son, Alden, now 38, was was 11, and Christopher, now 35, was 8.  That is a long time ago.  However, none of us has ever been the same after living abroad for a year, speaking a new language, being immersed in a very different culture, and making our way in a place where most everything was new. 

One of the lovely things about living in Italy is that exuberance is the norm and aesthetics are paramount...in food, in design, in culture, in the way that life is lived in time and space.  I have a memory of an article in the Christian Science Monitor that I read many years ago, in fact, in 1991, the year we left for Italy.  In this article, Ann Taylor, on sabbatical in Florence with her husband and two young children, describes a moment when one of her children helps her stop and enjoy the beauty and the moment by saying, "Che bello, questo momentino." How lovely, this little moment.  The author is brought out of her own planning, reviewing and thinking to the moment before the three of them and the beauty of the Italian countryside outside of Florence in the spring. 

 Chris, Alden and Ashley biking in the countryside outside Reggio Emilia.

Chris, Alden and Ashley biking in the countryside outside Reggio Emilia.

That phrase has stayed with me all these years.  It brings me back to my own sabbatical of sorts as a fellow in the early childhood schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy and the challenge and pleasure of living there as a family.  It reminds me of the way of living in a more spacious way, in a way that is more gracious and conscious of the aesthetics in every moment that is found in Italy.  It is a beautiful example of the sweetness, curiosity, and presence of young children and how we learn from them and alongside them.  It reminds me that aesthetics is also tied to presence and authenticity, and simplicity and truth.  

This echoes the transcendentalist view of the triad of truth, beauty and goodness.  Where there is one, the other two are present also.  Its like a puzzle or a Zen koan.  Where there is beauty, look for truth and look for goodness.  Where there is good, look for beauty and truth.  Where there is truth, look for beauty and goodness.  This is ethics 101.  

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In Reggio Emilia, ethics are tied to aesthetics and poetics.  In her book, Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia, Vea Vecchi writes a chapter entitled "The Ethical Community," where she speaks of the democracy that the Reggio approach upholds and sustains in part through integral and meaningful connections and contributions to families and to the community.  For example, in The Theater Curtain project, five and six year old children are commissioned to design the central image for a curtain for one of the oldest theaters in the town. 

In her book and in her life's work, one of Vea's most important messages is that aesthetic and poetic ways of knowing and understanding make for more complete and rich knowledge.  Learning devoid of imagination, creativity, beauty, metaphor, wonder is incomplete and impoverished.  Vea makes it clear that this way of learning and being in the world is an antidote, a protection, a stance against indifference and violence. This is a bold statement. Watch Vea speak about it here

This is a powerful belief for us to live by and stand by in our lives and in our schools...that creativity and imagination, arts and joy, exuberance and meaning, these all contribute to rich learning and also to our ethical, good, and true way of living and being in the world.  Let the new school year begin with beauty, truth, goodness, and joy.  

  Drawing before Breakfast , by Louise. 

Drawing before Breakfast, by Louise.