A child scribbles a spiral on a piece of paper. What should a teacher say in response?
One answer: “Lovely.”
Why? To encourage the child to keep drawing, because it’s by doing more drawing that a child gets to explore art and the horizons of his or her talent.
That’s one of the many stories, insights, and ideas that educators will find at the multimedia exhibit “Wonder of Learning,” which is being hosted by the recently merged Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
Wonder of Learning shares the Reggio Emilia approach, a philosophy of early learning — named after the Italian town Reggio Emilia — that challenges educators to understand how their “image of a child” affects how they teach and interact with that child.
“It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent, that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests,” Reggio Emilia’s founder, Loris Malaguzzi, said at a 1993 seminar. “This is the image of the child that we need to hold.”
Based on that idea, the exhibit offers educators inspiration as well as new techniques that they can use in their classrooms.
To kick off the exhibit, Boston University/Wheelock hosted an event for stakeholders and policymakers that drew 150 people. They heard panel discussions and viewed parts of the 7,000 square foot exhibit, which is mounted in buildings across BU/Wheelock’s Riverway campus. Using “images and text, interactive multimedia, handmade artifacts, and publications, the exhibition explores how teachers and students work together to construct knowledge around compelling projects,” the exhibit’s website says.
“One time is not enough,” BU/Wheelock professor Eleonora Villegas-Reimers wisely told the audience about seeing the exhibit. To absorb everything, they would have to come multiple times.
The exhibit’s themes include:
• ideas and projects
• enchantment of writing
• dialogues with places, and
• dialogues with material
“Storytelling is like traveling,” one exhibit sign explains. There’s also a description printed on a large card of an activity that invites children to explore photography. Another card explores a ladybug’s travel in the real world — and the virtual one.
Another exhibit description shares how children walked through familiar streets taking on the role of careful observers so that they could write a guide to the city. “As they do this they open insights for us into their strategies, creativity, and imagination. And even though it is only for one day, the laughter, joking, and imagination in their eyes point the way for our eyes to see and be amazed.”
During a welcoming panel discussion, Kelly Pellegrini, vice president of the board of the Boston Area Reggio Inspired Network, told the audience that, “This exhibit has profound implications for our practice,” explaining that early educators need good models of birth-to-five education programs.
“My hope is that with this exhibit we can expose as many people as possible to the potential of children,” Mary Churchill said. She’s the associate dean of the Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. “To do that we need to dream, and we need to be filled with wonder.”
Megina Baker, an early childhood instructor at Boston University/Wheelock and a researcher at Harvard’s Project Zero, shared some of the history of the Reggio Emilia approach, explaining that it was developed after World War II using taxpayer dollars. A key part of the Reggio practice: documenting the ideas and work of children.
“Oh, you’re here to see our excellent schools,” a taxi driver in Reggio Emilia guessed about Jane Lannak in the 1990s when she visited the program in Italy. Lannak, the director of Boston University and Wheelock’s Early Learning Lab, asked if the taxi driver had children in the program? No, he said, “But we all know our schools.” The entire community was invested in the education of young children.
“We are asking you today to think about the image of a child who is curious, intelligent, and energized,” Stephanie Cox-Suarez, a BU/Wheelock education professor, said. “What do we need in our policies to reinforce this image of a child?”
During a session called “Ignite Talks,” five panelists spoke, offering advice and examples of Reggio Emilia-inspired approaches.
Carlene Sherbourne, Amy O’Leary, Marina Boni, Jeri Robinson, Tania Quezada, and Natacha Shillingford
“We give children the opportunity to do things that worksheets can’t teach them,” Jeri Robinson, vice president of Early Childhood Initiatives at the Boston Children’s Museum said. The museum’s space lets parents and children play together differently than they do at home. From the museum’s three-story climbing structure to its construction zone, children get to do new things and parents get to see strengths and interests that they didn’t know their children had.
“Kids have to think deeply about fairness,” Marina Boni, the Boston Public Schools early childhood mentor, said as she described Our Boston, a project in which the mayor writes to children and asks them to design projects that would make Boston fairer and more interesting to children.
“How many of our communities know we exist?” Carlene Sherbourne of Worcester Head Start asked the audience. “We have to commit to making sure our communities know who we are.” And then educators have to challenge communities to think about how they can support children.
“We cannot assume we know what the workforce needs,” Tania Quezada of Ready to Learn Providence, said explaining that in the past, Spanish-speaking child care providers in Providence would attend English-only training sessions and nod their heads even though they didn’t understand what was being said. Today, training opportunities are more inclusive — and that’s crucial, Quezada says, because “all learning begins with adults.”
“You did this for my baby?” That’s what a parent said to Natacha Shillingford as she was setting up at the Reggio Emilia-inspired Epiphany Early Learning Center in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. That parent cried because “she could not believe that someone cared enough about her and her baby to want the best for them.”
“First we have to believe that children are competent and capable,” Amy O’Leary, the director of Strategies for Children’s Early Education for All campaign, said. And, “You have to believe that you are capable and competent, too.”
More ideas were showed in breakout sessions. One suggestion: put part of the “Wonder of Learning” exhibit in the subway or other public spaces where more people could see it. One breakout group discussed the power of small moments, noting that while it can feel hard to change an entire school or center, a teacher could take a small, sustainable step by making a change in a lesson or classroom. Two other suggestions: Infuse joy back into the conversation about early education, and support teachers who try new ideas and approaches.
What policy changes are needed? Raising early educators’ salaries, increasing funding, protecting the mixed delivery system, including more Reggio Emilia-inspired concepts in quality rating systems, and using short videos to inform legislators.
Among the policymakers who attended the event where State Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) and Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) as well as a staffer from the office of Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley). In the afternoon, the speakers included Tom Weber, commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care, and Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Department of Higher Education.
To learn more, check out the social media posts by Googling #WOLBoston and @wonderoflearningboston.
And please go see the exhibit. It will be at Boston University/Wheelock until November 15, 2018. Be sure to take your friends and colleagues so that you can talk about what you see — and what that could mean for children.