This was one of the first provocations that emerged from our morning conversations at the Loris Malaguzzi Center on that very first day in Reggio Emilia: How might we help learners create compositions that depend less on the hand and more on the power of conceptual understanding?
Composition: The word and how they used it struck me. Like so many others, it assumed a richer and far more complex meaning in that space. I know that when writing teachers refer to composition, they’re typically referring to print. But in Reggio Emilia, a composition is an arrangement of diverse materials that communicates a message with purpose and intention.
Consider the photographs of the compositions that follow. What could learners be communicating in each?
Consider the paper composition, individually. Which element of it describes the day you’re having?
How might you use three different elements to share a fact about something important that you’ve learned about human nature this week?
How might the learners that you support use materials like these (or others) to construct and share meaning?
It all looks so intriguing, I know. It also looks kinda messy and unpredictable and like a whole lot of prep work. Some of you might be wondering how high quality learning emerges from any of this.
And I used to wonder, too.
Then, I began offering writers the opportunity to create and communicate using a wide variety of languages. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio Emilia, named them the 100 Languages.
He wasn’t referring to Spanish or French or Mandarin, and neither am I. I’m referring to PlayDoh, LEGO, and paint. And chalk and caulk and blocks and buttons. And lots of other stuff: loose parts and light and laughter. Dance and drama and decoupage.
I know that there are so many ways to make and share knowledge, and context is everything. I was reminded it of this on my first day in Reggio.
“The responsibility of the adult is not to direct, but to create intelligent contexts for learning,” they said.
“Learning is not an accumulation of knowledge, but a construction of meaning. Learning is awareness, emotion, subjectivity, ethics, and aesthetics,” they said.
“Every engagement invites us to re-describe our experiences, the concepts we’ve learned, and our feelings about them. Knowledge isn’t something we’re given once forever. It is constantly reformed,” they said.
And I found myself wondering all over again: What happens to the complexity of ideas when we restrict the languages we allow learners to use, particularly those who have limited print power?
Also: How many teachers make inaccurate assessments of young writers simply because they are thinkers who struggle with print?
I won’t pretend to have the answers to those questions, but experience has taught me that when I offer writers a multitude of languages before expecting them to use print, what emerges is often far more sophisticated. And when I invite them to share that work, their audiences are far more compelled by it. These experiences elevate the quality of the print that eventually emerges as well.
This is why I find it important to help learners create compositions that depend “less on the hand and more on the power of conceptual understandings,” as my Reggio teachers advised me. But how might we do that?
These were three of my greatest observations:
1. Invite learners to create and express their ideas use diverse languages, rather than reducing composition to print. Be thoughtful about the languages you offer. Consider the dialogue that might emerge inside of the spaces where they combine. What could learners use from mixing, remixing, and experimenting with these languages? Expect them to explain the intentions behind their design. “We’re not interested in making children artists,” they said. “But instead, in respecting the fact that they are inherently creative. In the arts, we find spaces for greater thinking. Art doesn’t account the obvious.”
2. Provoke subjectivity. “Learners are subjects, and they bring their own subjectivities to an experience,” they said. Humans are subjects, but so is light. So is clay. So are trees. Bicycles have their own subjectivity. So do clouds. What does this mean? It means that when humans “dialogue” with other subjects, new learning and ideas emerge. These experiences rely on conceptual understandings, and when we challenge learners to describe them, they often use metaphor, simile, and personification to do so. That’s the thing about surfacing the unexpected: we often don’t have words for it. This elevates our thinking and pushes us to communicate in ways that are far more complex.
3. Create time and make space for exhibition. Expect learners to share their compositions. Don’t simply design displays, though. Create invention tables. Here, children add their compositions to a collective before adding labels, descriptions, or inferences on sticky notes or index cards or random slips of paper. Each addition to the collection adds nuance and subjectivity. Learners use these builds to establish theories, craft narratives, and create new knowledge. This is conceptual, critical thinking.
Last week, I invited teachers from Rochester, New York to create an argument writing invention table. Each person in the room built something that they had a strong opinion about. Each group member added one build to the table by his or her small group, and then, labels were added that described what the builds represented. Finally, teachers moved from one group table to another, adding their thoughts, connections, and curiosities to additional sticky notes. These notes were left by the builds that provoked them in order to expand upon the meaning created during the first round of design. When teachers returned to their group tables, they found their initial ideas stretched, challenged, and reinterpreted. They also carried new ideas with them, inspired by the builds that their colleagues completed. All of this made for very powerful argument writing.
Imagine the labels that writers might make for the compositions they contributed to this table. Imagine the thoughts that others might add and the ways in which writers might connect different compositions together. Imagine the arguments that might emerge by putting different figures in dialogue with one another. Imagine the stories that are being told here. Imagine how they might change as children tinker and play and change the scene.
This is the first in a series of reflective posts about the learning that I did on my study tour of Reggio Emilia schools. I intend to anchor the collection to this page. Stop by each Friday for the next ten weeks. I will add a new installment and link it up, too.
Want to chat this through? Come find me in the Building Better Writers Facebook group.