Last week, Teacher Tom posted this article about climbing. In it, he shares photos of some of the amazing climbing contraptions that his students build in their outdoor play space. Some of them took my breath away; a plank balanced on a swing – wow! Now there’s something that could cost a public school teacher her job! Looking at that picture, I find myself feeling equal parts jealousy and awe. It takes a lot of courage and trust on the part of any teacher or parent to let children explore the environment and materials to that extent. Chutzpah… serious chutzpah.
While I do plenty of things that may make other people shake their heads, I’m not in that league, much as I admire it.
This puzzling over my own comparative cowardice led me to think about how the work done in Reggio Emilia during the last 60-odd years gets translated as it moves around the world. How many times have I heard teachers talk about “doing Reggio” as though putting coloured water in glass jars will somehow transform their pedagogy? My wonderings brought me back to Jerome Bruner who discusses the value of locality in the schools of Reggio Emilia. He writes that:
The idea of locality and a sense of local identity are absolutely essential. This is the heart of the Reggio model, it is the model of living within your locality and being conscious of your local tradition. This does not mean that you need to ignore what is universal about mankind. The great task is to translate the local into the universal, and the translation of universals into local use. Politics is local, morality is local, knowledge is local, meaning is local. The process of making these local matters into universals is a process of negotiating.
To be ourselves we must first be local: Reggiani, Modenesi, Bolognesi, Londoners, New Yorkers. It is a sense of our locality that helps us to appreciate the universal. This is what the Reggio schools help children to do – to see the universal in the local. That is how we can become ‘global’ without losing our sense of our own local identity. And that is what Reggio stands for. The ‘Reggio idea’ is a local idea. Yet, what is so striking about it is that is has inspired an international movement. Its international message is that you must take your local task seriously. (Bruner, 2000, p. 12)”
One of the things I struggle with as a public school teacher is how to reconcile the necessities of my job with my ideals. There is a creative pragmatism that grows out of this wrestling. Sure, kids can probably climb our chain-link fences safely, but we have a school rule against that and, if I want to have the relationship collateral with my administrators and custodian that I’ll need to embark on my next slightly insane art project, I might have to scale back the climbing a bit. Please take a moment here and imagine what it’s like to be the custodian in any school I’m working in… exactly.
So how do we translate those global Reggio ideas into a local context that not only has pretty strict rules about safety but also a mandated curriculum? Maybe it has something to do with pushing just to the edge of those structures, to see how far they will stretch. In the dance world we have this notion of structured improvisation – two terms that seem at odds with each other but that, in practice, work beautifully together. You can sketch the outlines of a dance – first we enter one at a time, then we move forward and backward, then into pair work and then we exit one by one until only one dancer remains on stage – without actually deciding in advance what you’ll be doing in those moments. Structure without choreography. You can push right to the edge of chaos without going over, hovering there on the precipice with your arms circling.
That’s what my locality feels like to me, exploring the tension between child-led pedagogy and curriculum, between risk and safety, between climbing and falling. Sometimes it’s about letting them climb the stump instead of the fence.