Seeds of Wisdom from “Amusement Park for Birds”: Making Sense of Projects in Reggio Emilia

Thanks to a colleague from The Reggio Emilia Approach FB group, I recently got to set eyes on “The Amusement Park for Birds,” the wonderful and inspiring video documenting the work of a group of children from Reggio Emilia, Italy. This video gave me what I have been missing these past couple of years: a birds’ eye view of how a project proceeds, start to finish. Reading about project development is not that same as viewing it, and, in the days since watching it, I have watched my brain (filled with research articles, tidbits from fellow teachers, experiences in my own classroom, books) spontaneously bringing order to the chaos of feverish learning in which I have engaged these past few years.

The bare-bones outline I gleaned from the video looks like this:

 

  • After the children have had an opportunity to engage with the provocation, the teachers invite the children into a conversation [discourse] about their experience.

 

  • The children are then encouraged to draw their ideas. During drawing, the teacher “reflects back to the children what they had told her during the discussion about” the provocation/interest/emerging topic. This reflection is critical for helping the children reconnect with their ideas and manifest, in the language of drawing, those ideas. The video’s narrator explains, “Amelia encourages the children to draw and call her if they need help in remembering” (video 6/21).

amusement park (1)

  • After the children have the time and space to draw, they “are encouraged to discuss what they did and ask questions among friends [collaborate] once they are finished with a piece of work” (video 6/21). These discussions will be greatly impacted by the age of the students, with older children having greater capacities for critical review of their friends’ work. Nevertheless, we can support these discussions in every classroom, even if they are brief exchanges in the early years. Allowing the children to be aware of one another (and one another’s expression of ideas) is a powerful tool for engendering respect, consideration and empathy for others. Collaboration can never be offered too early as a school value.

 

  • The children next render their drawings in clay and wire. In this scene, there were so many powerful moments that I find it difficult to focus on only a few. Two moments that I would like to draw attention to: the mini-easel on which the children placed their drawings and the manner in which the teacher allows the intensely emotional debate to play out (he steps in only when the argument degenerates into a bit of jabbing). The mini-easel helps me remember that as the teacher-researcher, one of my responsibilities is to provide the necessary support for the child to explore and express with ease. Supports of this nature need to be anticipated and planned for. The mini-easel enables the children to revisit, discuss and modify their drawings as they work with the new language (clay/wire).

 

  • After the children in “Amusement Park for Birds” complete the clay renderings of their drawings, they are invited by the teachers and parents to visit the park with water fountains. They photograph, study and draw the fountains. This trip seems to invigorate the children and inspire a strong commitment to the project which has emerged.

 

  • After the fountain visit, the teachers print out the children’s photos of the fountains and, one-on-one and in small groups, question the class and get them thinking about how they can further create/construct what they imagine and have already expressed in drawings, photographs and clay [collaborate]. The photos are printed on large paper with huge white-space margins and the actual photo in the center is covered with acetate. The margins and acetate allow the children to draw over the fountains to explore the inner workings of the fountain and how they might bring such a design to their own amusement park. The drawings are now moving into the realm of design, a term George Forman defines as “any activity in which children make records of their plans or intended solutions” (100 Languages). He goes on to distinguish between a drawing and design: “A drawing can be a design if it is drawn with an intent to guide the construction of the items drawn, or to guide a sequence of steps” (100 Languages).

 

  • Amelia’s interactions with the children at various stages of the project are so important I feel they are really a step in themselves. What I notice about her conversations with the children is her exquisite skill in scaffolding the children’s understanding. She is respectful, kind, supportive and an expert at reflecting the children’s own words back to them in such a way (“help me understand your idea, I don’t quite understand much about motors”) that they perceive the errors of their thinking. The children’s response to her support is to first see the error and then to either work very hard mentally to resolve the mistaken perception or to get a bit frazzled and decide (with Lella’s prompting) to seek outside resources to help resolve the issue. It is a beautiful moment on the video and one I will return to often.

 

  • In small groups, the children hypothesize about how to construct their vision. Again, the collaboration between teacher-researcher and among the children enable the children to see inconsistencies in their ideas and plans. The teacher documents and probes and documents, all the while building on the child’s hypotheses and bringing the child to the cognitive dissonance so necessary for scaffolding to occur deeply.

 

  • The teacher consistently repeats back to the child what the teacher has heard the child say and frames the question as, “I really do not know. I wonder how it could happen. Any ideas?”

 

  • Only a few teacher meetings are shown throughout the video. Each, however, consists of viewing the ongoing documentation, noticing, interpreting, making connections and deciding how to next proceed.

 

  • The children move next into working together to create their idea of the inner workings of the fountain. The teachers continue documenting and probing, encouraging and scaffolding.

 

  • In this project, the final product will be installed outdoors. Therefore, once the children have perfected their water wheel (an amazing part of the videos on its own), they begin making outdoor plans for placement of the various items to be included in the amusement park.

 

Forman notes that negotiated learning in Reggio Emilia involves “design, documentation, and discourse” and that these three activities “form a system of relations that are everywhere reciprocal” (100 Languages). [Please note that I am consciously setting on the back burner the role of parent and community for the purpose of bringing a spotlight mainly to the student process of emergent curriculum and project development.] Throughout the video, the children are seen designing, reflecting, collaborating with each other and the teachers, re-designing, etc. This process is slow and deliberate. The teachers allow plenty of space and time for the children to fully express /reflect on their thoughts, ideas, perspectives and plans. This process is thoroughly infused with mindfulness, an essential ingredient. As Carla Rinaldi says in her interview with Gandini during the video, “to be able to capture the momentum [of a project] I think is one of the most difficult points of emergent curriculum, and in this case you have to really be able to listen.”

This listening is the foundation of the teacher-researcher process, which I see as observation, documentation and provocation. I find it very difficult to order these three activities, nor do I think that would be helpful. The process of observing, documenting and provoking are mutually supportive and each informs/inspires the other. They seem also to “form a system of relations that are everywhere reciprocal”. Remove even one and there is collapse in the beginning of a what may become a project. The student process and teacher process are inseparable. Eileen Hughes points out in Reflections on the Role of a Reggio-Inspired Head Start Teacher that “the way the teacher organizes and designs experiences for children to co-construct learning means the adult and child must be open to questions, to investigations, and to reflecting upon experiences” [italics added]. She goes on to say, “central to the role of the teacher is listening to the children, noting what meanings underlie their actions and words, both with the materials and with each other” and she encourages teachers to use documentation to develop “wonderings” to remain intentional in our teacher-researcher role.

“Amusement Park for Birds” has been a great provocation for me as teacher-researcher to reflect upon my own intentions for the upcoming school year: where will I focus my observations? what research questions do I have right now and in what way will I be mindful of how these “wonderings” change over the course of my interactions with the children? will I be able to access the kind of collaboration necessary to support the children’s emerging interests? These questions may form the framework for my year. Definitely, the “Amusement Park” documentation has deepened my understanding of projects in RE and has offered me a framework within which to collaborate, develop strategies, reflect, and listen deeply to the children who will inspire my work this year.

© 2015 Shelley Welch