An act of freedom

An act of freedom

It’s been a stunning, bewildering, shocking ten days. I’ve heard people across the political spectrum call the rapid-fire developments chaotic and confusing.  It’s hard to know how to respond.

Today I listened to an interview with a musician born in Syria who has been living in America for sixteen years.  Out of the country to perform concerts, he now finds himself unsure whether he will be permitted to return home.  Asked about how this experience might influence his music, he replied that “making music is an act of freedom.”

In times like these, it’s important to remember that the educators in Reggio Emilia, Italy, saw their work – so inspirational to Opal School and around the world – as an anti-fascist project.  How can working with young children be “an act of freedom” – an anti-fascist effort?

Here are some recent glimpses from Opal School classrooms to consider:

The Beginning School children are continuing to engage, in the words of Tara Papandrew, as “culture makers and word breakers.”  They play with language to develop individual and group identity.  Unpacking the concept of challenge, Lila offered,

When you’re challenged, you can learn!

First- and second-grade children in Magnolia have been thinking about how they can use their gifts to make Magnolia a better place for all over the next hundred days.  They shared this thinking with the school community at morning gathering last week.  Lois said,

Gifts are important because you can share them with the world and then other people could try them, too. All the gifts can come together and make one big gift… everyone has something special, and everyone will feel like they are included, like we are joined together more. The community is like a whole web, and if something happens there gets a hole in the web and it takes friendship to grow it back. Our gifts grow it bigger and stronger so the web doesn’t break as often.

Friday, children in Opal 3 published essays focused on an idea that they felt the world needs to know.  Nine-year-old Ollie wrote about persistence:

My idea is about believing you can do hard stuff and sticking with it. This is happening right now because I am making a risk.

This writing project is hard! It seems impossible. It feels like it’s not exactly what I want to do. I wanted to be able to write whatever I wanted.

For a while I did. I started a story. Then, I thought about all the stories that showed my idea, like the story of Zeus and Cronus, of Ruby Bridges, and other stories where characters had persistence and believed in the impossible.

It happened for me, too. In Opal 3, when we learned about the brain, I realized that when you work on a problem longer, your brain grows. If we got used to having challenges, our brains would grow to the size of elephants. I think my brain is growing. If we get comfortable with things being hard, we could get smarter. It helps to look inside your problem. It works! Something like this happened to me last weekend.

I woke up one Saturday, all groggy and tired. I went downstairs and my mom jumped out…I was so tired, I wasn’t even surprised. She said, “Pack your bags, buddy. We’re going to the march!” Wait, wait wait, go all the way back. I remembered that my dad said that we were going to go to this Women’s March on Saturday. So I said to my mom, “Oh yeah.” So we packed our bags. My mom couldn’t go because she had to go to work. But my dad and brother could go. So we got our scooters and set off to go to the Morrison Bridge. The wind was blowing in my face, and it woke me up out of my trance. Suddenly, I was there at the march!

There were SO many people, it felt like we were all trapped inside a little container, and we were all trying to get out. But, I felt a wonderful feeling, like we were all a family working together to fight for what we thought was right. It was really nice even though it was raining really hard. We marched for a long time, and then we went to the library. I was so grateful! With so many people working together, we believed that anything could happen if we all came together.

And in Opal 4, the children were challenged to give speeches responding to the questions, What is the governing structure you propose for Opal School that will give us the practice we need to contribute to healthy democracy? How is what we do here connected to what is going on in the world right now?  Alijah’s piece included these nuggets:

I wonder if Hitler and Trump were still kids now, and they were seeing all the things we’re seeing about race, I wonder if their opinions would change? I also wonder if they were in our class would they have more empathy?

I want a government where all of us – kids, teachers, and parents – can express their concerns. The concerns are listened to and everyone’s concerns are talked about and thought through. If more than two people disagree, their opinions would be listened to. They keep on working to find a solution that works for everyone. This is a government that makes sure that everyone has a voice and no one feels left out and there’s no one person in power. When there is balance in a system, it will work really well for everyone.

What do you read here that you recognize as “an act of freedom” – an anti-fascist effort?

How are you making your work with young children an anti-fascist act of freedom?

6 Comments

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  • I have the same wondering as Alijah about Trump as a child. What messages was he brought up believing about the world, and what was the role of empathy in his life? I wonder how much information was given to him about people outside of his community, and how much interaction he had with people from different cultural backgrounds, or different races and religions.
    I think a lot about the human condition, and what shapes and guides the decisions we make in life. A lot of my research points to the earliest years being the most formative in children’s lives in regard to how they view themselves and their place in this world. When I spend time with children cracking open words like “community” and “challenge”, what is revealed to me (and hopefully them) is how interconnected we all are. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the decisions we make for ourselves directly impact others around us, and the possibilities that open for us when we are flexible enough in our thinking to look beyond ourselves to see the needs of others, is what I hope to cultivate in myself and in the children I work with.

    Leslie Bachman Reply
    • Thanks for leaving these reflections, Leslie. I, too, wonder about the life-long implications of celebrating and understanding, from a very young age, the significance of holding agency and responsibility within a community rather than isolation and autonomy.

      Matt Karlsen Reply
  • I read your blog post last week Matt. Thank you for creating that. It was really heartening to read and made me feel really happy/comforted/safe that I work in an environment that is acknowledging the political climate swirling all around us. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I don’t want to be complicit (anymore) in normalizing the atrocities that are happening in our names as residents/citizens of this country.

    This quote from Ollie really resonated with me and made me feel less alone in my struggles:

    In Opal 3, when we learned about the brain, I realized that when you work on a problem longer, your brain grows. If we got used to having challenges, our brains would grow to the size of elephants. I think my brain is growing. If we get comfortable with things being hard, we could get smarter. It helps to look inside your problem. It works! Something like this happened to me last weekend.

    Thank you for this inspiration to not give in, be persistent and to find meaningful and creative ways to resist.

    Somya Singh Reply
    • Thanks for joining the conversation, Somya: To have the Portland Children’s Museum Director of Exhibits is a new experience – and a most welcome one. Yes, we all need to find ways to make our work meaningful and one where our brains are growing – and where we’re contributing to meaningful, brain-growing experiences for those around us.

      Matt Karlsen Reply
  • I read this post last week, Matt, and wanted to let it marinate for a while before commenting. I think that exploring these concepts and questioning our own leaders and our structures of democracy are fundamental acts of freedom, all of which we need to encourage in our youth and in ourselves. Furthermore, the students’ reflection on the childhoods of leaders who demonstrate a lack of empathy in their policies reminds me of the research that demonstrates the necessity of play to help develop empathy. I appreciate that these students at a young age are already connecting, at an intuitive level, their own experiences with play and empathy and the potential results of these engagements in their future lives.

    Emily Reply
    • Thanks for commenting, Emily. I think that our work is fundamentally anti-fascist for a multitude of reasons: it nurtures difference and non-conformity over standardization and compliance; it encourages speaking and listening; it prioritizes curiosity and the asking of questions; it situates knowledge as constructed. As you write, it encourages the reflection of both adults and children on our shared experience – and when reflecting on that experience the children show, in their words and actions, and its value.

      Matt Karlsen Reply

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