Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page
On Expanding Literacies
To be literate is to live a wide-awake life in this world – wide-awake to the tiny details that come together to create the predictable and unpredictable. To be literate is to know you are a meaning-maker and a world-maker, and you use all the creative tools at your disposal to make life more humane for yourself and with others. To expand our literacies, then, we need time and space, we need to dwell with others cultivating their artistic/literate lives, and we need to tend to – and deconstruct and reconstruct – the literacies we’ve learned that use us to perpetuate injustice (classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, judgment, hatred, and the list goes on).
My wishes for slow-schooling, ateliers and aesthetics, and dignity for all could certainly set us on a path toward expansive literacies and fuller, wide-awake lives.
Dignity for all children, youth, and families (and other creatures of the earth)
My third Reggio-inspired wish is simple and could be granted tomorrow – even today – with no policy changes, no major cultural shifts, just basic humanity. While it was clear that many children attend Reggio schools from working-class and poor families (some even attending for free or a very small fee), no school was ever described by its socioeconomic and/or racial demographics. What would it mean to drop the “this school is 75%, 99%, 100% free- and reduced-lunch” or “majority minority” or “you fill in the blank” as an introduction to a school? What if we erased from our language practices the statistics we use as code for so many unspoken indecencies?
Ateliers and Aesthetics
“When we speak of aesthetics we speak of our bodies. From this point of view we can have a better understanding of what is meant by art. The work of art is to create antennae. Antennae which perceive all that is intolerable, discomforting, hateful and repugnant in the universe that we ourselves have created.” (Vecchi, 2010)
Vecchi writes about the radical move Loris Malaguzzi made when he positioning the atelier – and the atelierista – in Reggio schools. The atelier’s central location also positions it as the lifeblood of a school, a space where all things flow out and flow in. This conception of aesthetics as central to human life and necessary for children’s daily experiences is so different to see in person than the way the arts sometimes get integrated into projects even in some Reggio-inspired schooling and writing in the U.S. Arts-integration is sometimes reduced to making things, painting, drawing, or even a dramatic performance. Rarely do I hear educators articulating the fundamental purpose of aesthetics (or “art” as we usually call it) in education as “creating antennae” for our full bodies to perceive the beautiful and mundane and unjust in the world.
Inviting a non-educator artist to play a central role in curriculum and pedagogy is brilliant. Too often in educator preparation programs, the focus is so narrowly aimed at all the wrong things – controlling bodies (aka classroom management), controlling minds (aka disciplinary knowledge), and controlling futures (aka assessment, labeling, and tracking). A serious commitment to aesthetics and its role in life would mean not only inviting non-educator artists to the table and school, but also immersing future educators in antennae-making through deep and full-bodied engagement with aesthetics.
I wish for children, youth, and teachers to live their daily lives in schools saturated with the sensibilities of artists to make sense of the world, and surrounded by massive amounts of diverse materials through which to make that sense. This would no doubt create problems in the fundamental ideology of U.S. schooling and society, however, where most people believe there is one right answer and one right way – or at least “best practices” – and the ambiguity that comes along with art-making and living through aesthetics would challenge that ideology to its core.
Vecchi writes, “An aesthetic sense is fed by empathy, an intense relationship with things; it does not put things in rigid categories and might, therefore, constitute a problem where excessive certainty and cultural simplification is concerned” (Vecchi, p. 9). We are certainly in a time and place where “excessive certainty” and “cultural simplification” are highly valued, and ambiguity and aesthetics are deeply suspect. How might we individually begin to make ourselves more pliable? If I settle into a body/mind/way of being that embraces ambiguity, uncertainty, and a creative sensibility that cultivates my antennae of the world, what impact would that have on the people with whom I interact every day? What impact will it have on me? On the world? What if children and youth and teachers were encouraged to cultivate such uncertainty? I wish for the collective courage to take such a worthwhile risk.
Check out this video of our project. Mark Vagle and I began the CLASSroom project in 2010 with a dozen or so practicing teachers in a 2-day workshop about social class, classism, anti-classist practices and policies, and a vision of classrooms and schools as amazing, creative, empowering spaces where one’s class background doesn’t determine opportunities in school or the kind of education and treatment one receives.
Now we’ve worked with more than 1,000 educators in Georgia, and we are constantly inspired by what people are doing to make sure schools don’t mirror the unjust society that we live in. Mark is at the University of Minnesota and beginning a parallel project up in the blustery north – and we can’t wait to see where this unpredictable and exciting journey takes us to next.
Five minutes pass, then ten minutes, then twenty.
Has it really been an hour?
A young girl and boy wander around the schoolyard taking turns experimenting with a camera that offers new and unusual ways of looking and seeing and living in the world.
A close-up of grass, part of a tree, a swing, and a friend provide material for curiosity and wonder and laughter and play.
The two children spend at least an hour on their own. No adult checking on them wondering about their task and whether they’re on it, no expectation that some kind of share out will hold them responsible for an adult mandated lesson they were to put into practice, no interruptions or calls to the carpet or lights flipping on and off or shushes or claps or public celebrations of other children who are doing a different task.
To be in a place of such peace where children and adults work/play for long periods of uninterrupted times pulled me into the slowness of being, the rhythm of the present, and the quiet of curiosity. To be in a place where time is supplanted as the governor of activity by the meaningful movements of people is really stunning given that I spend so much of my time in educational spaces that are marked by the minute.
When a society (or any sub-culture of a society) becomes so compelled by narratives of efficiency and accountability, it is inevitable that measures of time will begin to rule human lives. And if measures of time begin ruling adult lives, it is inevitable that the same restrictions will soon be forced upon children – perhaps with even more force given the assumptions from most perspectives that children are to be controlled in their stage of only partial humanity.
I am struck by the ease with which children and adults populate the spaces of the Reggio schools. Bodies seemed natural and relaxed. Talk flowed without a sense of urgency. Conversation happened. Wondering, wandering, play, work, and smiles interacted fluidly as if everyone was in a time machine. A time-standing-still machine.
What long-term effect would a commitment to a slow school movement have on the quality of children’s, youth’s, and adults’ lives? If a school is not governed by time passing, but instead governed by the present and tending to our joys, curiosities, needs, and togetherness, what would happen in that school? How would we recognize it?
With the U.S. policymakers and education reformers persuaded by “time on task” and “preparation” for a hypothetical future of “career and college,” most schools become spaces where fluidity is outside the lexicon. Where present is only here to prepare for the future. Like the grassroots slow food movement that challenges all the efficiencies and speed of fast corporate food and the culture-changing impact it has had on nearly everyone, I wish for a slow school movement that parallels in commitment to the local and present.
I wish for a school movement where two children can wander around for an hour taking photographs of objects and people they find curious, and their explorations won’t be disrupted by clapping hands, flipping lightswitches, teachers calling out, or threats of losing their 10-minute recess for not being on task.