I write this post from Reggio Emilia, where four of us from the Portland Children’s Museum (Beginning School Lead Teacher and one of Opal School’s founders Caroline Wolfe, Opal School Director Tara Papandrew, and PCM Executive Director Ruth Shelly) are participating in a study group. One of the three themes identified by the facilitators, museum planner Jeanne Vergeront and Project Zero’s Ben Mardell, is Engaging parents and community around seeing children as full of capabilities and ideas and as citizens (Jeanne has been posting about this topic on her blog.) I was especially energized by this topic. How can a city embrace and spotlight children’s thinking? What would it do to a city’s culture if children’s experiences were visible and their offerings were fully integrated into the civic project?
Arriving in Reggio by train, children’s expressions are immediately visible. In the walk- (and bike-) way from the station to the city is an installation of fantastical bikes created by toddlers, pre-primary and elementary aged children, teens, and adults. The giant panels showing their work are accompanied by text, capturing thoughts of the children next to more famous philosophers and artists. I was intrigued by the way in which these thoughts are posted in multiple languages: Rather than the approach I was used to of having the same words translated in several languages, each thought was presented in a single language. Perhaps, one of our fellow travelers suggested, this suggested not only the multiplicity of stories and perspectives present in the city but demanded the kind of border crossing necessary to learn those stories: One might have to ask an unfamiliar neighbor to translate the panel in order to understand it. Uniting two people across cultures is an important act of citizenship: this installation was a clear response to our study group’s investigation.
The Loris Malaguzzi International Centre, where our study group is meeting, is a shrine to Engaging parents and community around seeing children as full of capabilities and ideas and as citizens. Through documentation, the stories children have lived, their unique ways of coming together and identifying and solving problems, and their creative expressions are detailed as gifts the world needs. In the atelier, children and older community members can come together and use the hundred languages to discover things about each other and the world. The institute provokes new ways of thinking about teaching and learning: It stands apart in the world as a place to come together and think big about what is and what can be.
Outside of the train station walkway and the Malaguzzi Centre, though, I’ve been a little surprised: I haven’t seen any visible evidence of children’s thinking. This may be because of the time of year we’re visiting: Perhaps if we came in the spring, projects developed in the schools over the year would begin to show themselves in the pedestrian walkways and parks. We’re only two days into the trip, so I’m going to keep looking – but I am surprised by how this contrasts with what I had expected to be a city built around this experience. When on a walking tour the night of our arrival, someone asked a member about the nature of the group. When she answered, he was bewildered – he had no idea that his city was know for its approach to pre-primary education. If visiting any other place in the world, I wouldn’t even notice this absence – but it clashes with what I had expected.
Outside the walls of PCM, it’s hard to see the work of Opal School students; when participants in our workshops come to Portland and tell Portlanders why they’re in town, most wouldn’t know about the Opal School or the Museum Center for Learning. How might we enhance the visibility of children’s thinking in a way that supports their full citizenship and extends the image of the child? How are you doing so in your setting?