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. 

Creativity by the Lake

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A few days ago, five women were lucky enough to spend 24 hours together at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire at one of our group's family summer cottage right on the shore.  Lizi Boyd, our host, is an acclaimed illustrator and children's book author.  Her cottage is made up of two small buildings joined by a narrow outdoor porch. Lizi's studio is in one of the buildings with floor to ceiling windows facing the ferns and woods on one side and the lake and islands on the other.  Her organized, beautiful materials, her spacious tables and work in progress were an inspiration to all of us.  Each of the other four of us has a creative practice at the center of our lives...one of us is a gallery owner, one a home store owner, costume designer and quilter, one an early childhood educator, and one an educator/author.  

We met at the lake to revel in water, sun, leisure, good food, laughter and delight in one another's company, not necessarily to think about creativity.  But creative we were.  In this recent post, I ended by wishing us all a creative summer in whatever we engage in every day such as arranging flowers, creating occasions, cooking.  What I want to talk about now is making a salad...yes, a salad, at our Lake Sunapee gathering. 

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I brought a cooler bag with fresh, local greens, small, plump, heirloom tomatoes in shades of deep red and purple, and small carrots from the Middlebury Farmer's Market.  Lizi had picked up a bunch of small red onions.  I washed and dried the lettuce and Anni began to put together a salad for lunch in a generous hand made wooden bowl.  First the lettuces, then the tomatoes cut in chunks, then the carrots julienned and placed on top.  And finally, the red onion scallions cut into skinny strips placed on a diagonal on top of the carrots.  

Lizi made the dressing. Olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, salt and pepper and a crushed garlic clove.  She asked Anni to taste it.  Dipping her little finger in the jar and tasting, Anni said, "Perfect, that is perfect."  

Anni swirled the dressing onto the beautiful composition of salad and I asked if I should toss it. Anni replied, "I have never been much of a tosser."  So, the salad remained in its original form for all of us to admire and also to taste as the dressing dripped itself around the different vegetables. 

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We enjoyed a simple lunch of this salad, good bread and cheese and, yes, juice glasses of rose' outside tucked between the studio and the lake, in the shade, wet and cool from a pre lunch swim in the absolutely clear lake waters.  

This simple salad making has stayed in my mind ever since...during our talks about sense of place and visual arts and community on our drive home in the rain...during my morning meditation, and while I put together a salad for last night's dinner at home in Middlebury.  Why? It made me think of the little book, Beautiful and Yummy, written, illustrated and edited by first and second grade students at the College School in St. Louis during my last year there ten years ago. The little book is all about basil planting and harvesting, cooking and learning.  I feel our salad sharing was all about beautiful and yummy too.  Beautiful ingredients, shared knowledge and ways of making things of value, pleasure in sharing delicious food and conversations that matter.  

I thought of the Italians I knew at Plum Village in France when we were there as a family with Thich Naht Hanh.  When Francesca, one of the cooks, was boiling pasta for the whole group of families there, the only people who she would trust to confirm that the pasta was done and al dente were Italians. Something about shared knowledge and experience to recognize and discern quality.  I saw this in Lizi asking Anni to taste the dressing.  Dressing! Simple ingredients paired in a casual way, to be just right.  Turns out, we need each other to learn, to help, to give feedback, to validate our work.

The experience reminded me of how  Ken Robinson describes creativity as making things of value.  We made a beautiful salad and we made a beautiful occasion and it was so simple.  Simplicity seemed to be at the center of it all.  

What did I learn? I will build salads now, rather than throw them together.  I will make dressing differently.  I will strive not to toss the salad, but offer it and enjoy it in a whole new way.  I learned again what I have known for a long time...good, fresh, local ingredients make nutritious, delicious, beautiful simple meals.  Likewise, good quality materials and beautiful ones, offered to children and adults with time and a measure of context and structure, yield wonderful results. 

On the walls of Lizi's studio are many fanciful creatures in wood, painted with acrylic paint.  She told me that her son, Tim, had made them when he was very young.  "He had an eye for how to work with wood and make very simple creatures.  I would just find the wood scrapes for him, good hard wood from a local business.  And then, he was off.  You have to give children good materials.  I go crazy when we keep giving children low grade colored pencils, for example." 

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Now, I have a new idea for our two weeks with our grand children in August and early September. Good wood scrapes, wood glue, and paint.  Now Asher's dragon might become a sculpture in wood.  From a mother to a grandmother, from one medium to another.  Learning as we go, new ideas, new approaches, sparks, add on to our way of living and being in the world...bit by bit, piece by piece..making a new whole. 

As we left, I wanted to sing a song with these women that I learned in May.  Very simple, written by a teen girl who was having a challenging time of life.  I hesitated but I share it with you now.  It is for all of us, everywhere.  

Round and round we go, 

And hold each other's hands

And weave ourselves in a circle.

The day is done. 

The dance goes on. 

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Creativity is Alive

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I began thinking about Ashley's last post on new metaphors for school and also of my last post on creativity and how they are intertwined.  The premise of the post on new metaphors referencing Sam Chaltain's blog and work, is that the common and out dated metaphors of school as factory and a child's mind as a blank slate no longer serve us and are holding us back. 

What lively mind, naturally curious and wondering, could ever be considered blank? And what kind of lab or studio or place to think and solve problems and contribute to the world could ever be considered a factory?

The kinds of schools that are nurturing the better angels of our nature are also developing our intelligence, creativity, spirit and wholeness.  And our desire and ability to contribute to our communities and a healthy, hopeful future for our planet.  

 From The College School, St. Louis, Missouri

From The College School, St. Louis, Missouri

I visited my son, Chris at work in Brooklyn a few weeks ago.  He works for a start up LED company called Wavelength.  He works on the 19th floor of the MetroTech Center in the Urban Future Lab...New York City’s hub for smart cities, clean energy, and smart grid technology.  This floor is filled with young people in their 20s and 30s who are all working on energy for the future.  Chris works with two other Middlebury College graduates, one a few years older and one a few years younger than he.  I was so inspired.  Young, talented, visionary, successful people inventing and designing a healthy, hopeful future.  This is what creativity looks like.  

 Urban Future Lab, Brooklyn, New York

Urban Future Lab, Brooklyn, New York

Both of our sons attended The College School in St. Louis for middle school.  Their schooling there was creative and innovative. They learned to be independent and collaborative learners.  In seventh grade, they each composed a resume', interviewed for jobs, and took public transportation to reach their job two afternoons a week.  Since then, neither of them has been without a job for very long and they have continued to learn and grow throughout.   

 Chef Alden Cadwell speaks with visitor to Allendale Farm Annual Tomato Festival

Chef Alden Cadwell speaks with visitor to Allendale Farm Annual Tomato Festival

Chris attended Middlebury College where there is a Center for Creativity, innovation, and Social Entrepreneurship, labs and studios where students are encouraged to pursue innovative ideas and work, and a popular course called MiddCORE.  Look what MiddCORE is offering this summer: 

MiddCORE, a four-week, mentor-powered innovation experience for undergraduates who desire to launch their education and passions into the world at large. 

This credit-bearing college program offers:

  • Learning in a highly collaborative environment
  • Guidance from mentors who are top-tier professionals
  • Problem-solving focused on the real world
  • Exposure to worldwide businesses and organizations

And take a look at this. It is a promotional video for Middlebury College and look at what it emphasizes...creativity and innovation, leadership and risk-taking, deepening and sharpening one's skills and knowledge while offering them with others to the world in a way that creates a vibrant future. 

Creativity involves doing things, and making things of value in all disciplines and domains of life.  It can't take root if students feel that they are receiving and repeating back information instead of wrestling with real world problems and using their research, reading and brains and hearts to make sense of things and actively participate in life. 

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My sister in law, Kathy Cadwell has worked tirelessly to bring Socratic Dialogue to her classes and to many other teachers in her high school and beyond.  In her classes, students participate in creating their own knowledge and informed, skilled perspectives on history, current world problems, and life. 

Ken Robinson says that often people think that being creative means being artsy.  But that is not the idea.  Creating things of value as an engineer, designer, architect, cook, entrepreneur, farmer, seamstress, mason... all involves skill, perseverance, motivation, contribution, imagination, and also beauty.  Everything done well, produced and composed over time, has balance and beauty to it.  Imagination is the source of all human achievement writes Sir Ken Robinson. 

May you all have a creative, vibrant, energetic time this summer making things, as we do all the time in our every day life...meals, occasions, flower arrangements, photographs, gardens...And when you are not being actively creative, we hope that you are floating in a lake, river or ocean, resting and relaxing, rejuvenating and dreaming.  That downtime will feed your creative spirit and we all will benefit!

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