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Getting to Belonging Part Four: Putting Design into Practice

05 May 2024 10:47 AM | Reggio Inspired Network of MN (Administrator)

Getting to Belonging Part Four
Putting Design into Practice
Rie Gilsdorf and Christy Spencer
Rie Algeo Gilsdorf, MS, MA, has broad experience as a principal, arts administrator, instructional coach, teacher of science and dance and parent in many settings, including the Reggio-inspired programs of Portland’s Opal School and The Blake School in Minneapolis. Rie is a past Board Co-Chair and Civic Engagement Committee Chair of the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota and current member of its Resource Development Committee. She now provides racial equity seminars, coaching and consulting through Embody Equity (www.EmbodyEquity.com).

Christy Spencer, MA is inspired by children’s curiosities and perspectives, and roots her practices in relationships, deep listening, designing dynamic learning environments, observation and pedagogical documentation. Christy has worked in various Reggio-inspired contexts, including The Blake School, Boulder Journey School and the Minnesota Children’s Museum. She has been a RINM Board and committee member. Current professional interests encompass exploring the intersection of design thinking and the Educational Project of Reggio Emilia, mindfulness practices, anti-racist theory, neuroscience around empathy and humanitarian projects focusing on children’s rights.

Over the past year in Getting to Belonging we have had our heads deep in theory, explicating the relationship between a design process and Reggio-inspired pedagogy as they pertain to developing a broader consciousness of race and difference. We’ve broken down each into component parts and attempted to weave them together. This entails oscillating back and forth between theory and practice. It is time to venture into practice.

Documenting Two Prototypes
In this piece we reflect on documentation of two prototypes and the insights they reveal. Similar to the Reggio-inspired practice of offering a provocation and then reflecting on it, we chose current RINM formats, Let’s Talk and Doc Lab, two virtual events. They were opportunities to explore the future by doing, gathering feedback and reflecting on what worked, what didn’t and what might come next. The first, Let’s Talk in January 2024, offered an open-ended conversation framed as an opportunity to explore considerations and anxieties involved in talking with young children about race. February’s Doc Lab focused on exploring race in early childhood by studying documentation of children’s work.

Structurally, Let’s Talk emphasizes dialogue with an invitation for participants to bring their own questions. This event, following previous Network Gatherings, asked, “What do you worry about in exploring race and culture with young children?” Thus, educators’ anxieties became the springboard for this discussion. The conversation had an organic flow and was lightly facilitated with the only ground rules being to listen with curiosity and speak your truth.

By contrast, Doc Lab focused on transcriptions of student conversations and utilized a formal protocol to structure the conversation. The protocol included specific prompts, each with an allotted time, from observation and description, to questioning, to speculation about children’s strategies for constructing understandings. The structure positioned participants as careful, nonjudgmental observers and colleagues. It also required more active facilitation as well as in-depth note taking to enable later reflection.

The Role of Intentionality
There was a palpable difference between the two prototypes, despite significant overlap in participants. As we later reflected on documentation of the events, we became more aware of the nuances within the structures. As our awareness grew, it became apparent that we had unintentionally created a discrepancy in tone between the two.

The Doc Lab felt collaborative and supportive. The protocol positioned the presenting teacher to first listen, saving clarifications for later. This listening practice involved letting go of the role of teacher as expert. The predictability inherent in the structure invited vulnerability, of the presenting teacher and of the observers who must comment on children’s work with minimal context.

Let’s Talk began with prompts about anxiety, unconsciously positioning people to show up either in certainty or defensiveness. As a result, a subtle tone of rigidity arose. Unlike Doc Lab, this format had neither traces of children’s encounters nor a structured protocol to provide a supportive container that would have allowed participants to embrace ambiguity. The conversation spiraled away from possibility as it amplified limiting concepts we fully believe, but that are figments of the imagination. “We can’t. . . because. . . .”

The language we captured from each conversation is also telling. In Doc Lab, we noted words such as “tricky,” “nuanced,” “context,” “interconnectedness,” “dynamic,” “flexible.” These words acknowledged the complexity of the children’s expression and the teacher’s nimble responses. On the other hand, Let’s Talk produced words such as “ominous,” “fear,” “pressure,” “confronting,” “avoidance,” “roadblock.” These words indicated a mindset that is not conducive to curiosity, creativity or compassion. Doc Lab’s language of potentialities was strengthened by its protocol’s progression from observation through speculation.

Making Space for the "Why" and "How"
In Let’s Talk, participants shared books, websites and scope and sequence documents, but we now realize this exchange didn’t encourage deeper critical discourse. Rather than “How might we use this?” the conversation leaned toward “I did this,” or even “Do it this way,” adding to a tone of certainty. While these resources were useful, a “why and how” conversation might have deepened the conversation.

One metaphor that came up during Let’s Talk was Malaguzzi’s idea that “the eye jumps over the wall,1 which suggests going beyond boundaries to see with fresh eyes. This generative idea moved the conversation to the notion that we as adults need to go over the wall; children are always ready to do this. This is just the kind of organic flow that we have seen arise in Let’s Talk. However, it was quickly squelched as conversation reverted to how adults can get past the anxieties of going over the wall. Soon the voice of certainty crept back in, attempting to grasp onto resources as a way of coping with these anxieties.

Doc Lab participants also shared resources. The difference lay in the foregrounding of the “why” and “how” – the children’s responses and the exchange between teacher, children and resources. Broad themes such as democracy, fairness/justice, interconnectedness and gratitude were woven together in a process of revisiting and recombining resources and experiences. The resources, from a classroom scale to an outdoor pond, served as tangible scaffolding for the big ideas and these ideas provided a thematic framework for the resources. This beautifully illustrates the iterative and generative process of negotiated curriculum.

Intentionality and consciousness – the “why” and “how” – come into play in selecting resources and using them as provocations. Both are crucial. Even the most excellent book or resource only creates part of the conditions for rich understandings to be made. And, with “why” and “how” in mind, resources are literally everywhere. For example, in the exchange presented at Doc Lab, the presenting teacher wove a common classroom scale into themes of race and belonging. In addition to providing a concrete metaphor for these abstract ideas, it offered a reference point for children to enter the conversation.

Suggested Iterations: Let's Talk & Doc Lab
What comes next? What could we tweak and try again? Reflecting on Let’s Talk, we want to make clear that this format leads to valuable emergent conversations if presented with intention. In the case of conversations about race, it could include starting from “How do we?” vs. “I’m worried about.” The latter leads to a deficit mindset, expressed as “we can’t.” Starting from the “why” and “how” promotes an asset mindset that reveals more possibilities.

Historically, Let's Talk and Doc Lab have not been paired. If we were to prototype a similar pairing we might reverse the order and use Let's Talk to continue the conversation. This would allow all participants to share inspiration they took from the Doc Lab, how they translated it into their environment, how children responded and how it affected their practice. Our intention would be to create space for new curiosities to arise and dive deeper into the discourse in a spirit of collaboration and support.

Both the Doc Lab and our reflections on it have been fruitful in that they promote a spirit of prototyping and experimentation that inspires action. It strikes us that this should not be a “one and done,” but rather an ongoing practice that invites multiple people to share documentation on the topic of equity across human difference. We could also experiment with different modalities: video, audio, transcripts, photos, artifacts. We also learned that we should allow a full two hours for conversation.

In this series, “Getting to Belonging,” we proposed a Reggio-inspired design process for adults, to animate substantive change and actualize early childhood communities that are dialogic and democratic. The series explored how these ideas might support complex and nuanced conversations about human difference, especially racial difference, that engender a sense of belonging. Doc Lab and Let’s Talk are practices that support this work. These adult conversations must precede dialogue with children, and the arc of this learning comes to fruition in ongoing work alongside children.

Getting to Belonging Part One
Getting to Belonging Part Two
Getting to Belonging Part Three


1. Spaggiari, S. (2004). “The path toward knowledge: The social, political and cultural context of the Reggio municipal infant-toddler center and preschool experience.” Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Exchange.

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