Sunday, 6 May 2018

Reggio in a Box

Reggio in a Box
Reflections on a visit to The Wonder of Learning; March 2015 

I took the MegaBus this March break with my thirteen year old daughter to New York City; while we were there, we were fortunate enough to have a tour of The Wonder of Learning exhibit from Reggio Emilia, located at Williamsburg Northside School in Brooklyn New York. I assured my daughter that this was important to me, and that she would find interest in the exhibit, which she did, and a guide obligingly arranged for us to join a group. During the previous ten years I had immersed myself in Reggio reading and groups in Ontario, and promoted aspects of the Reggio project to the best of my ability. Initially as my interest in Reggio surged I felt that I had found a structure within which to house the priorities that drive me, complete with concrete examples to look toward. Loris Malaguzzi’s Reggio philosophy is poetic, carried by robust metaphors and firmly grounded in contemporary educational theory. I have always been moved by the image of the first municipal school that he built with others in Reggio Emilia; bricks pulled by hand from the debris of the second world war to be used to form a place for children. My sentiments remain intact but I am all the same having hesitancies about aspects of the widespread Reggio embrace that seems to be taking place in North America. I primed myself with a re-reading of Richard Johnson’s essay “Colonialism and Cargo Cults in Early Childhood Education: Does Reggio Emilia really exist?” Johnson’s piece is a deep critique of Reggio with ambiguous conclusions but also frank recognition of the awe that Reggio seems to inspire. And I’ll come clean, I’ve heard myself describe it as “the closest thing to religion I have found”. 

Let’s just say that from the outset of the visit, I had an open mind but some questions all the same. I was curious to see how pedagogy would be curated; What would the exhibit look like? How would Reggio be packaged? Who would the audience be? How would this look to the uninitiated? 
Our visit began with practicalities; a meeting by the elevator to orient ourselves and go over basic protocol (Northside School is a functioning school), then a fire drill! Casual introductions follow, in my small group there is a woman who started a charter school and another who appeared to be involved with teacher training. The general discussion revolves around the work involved with systemic change needed to implement Reggio ideas into the public school system. Some of the discussion is positive, (the Mayor of New York had come to the opening and had recently provided substantial funding for early learning in NYC), and some of the talk was about challenges (how would they provide training for the teachers who would now be hired?). My daughter and I wander away to explore on our own and were able to allow broader impressions while quietly looking at the panels. The general aesthetic of the exhibit was familiar to anyone who has visited the Reggio Children website; it was well organized, tidy and presented information in a way that made sense. There were artifacts from the first Reggio exhibit “The Hundred Languages of Children” It had the solid look of a carefully prepared and well financed exhibit and one could almost see the numbered crates stowed away and ready to ship the exhibit to its next scheduled appointments; yes, the cargo. 

We let ourselves drift through the exhibit as we pleased, stopping if a panel held our attention. One of the first projects we spent time with was animated video documentation of a small group of boys creating clay hands that they were modelling after their own. They seemed comfortable with the technology, and skilled with the daughter commented on how lucky they were to have access to such a nice camera, and I noticed how adept they were at proportioning and fashioning the material, they’d had lots of previous “hand/eye” training I suppose. The Italian circus music was a lovely touch as well. 

I was pleased to see panels with work by pivotal contributors Gianni Rodari (author of “The Grammar of Fantasy”), and artist Alberto Burri. Rodari’s progressive notions of language and writing, and Burri’s materialist work (“alphabet of gestures”) seem to me to formative pieces of the Reggio project as we know it today. And here is where I risk (perhaps invite) rebuke from the Ranks: while Rodari and Burri’s work strikes me as foundational, some of the writing that now seeks to define Reggio today strikes me as reiterative...rooted in familiarity, but perhaps more problematic, striving with great desire for legitimacy. As we exited the Light and Shadows Atelier, our guide pointed out a list of curricular expectations that can be met by children who are working in the atelier. This organization of creative experience is part of the process of assimilation, of becoming a norm, but what is lost in that process? What of that utopian ideal? A couple of days after the visit I read of the migration of a group of experimental writers (Oulipo) from outliers to core curriculum in “Oulipo- A Primer of Potential Literature” by Warren Motte, and the characterization of that transformation seems applicable as well to Reggio. Noel Arnaud writes, “It’s physiognomy is changing as pedagogy installs itself in it’s veins. It’s personality is dissolving”. I understand how we need to structure and codify information in order to apprehend it and generate practical strategies; Elliot Eisner provides a handily succinct description of curriculum as: “ a useful organizing principle”.

Reggio has a number of codified precepts, (including Documentation, Relationship, Child as Collaborator, Environment as Third Teacher; Co-Construction of Knowledge...), and these are the building blocks of Reggio practice; they are becoming familiar, we speak of them with increasing ease and use them to the advantage of children. I think it is important as well to remember the initial bricks that were picked from the ground in Reggio Emilia;"they said it was never easy". That struggle is important to remember, because for many of us, while Reggio should be a “practical ideal”; it often appears as a glimmering mirage, packed into a box to tour the world.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Invisible Atelierista intro

I'm a teacher and I'll try to stay out of the way as much as possible. In his book Inventing Kindergarten Norman Brosterman reminds us about the underpinnings of education...
“Kindergarten was play, and a good Kindergarten teacher made certain her little sprouts never thought otherwise-the theoretical underpinnings of the education were kept from children just as they are in any classroom situation.”

A teaching role at the core of the Italian Reggio Emilia approach, this is a position that extends the art teacher’s activities beyond supplying materials and demonstrating techniques. The Atelierista is a researcher who pays attention to contemporary issues, striving to bring a unique perspective to school, while thoughtfully accompanying children and adults in the creative processes of learning together.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

One Thing Leads To Another

One Thing Leads To Another- Thoughts on an Embodied Alphabet

For a time, our eleven year old daughter was coming home from school with the surface of her arms fairly covered with notes that she had written using pen and marker. In terms of body modifications, we didn’t really have concerns but wondered what was going on and she explained that she “didn’t have a notebook”. While she was purposefully nonchalant, I sensed at the time there was more to it and saw the textual decoration as a sort of performance art. Upon reflection, it coincided with a period of deepening commitment and enthusiasm for writing, as though my daughter and language were fusing.

I’ll use the metaphor of “grip” to help describe my own enduring fascination with language; it’s a literary device that can function on a number of various, immediate levels. I use language to reach for, apprehend, and to hang onto ideas. After nearly a decade and a half of friendship with Grant Collins, I resolve to use writing to investigate the meaning(s) of a tattoo embedded in his skin. It is the entire alphabet A to N on his right arm and O to Z on the left. The recording of our cafe conversation about the tattoo unfolds, beginning with an agreement that any attempt to pin language down is a conundrum, and a sort of feedback loop that never closes or ends. Nevertheless, we start with an origins story of his tattoo (an idea that never went away); then consider the particularities of font (somewhat regrettable) and placement (noting ass cheeks or ankles would have made it a different tattoo entirely). Eventually we allow ourselves to venture further into conceptual and existential territories that only a person with the alphabet tattooed on his body can guide us toward.

While the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet are a convention that is shared around the world, the tale of Grant’s tattoo is personal. He commissioned it when he was in his early twenties; in Bernhard Modern (a serif font he feels has not aged well and may not have chosen if given a second chance). The notion of this tattoo had come to him while walking and talking casually with friends, mentioning it almost as a joke. Grant kept it to himself after that though, knowing it was interesting but not fully understanding why. The impulse remained and he was fixated with the idea. A year or so later he carefully planned it out on paper and allowed it to happen, as a way of creating a sort of “constellation” with his father who had recently died.

This was to be a sort of universal tattoo. Rather than any one specific image, with those twenty-six letters “you’ve got every tattoo under the sun”...a kind of do-it-yourself, synecdochical tattoo in which the parts provide immediate access to the greater whole. The alphabet is after all, uniquely human. It is a primary matrix of abstract symbols that we use to generate codes of meaning…and all the while, our language is inextricably rooted in our bodily existence. Everything written or spoken is predicated in some way on an experience that your have had in your body. The letters on Grant’s arms extend ever so slightly below a short sleeve on each upper arm, “You’ve got your body, you’ve got your words, and that’s you”, Grant tells me as the cafe sounds surround us. Grant has literally (letter-really) composed himself within the alphabet and he explains that between each half is his “lifeblood...separated in the middle by me, by my heart”. We are enmeshed in the alphabet.

We perceive and think about the world instantaneously but for some of us, language is not in fact our best way of being. It is not our comfort zone, we might say. Grant explains that his father for instance,was a “man of feeling”, and that “you could tell there was a lot of thought going on in his head”, but eloquence was not his forte. His father didn’t exist “ was definitely in experience”. Yet we must all reside in language to some degree, however uncomfortably it inhabits us. We use language to organize and express our thoughts and feelings meaningfully, each with slight, or pronounced differences; it is what simply makes us human.   

Our discussion wanders, as cafe conversations do, skipping along through inter-species communication, (how to describe the intelligence of a chicken?), and the limits of our knowledge. This is like “stoner talk” Grant says as I wonder, if a bear looks at Grant’s alphabet, will his only reading be to want to eat his arms? But then we return to the very puzzle of language; that it is a thing that both in, and of the human body. “I’m a very corporeal person and I live in my body”, says Grant “... but the mind is this thing that we’ve got that’s always working as well...I don’t understand that relationship with my body”. I’m projecting my own concerns with language now, embodied and evolutionary, and my interest in how humans have evolved, creating tools and language concurrently. Grant’s tattoo is like a tool, one that functions as fulcrum upon which hinges our recursive curiosity. His body bears the weight of this metaphor well; arms cantilevering toward hands that allow him to reach outward and apprehend the world. We finish up, and emerge from time spent deep in talk. My friend speaks happily of an upcoming rock climbing trip he will take. I think of him using his alphabet arms, clinging with both precision and power to the vertical face of the cliff. Language is both physical and mental; in Grant’s case, and for all of us, it is best kept within arms length.

Aaron Senitt, Guelph, January 2017

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

What is up with that?

This is a phrase (SUP' WID DAT?) that I saw on a bumper sticker. I liked how neatly the letters in the phrase divided into a simple 3x3 matrix. This small construction (7.5x7.5x3) is made from builders foam, wall filler and enamel paint.(1996 ish)

A friend tells a story about his three year old, whose words were written on a boulder with grease pencil: "gwab dat". 

Imagining this rock with text on it summarizes a dilemma of language for me; we try to get a handle on it and pocket it for our own use, but it's all too often unmanageable. 

More Echoes. (Second verse, sort of like the first).

I like to listen for turns of phrase, vernacular utterances that hold place while expressing some kind of wisdom about the world. The first line of this piece was mentioned by a man I worked with in a woodshop in Dawson city (1994). He may have been referring to my inablilty to cut wood to consistent lengths, I can't remember, but as he said it, I jotted it down with a marker on a wood scrap (below) let it turn in my mind a couple of times...then once more to make a point.

It seems it occupied a place in mind for my friend Ian as, years later the phrase echoes as title story in his recent collection of short stories. It really isn't the same, ever.

This poster (below) was in that woodshop as well. I recreated as a piece of art and it initiated a minor interest in symmetrical phrases; I keep finding and losing the name of this literary format. The structure of language has a meaning that is both connected to, and above and beyond the meaning of the words that are used. 

Echo of an Image

This is an image that has been following me for over 15 years...I use it as a sort of trademark in the classroom and it continues to find new forms. It a has been variously a rubber stamp, drawing and painting. Sometimes I quickly draw a version to use on correspondence. 
It has become an ageless, shorthand self-portrait.

Friday, 11 March 2016


I have been thinking, in a worried way, what it would (will eventually) be like to lose language. Here are two example of lost language; the first I have previously shared is a Large Carved R that has returned to the earth. The second, a book found, ironically in the middle of College Ave., titled What Words Mean. What are we left with?