Thursday, January 18, 2018

Four Years Later: Reflections on 2013 Museums Study Tour to Reggio

Ray of Light Studios continue to inspire
In November 2013, 50 participants from 11 museums with partners from higher ed, libraries, community organizations, early childhood, and preschools traveled to Reggio Emilia in northern Italy for a study tour of the city’s schools. Over the course of a week, the group was immersed in the pedagogy of the municipal schools with presentations by early childhood specialists, educators, and studio teachers; visits to infant-toddler centers and preschools; and tours of documentation and recycle centers.

Returning from the November 2013 Museums Study Tour Reggio participants shared their experiences with colleagues and area teachers. One group of participants organized a full day pre-conference for InterActivity 2014 in Phoenix. Attended by more than 30 the conference was followed by a set of articles, Adopting/Adapting: Reggio in Children’s Museums, in the spring 2014 issue of Hand To Hand.

Since then participants have been active in exploring these ideas more deeply, engaging in and adapting Reggio-inspired practice to museum and school settings. Work ranges from events with visibility like Tacoma Children’s Museum’s annual co-sponsorship of Symposium on Our Youngest Citizens to personal acts of rereading notebooks and journals from the weeklong visit. In some of the groups such as South Dakota Children’s Museum and Opal School, Reggio practices are foundational, embedded into the work, and supported by the shared experience of several study tour participants. In other cases individuals intently and patiently have looked for opportunities to weave these ideas into existing “duties as assigned.”  

Our group: November 2013
Recently I proposed to the study tour participants that we look back at this remarkable opportunity and share our reflections with one another. A dozen study tour participants, approximately one-quarter of the group, wrote and talked about their experience in Reggio and its presence in their work now. A continuing energy and appreciation for the roomy ideas we were able to explore comes through all of the reflections. The opportunity to visit schools, observe children, and listen to seasoned Reggio educators over the week added depth and dimension to understanding this complex pedagogy and increased awareness of the rigor that guides it. Moments stand out, shifting perspectives on existing practice were noted, and new questions have emerged. Yet, these reflections also indicate the challenging, on-going, and some times lonely nature of this work, work variously described as a life-long journey and a struggle to weave learning from Reggio into daily work.

As I reflected on connections between the study tour and what these participants have been doing, thinking, and wondering about, several threads emerged. They are, hopefully, invitations to further reflections, questions, and explorations.

•                Moments from the 2013 study tour still stand out vividly 4 years later. Illuminated moments around the relationship between aesthetics and ethics; children as citizens now; and the child’s agency have become touchstones and provocations for continued thinking and further exploration.  

•          Consistent with Reggio philosophy, relationship and collaboration characterize on-going work among study tour participants. Participants were encouraged to apply with museum, school, or community colleagues and many pairs and groups did so. Hence, it’s not surprising that relationships among participants have grown and are active. Less predictable, however, is that the study tour group has become a kind of Reggio-inspired network for its participants, building on pre-existing relationships, strengthening connections, and offering new associations. 

Adapting Reggio to the museum: from the final reflection
•                The complexity of Reggio ideas combined with the challenge of translating them into new contexts invites collaboration around projects. Appreciation of the challenge of translating practices into another culture and contexts in meaningful ways is very apparent. This challenge points to the importance, or perhaps necessity, of thinking together about these rich, complex ideas. Projects have been instrumental in adapting Reggio ideas and practices to other settings.

•                Four years after the study tour, the hopes and possibilities of Reggio-inspired connections, conversations, small experiments, and projects are coming to fruition in some of our museums and schools. This is encouraging in several ways. In museums such a time frame is typical, even short, for major projects, re-imagining a museum, or changing course. Learning, adapting, and meaningful change take time. Undoubtedly, promising connections and new projects that will emerge in perhaps 4-5 years are incubating now.

Looking Back
Four years after the museums study tour, 16 years after my first study tour, and 24+ years after first being introduced to Reggio, I am as drawn to the question of how one transforms thinking and practice as I am to the hardworking principles of Reggio pedagogy itself. The principles of the child as a born thinker, doer, and planner; the 100 Languages of children (or learning); the environment as the third teacher; and the role of pedagogical documentation continue to be compelling. They bring an aesthetic to thinking and learning that is powerful. I am keen to explore these ideas with others more knowledgeable than I am and I want to share them with others who indicate the slightest interest in related ideas such as exploring materials, asking new questions, or children as citizens.

Because I don’t work in a museum, school, or a firm with others, I have “borrowed” the participants on the 2013 study tour and their museums, schools, and firms to serve as a kind of community of learners for me. I check in on-line, meet-up at conferences, and stay in touch via email with these colleagues. I follow activities like the Children’s Museum of Tacoma’s annual Symposium on Our Youngest Citizens and read the Opal School blog. Opal’s thoughtful posts help shape an image for me of a culture of following ideas and connections and creating movement in thinking for children and teachers.

Diving into these ideas in various ways–through reading, writing, and talking; trying out small experiments; and folding them into my museum planning practice–keeps them present, active, and evolving. Members of the local MN Reggio-inspired network are a great source of Reggio-inspired, related, and connected blogs that are local, national, and international. Exploring Reggio-inspired ideas on my Museum Notes blog pushes me to dig into, unpack, and rethink documentation, the image of the child, the environment as teacher, learning together, etc.

New Starting Points
Strong, capable agents in
thinking, doing, and connecting
My planning work with museums most readily lends itself to advancing an image of the child as strong, capable, and an active agent in their thinking and learning. While not an easy shift from how we as a culture view children, I have found this to be an accessible entry point for a team or museum. It does not require a deep understanding or commitment to the Reggio pedagogy yet it goes to the core of a transformative view of children. It also resonates personally with a desire in each of us to be viewed as capable and appreciated for our strengths. This can lower resistance to a new idea.

With an image of the “rich” child as an organizational value, at the center of learning frameworks, or in experience planning, a museum is poised to make a fundamental shift. Here is an opening for other practices, perhaps developing a shared vocabulary around the strong child, the possibility of a child-driven experience planning process, or the use of documentation to make thinking visible. It may prompt new questions about children’s–and adults’–capabilities and how parents, caregivers, and staff can support, extend, and deepen explorations.

Along with this work, a few museum planning projects have offered opportunities to explore Reggio ideas in the context of museums with like-minded colleagues. Time together with Maeryta Medrano and Julia Bland on the study tour further inspired and grounded approaches to exhibit design, caregiver engagement, graphics and text for the “new” Louisiana Children’s Museum. In a collaborative project between Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Reggio-inspired Network of MN, teachers, parents, and caregivers documented children’s questions and thinking about places that make up communities as part of the redesign of MCM’s Our World gallery.   

Reflections from Reggio
I am fortunate that the Twin Cities has an active, robust Reggio-inspired network I can draw on in this work. Since its founding in 2000, the Network has grown and now offers varied entry points and activities, encouraging self-forming groups: monthly materials explorations, a book study group, and documentation lab. A group around big body play is active. 

Most weeks I am able to join 2 Reggio-inspired educators who encourage and challenge me with their reading, questions, and ideas. For the last 15 months we have been reading from the Contesting Early Childhood series by Routledge. We think together about the conditions that encourage the dispositions in educators and policy makers to be open, creative, and reflective. Often in these moments I am able to glimpse how the rich, hardworking ideas I have found in Reggio interact and take hold with the power to transform. 

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