Transparency and Glass in School Design

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In our previous blog Louise relates the story of our wonderful encounter with Jackie Alexander and Giovanni Piazza in their exemplary schools in Bangkok.  Many architectural elements in Jackie’s school design stand out: natural wood floors and some natural wood ceilings; lovely understated lighting; neutral colors (mostly shades of white); open floor plans; clean, clear lines,; simple and sturdy furniture; and most spectacularly and transformative: glass...beautiful large exterior windows and expansive floor to ceiling interior glass walls and doors.

The architectural element of glass supports the pedagogy of the schools. 

Obviously, glass is transparent.  It visually connects different spaces, inside and outside.  It allows the children and teachers to see each other, to connect with each other all the time.  That connectedness reinforces the pedagogy of relationships: school is a network of relationships between students, teachers, materials, the outdoors, and the world beyond.  Learning happens because of the dynamic of those relationships: the stronger the relationships, the stronger and longer lasting the learning.  Standing or sitting in the rooms and hallways and playgrounds of Jackie’s schools, you feel connected and imagine learning in dynamic ways in these spaces.  

Here are three panorama photos of three spaces.  The feeling of “connectedness” is palpable.


In the panoramic photo below, a hallway, that is often is a dark tunnel leading from one point to another in schools, has been transformed by glass.  The glass clearly defines the spaces yet, at the same time, visually connects them and allows natural light to fill the space.  Also, note that the hallway is wide enough to comfortably hold a small table with chairs (on the far right).  So, the hallway becomes a place for connections…not just passages…there is enough space for people to meet each other…and, as you walk, to see into other spaces, to observe/connect with what other people are doing.  With the addition of glass the hallway becomes a communal space.


Below is one of the oldest buildings that Jackie renovated…an original colonial Thai post and beam structure.  Below is a panorama photo of almost the entire ground floor.  With only a couple of  exceptions, all of the exterior wall is floor to ceiling glass.  Standing inside the room, an atelier, feels like you are outside, however, neatly contained by the warm natural wood of the ceiling.  To work in this space with children must be pure joy. 

Hats off to Jackie.  She has accomplished something truly remarkable…her work is a new hallmark for school design.


To see a similar effect of the architectural element of glass used on a smaller scale, here is an example that Louise knows well, the atelier space at The College School in St. Louis, Missouri.  This atelier studio is an interior room, without windows to the outdoors.  Previously, it was a dark corner of a classroom.  The room was transformed by replacing solid walls with interior window compositions and adding a wall made out of glass.  Now, the learning experiences within one room come into direct relationship with the other daily experiences of the children.  Children's work that was secluded in one area becomes visible to other areas.  

Window walls are an architectural vehicle for pedagogy that focuses on integrated, interconnected, and, therefore, meaningful projects.


If you are interested in researching these ideas further, I recommend the following resources that have been a great help to me: The Third Teacher, that grew out of the design consultancy led by architect, Trung LeThe Language of School Design by Nair and Fielding, and Children, Spaces and Relations, by Ceppi and Zini.  Even small changes that lead toward more transparency and allow for more natural light can make a big difference in any school.  We encourage you to discover, dream and design for change. 

Worldwide Reggio Inspiration: Thailand


One of the great pleasures and privileges of our big adventure trip in January was the time that we spent with Jackie Alexander and Giovanni Piazza in Bangkok, Thailand.  We met Jackie for the first time in the mid nineties at an international conference to honor Loris Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy.  We met Giovanni when we lived and worked in Reggio Emilia in 1991-92.  Louise was an intern/fellow at La Villetta School where Giovanni was the atelierista.  She worked primarily with Giovanni in the atelier and with Amelia Gambetti who was teaching the “grandi,” the five and six years old children.

Jackie is originally from Toronto and has lived in Bangkok for 33 years.  Her early career took her to Southeast Asia and she never left.  She taught in a school for young children, then became director and set out to shape the school to her own vision.  That first school was such a success that she has now opened three others including one elementary school, The City School.  The group of schools are called Early Learning Center schools or ELC.  Jackie studied the Reggio approach and visited Reggio Emilia in the 90’s and she and Giovanni began to get to know each other through those visits.  Giovanni visited Bangkok at Jackie’s invitation to further the understanding of her teachers in many aspects of the work in Reggio Emilia.  And eventually, their relationship turned toward more than education and they were married in 2005. 


Giovanni is now the atelierista at The City School, the one school of Jackie’s that goes through 5th grade.  Giovanni works with a partner atelierista, Marco Paladino, who focuses mostly on technology.  Giovanni and Marco are close partners with the teachers in helping to design the course of project work as well as the documentation of student work. 


The City School is a campus with many buildings.  Jackie has worked with architects to renovate and to transform existing buildings on the site as well as to save and restore some colonial Thai buildings that were moved to the school grounds.  The grounds are green and welcoming and the outdoor classrooms and play spaces are beautifully conceived.  An aspect of the campus that immediately strikes visitors is the presence of transparency and glass as well as the feeling of authentic, and unique Thai architecture and style.  Another impressive aspect is the presence of all the ateliers in all kinds of places.  There is an atelier dedicated to light and the exploration of light and shadow in complex and layered ways.  There is an outdoor water atelier where children experiment and explore the physics and the beauty of water. There are ateliers for expressive languages and for digital work.  There is a music atelier and an atelier dedicated to the natural world.  Classrooms are open and are easily accessible to the ateliers and the outdoor classrooms.


The children's work in many media and the documentation of their thinking and their theories, their poetry and writing, their wonderings and questions, their designs and ideas for the future of our world are impressive! We see the work of older children flourish as they master skills and abilities in this kind of rich and diverse environment. We could have spent a week their just reading the walls.  


One of the most striking aspects of all is that this is truly and international and diverse school with children, teachers and families from all over the world.  Giovanni told me that he was continually fascinated and curious about the collaboration that he witnesses among children from different cultures who have different perspectives and ways of seeing and solving problems.  One project of the older children was focused on maps and boundaries and space beyond our world.  The students wanted to write messages to the universe and were able to send up a balloon with a camera so that they all could see the earth from an ever expanding perspective as well as deliver their message. 


It was heart warming to find friends so far away from home who we have known for so long working in such inspiring schools.  We wish we could have spent longer with them and with the children.  Jackie and her team have created the kind of schools that you don’t want to leave.  I know that many of us are working to create schools that are worthy of our children's intelligence and creativity.  May we work for schools like this for all children everywhere. 


Back Home Again


Goodness, we have been gone a long time and away from this space of writing blog posts at least twice a month.  We've had such an adventure that we wanted to begin our blog posts for the new year with a mini reflection on our journey away. 

We are back in Vermont, now looking out on a snowy landscape, softly falling flakes, white, black and gray nuthatches and scarlet cardinals at the feeders and winter everywhere.  It feels so very good to be home.  Two months ago, we found ourselves without any of our children or grandchildren for the holidays, (They were with dear in-laws).   So we set out across the world, going west from Boston to San Francisco and then to Maui where we settled into a small cottage for a Christmas with leis instead of greens, and hibiscus instead of poinsettias, the beach instead of skiing and snow, and some dear, long lost friends in the place of family. 


Then, close to the end of the month, we headed to New Zealand. We lost a day and arrived just before New Year.  We marveled at the Southern Cross and the starry southern hemisphere sky as we turned the corner into 2018.  We reveled in the landscape, the merino sheep, the glaciers and rainforests and beaches with wild surf and smooth stones.  We moved around the South Island and learned so much about the land, the geology and the flora and fauna from guided nature trails and guides at lodges.  And it was light from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.  So much light and varied, beautiful land and sea.  We were amazed most of the time.  


In mid January we headed to Thailand where we joined a National Geographic Tour for two weeks.We traveled north to Chang Mai and south to Ko Samui and the rain forest.  Our favorite experiences were small group bike rides through the countryside with local guides.  We also spent two splendid days with Jackie Alexander and Giovanni Piazza in their ELC schools in Bangkok.  We plan to write a blog post dedicated to those days and those schools, coming soon.


Thailand was a world of difference for us.  We had never been to Southeast Asia.  Bangkok is a big, bustling city with so much to see.  Right away we found the Jim Thompson House because I have heard about Jim Thompson most of my life.  He and my father were born in the same year and attended Princeton University together.  Jim Thompson was an architect, a business man, an agent in the OSS, precursor to the CIA who lived in Thailand most of his adult life.  His home, now a museum, is filled with his collection of Asian art.  He is known for single handedly revitalizing the silk industry in Thailand.  My parents visited him several times in this house and my brother remembers celebrating his birthday at Jim Thompson's while he was stationed in Asia.  


We were thrilled to make the connections with both Jim Thompson and Jackie and Giovanni in Bangkok.  These personal connections made our pilgrimage worth every effort. 

We finished our around the world adventure with five days in Paris. We visited a museum every day and were swept away, once again, by the small streets, the Paris rooftop views, the ambiance, the cafe's, and the ever present charm of this city of love. 


So that was our trip!  We saw children everywhere, in museums, in schools, in strollers, on bicycles and thought about their lives in these far away places. We felt like children ourselves in many ways, soaking in the new every day, writing in our journals, sketching and painting our impressions and reflections, learning.  

We are glad to be home and glad to be back in the swing, posting thoughts and being in touch with all of you.  All the very best for the new year and for February, as the light returns.  

Louise and Ashley


Happy Holidays


Dear Friends,

We wish you all happy holidays however you celebrate the mid winter solstice...with candles, with hope, with family and love, with evergreens and warm fires, and good food shared among good friends, with Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or other traditions.  


We are off! on a big trip to far away places.  We will keep in touch mostly through posts on Instagram


We wish you all the very best as we all hope for a new year full of light and hope and peace.  We will be back with blog posts in early February! 

Louise and Ashley


Noticing and Drawing the World with Young Children

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One of the things that we have worked on with teachers during the past few months is supporting children's developing skills in seeing, noticing, describing and drawing. Two schools where we have seen remarkable work lately are Principia Preschool in St. Louis and Charlestown Nursery School (CNS) in Boston.  

Louise co-facilitated small group work with teachers at CNS in October when we collected leaves,  described them and learned the technique of "bug drawing."  Bug drawing is a way to describe contour drawing that seems to work well with children because it is so specific and appeals to their imagination.  I demonstrated as I explained how this works...You pretend that you are tiny insect crawling along the edge of the object, in this case an oak leaf.  You follow each turn and bump and curl that the insect crawls around and you follow that path with your pen or pencil on your paper.  

This is truly hand eye coordination.  And it means slowing down to really notice what you are seeing.  When this is explained to four and five year olds, or even three year olds, most of them understand what you are saying and doing and some of them like to try.  Some of them go about drawing in their own way.  And all this is great.  Whatever happens, you have given them a tool that might help, focus, and connect with seeing and with making marks.  


The two CNS teachers shared these small group experiences with their colleagues during a professional development day using video clips, transcribed conversations with children, and photographs of children's work.  We used the Collaborative Assessment Protocol to unpack the experiences together.  In this way, all of the teachers at CNS could share in the new learning of the children and the teachers who were leading the experiences.  Then, we shared a drawing workshop with the teachers who tried their own hand at bug drawing. 

At Principia, we have explained this way of working through Skype sessions with teachers.  Even through virtual collaboration they have understood this approach well enough to be highly successful in their work.  For example, a group of preschool students were recently involved in a turtle tracking experience on their campus. The children became very interested in turtles and the teachers gave them more of an opportunity to study different kinds of turtles and to use the bug drawing technique to help them notice even more about the design of different turtle shells, how the shell works with the turtle's legs and head, about the patterns and lines that define the turtle. 


Give this a try if it appeals to you.  It most likely will turn out to be a fun and worthwhile experience. Then, this way of seeing and drawing becomes another part of the toolbox for noticing, representing, valuing and understanding the world.  And, If you are looking for more ways to explore line with children, visit this remarkable resource created by author Cathy Topal