Culture Makers + Word Breakers
The language we choose in our teaching changes the worlds children inhabit now and those they will build in the future. — Peter Johnston, Opening Minds
At Opal School, the words we choose matter to us, and they are noticed as being distinctive by others. During a recent Q&A session with educators from another school district, I was talking about how we supported a child with strong emotional reactions by contrasting what’s a big deal and what’s a little deal.
As my response tapered, one of the visiting teachers jumped in. She heard consistent language among the grade levels when she was observing in the classrooms. She asked, Where did it come from? She was eager to know the source, the person or curriculum that determined the words we use. I heard her asking me to name the single genesis and wondered how to make evident the many ways that we build our ideas and construct our language together.
Right after this conversation, I had one of those mornings: My boys and I had a really hard time getting ready for school. There was crying and yelling and a lot of frustration. Eventually we left home and I took a few deep breaths. Then I reflected back what I noticed and offered a wondering: What strategies do you want to try tomorrow so we don’t have so much conflict? At dinner tonight, let’s brainstorm some ideas and then tomorrow we can give it a go.
As my message was hanging in the air, I thought about the visiting teacher’s question and my own language: I notice … I wonder … strategies … give it a go. All of these ideas were birthed in or fortified by my Opal experience. Why did I choose these words? Because they best captured my thinking? Because I knew that they held meaning for my children? Loris Malaguzzi reminds us that when we enter the classroom, we carry with us pieces from our lives — our ideas, experiences and stories. School is where we learn to live, there is no separation from our life outside of it.
In Cedar, one of the ways that we play with children is by playing with ideas together, like cracking open words as a learning community. We believe there’s a world within a word, and we invite the children to find themselves within these word-worlds. It requires intention, time and openness. And it offers another chance to practice listening, empathy and understanding. The process of cracking open words and the outcome, a growing web of shared language, strengthens the children’s sense of agency and belonging. It demonstrates how teachers are not transmitters of information and children are not consumers of it. At an early age, these children know they are culture makers.
[The aesthetic dimension] is a process of empathy relating the self to things and things to each other … it is an aspiration to quality that makes us choose one word over another, a color or shade, a certain piece of music, a mathematical formula or the taste of food … It is an attitude of care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and wonder; it is the opposite of indifference and carelessness, of conformity, of absence of participation and feeling … ” — Vea Vecchi, Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia
We’ve been thinking about the children within the context of our big idea of transformation. We continue to wonder about their experiences with risk-taking. We’ve noticed that many children are reluctant to try a new material or play with a new friend. They seem too cozy in their comfort zone and very hesitant to venture into the space between their comfort and danger zones, where we know disequilibrium and real learning happens. When we hear them bump into the false dichotomy between easy and hard, as they did when they were playing with wire, they usually choose what they think will be easy.
We wonder, what is the source of their resistance: Is it fear that prevents them from taking a chance? Are they unfamiliar with the habit of persistence? What are their prior experiences with failure? What is their understanding of their own resilience? And what is their connection to the word, “challenge?”
After the children had found themselves side-by-side with a variety of challenges, Caroline and I decided to name it for them so we could begin to unpack this word together, through lots of play and reflection. One day at Morning Meeting, we asked them, “What do you already know about the word, challenge?” A few of the children’s responses included:
Mason: It means the best thing, like if you’re playing football and you win, like the Seahawks.
Alex: Challenge is when there’s something you want to do with another person.
Maylin: It also means you’re working hard at something but it doesn’t really work the way you want it to.
Yuri: Like doing lots of races. My mom did two of them, running races.
Lila: When you’re challenged, you can learn!
Overall, we noticed they were primarily connecting with one kind of challenge (physical) and we wanted them to know and love other kinds, like brain challenges and heart challenges. We wanted them to start paying attention to what happens inside their bodies during a challenge so they could begin to uncover strategies that might support their next encounter with one.
Before they began Explore, we asked: How can you build something with small blocks that is taller than you and sturdy enough not to fall down? And which friends or materials will you play with today that might stretch your thinking?
This a snippet from our Reflection Meeting, when we asked them to zoom in on the idea of challenge:
Maylin: The challenge for me, I discovered, was with the numbers.
Alex: What I learned about challenge is I had to work so long at the making book challenge and it made me happy. And I finished it!
Ian: I builded with so much little blocks, and it got taller than me. When I was about to put the last block on top, it just fell down. When I was right about to put that on. It was surprising.
Caroline: Did anyone have a challenge that didn’t make you happy?
Ian: When my tower fell down it makes me sad.
Zealand: When I was doing the blocks, when it almost fell, it almost makes me sad. And when Teo came, it almost fell when he was talking loud. When I kicked it down, one block got lost and it made me sad.
Reece: The first block I made fell down, but the next one I made was sturdy.
Caroline: When yours fell down, how did you feel?
Reece: I felt happy when it was sturdy and it didn’t fall down.
Caroline: What did you tell your brain after the first time it fell down?
Reece: Just try again. And I tried again with the brown blocks to make it sturdier.
Our experiences playing with materials and friends support us to make meaning of our words and our world. In Cedar, we talk about the pictures in our minds in order to understand our own and each other’s thinking, and to socially construct new ideas and theories. Just like we are growing through interactions, the meaning of our words are evolving through dialogue.
It is through others that we develop into ourselves. — Lev Vygotsky
And it is through others that we develop as a school. This project called Opal School, is an open-system grounded in values and beliefs about what it means to be human. We are co-creating our school culture each day — the children and the adults — in part by inviting and nurturing language that grows from our shared experiences, and creating its purpose and meaning together. We know that language is one of the ways that we contribute to our community, and it lives at the heart of our work.
School is a place where we learn how to be citizens. When children are connected to others, they feel heard and know that their words matters. They use their voices to shape the experiences in and the ideas of the learning community. And right now, we need engaged citizens of all ages who know the power of their words and have the courage to use them for the well-being of our democracy and our planet.
Dear reader, I wonder:
What are your stories connected to shared language and a sense of belonging?
What is the tension between co-constructing the meaning of words (or ideas) and living in a democracy?
When are you careful about using language to express your beliefs to others, and when have you been surprised by the beliefs that your language is revealing to you?
What might happen when all citizens, every child and every adult, see themselves as culture makers?