Dialogues with Material: Educators Experience the Wonder of Learning Ateliers

It's a sad week for NYC, as our city is saying goodbye to the exhibition that became a beautiful and powerful presence over the four months it lived and breathed here: The Wonder of Learning, the official Reggio Emilia exhibition from Italy. On view at the Williamsburg Northside Lower School on North 7th Street in Brooklyn from January to May, the NYC iteration of the show attracted 12,000 visitors, many of whom were educators coming to learn from the images, text and videos produced by the amazing Reggio preschools.  My favorite aspect of the show was not the Italian-made exhibition panels themselves, or the great videos, though stunning and completely inspiring (I had seen those before, and refer often to the exhibition catalog), but something that NYC educators created, and that were unprecedented in the Wonder of Learning's world tour: the two interactive ateliers (Light and Natural Materials) on the 6th and 7th floors. I was honored to work at Beginnings Nursery (as a pregnancy leave Studio teacher), the school that brought the show to NYC, while the show was going up. This and my involvement in early conversations with the planning team, and connection to this network of educators, led me to volunteer to help set up the ateliers, and to help on site at various times as university, public and private preschool and elementary school groups visited the exhibition.

The illustrious Linda White, dressed in white, engaging with visitors in a beautiful white room called the Natural Materials Atelier. Here is the room in its first mood, "Forest." It went on to become transformed, thanks to the work of Robin Koo, into "Ocean" and "Plants." Linda was one of the many NYC-based educators who volunteered to set up and maintain the ateliers and show visitors around. 

The illustrious Linda White, dressed in white, engaging with visitors in a beautiful white room called the Natural Materials Atelier. Here is the room in its first mood, "Forest." It went on to become transformed, thanks to the work of Robin Koo, into "Ocean" and "Plants." Linda was one of the many NYC-based educators who volunteered to set up and maintain the ateliers and show visitors around. 

While volunteering at the exhibition, I had the most wonderful conversations with visitors, who usually seemed to fall into two categories: educators and families (children with parents). I spent a lot of time in the Natural Materials Atelier, which became like a sacred space for me, and I'm sure many others. What an amazing combination of a meditation/prayer studio, art space, and garden, with a stunning view of North Brooklyn and Manhattan! The whole room came alive at different points in the day, due to the change of the light through the South-facing window. Many who came and saw the room just stood there, in awe of their surroundings, this unexpected beauty, before exploring. It seemed like Robin and the Wonder of Learning atelier committee had touched upon a winning combination of museum-school-sacred space. The question hovered in all our minds: How could we not try to recreate such a beautiful space again and again, in schools, museums, or in the case of Find & Seek, in a library? Was this another take on a library of materials? Materials lab meets studio? This was the whole point: to make us think, to get us to wonder, to ponder the possibilities in settings within which we do our work with children. The hard work paid off, and educators took notice. I am hopeful for a range of new partnerships and projects to crop up around NYC. There is no reason why schools can't look more like these studios. If they did, wouldn't children's experience at school open up to endless possibilities?

Alex Long, PreK teacher, Spruce Street School (PS397, NY NY), paints with water on slate.

Alex Long, PreK teacher, Spruce Street School (PS397, NY NY), paints with water on slate.

One day while volunteering, I met Alex Long, a PreK teacher at the Spruce Street School in Manhattan. He was thoroughly enjoying the experience, and stayed quite a while in that room, painting with water on slate, taking in all the rock arrangement and bark decomposition areas, and microscope wall projections, and chatting with me and Linda. We had a great conversation about connections between the atelier and his own classroom of 4-year-olds. Here is just a tidbit:  "Just listening to what my students have to say guides me in what we can be working on. It makes me feel good to see a lot of stuff I have in my room, here.  I try to really hear what [my students] say. My goal is for my students to leave my class being in love with learning."

Annabelle, Avenues K teacher

Annabelle, Avenues K teacher

That same Saturday in February, Annabelle, a kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher at Avenues school in NYC, also enjoyed the Natural Materials/Forest room. She said this: "My big take away after experiencing this exhibit is the importance of giving children the experience of change and impermanence in their learning. The idea that interacting with the natural world and seeing what change I can cause and how it can make me feel is so enormous. The experiences with natural materials are the biggest and most lasting gifts we can give to children." 

Nakoley Renville, principal of PS 208KE in Flatbush, Brooklyn, enjoys the Light Atelier with her son.

Nakoley Renville, principal of PS 208KE in Flatbush, Brooklyn, enjoys the Light Atelier with her son.

Nakoley Renville, principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn, enjoyed the Light Atelier with her family. "It is inspiring for me as a principal because it's reminding me of what it's like to be a child again. Putting myself back in the days where I was free to wonder, explore and feel like I could dance like there's nobody watching." 

NYC-based Early childhood consultant Renee Dinnerstein and her husband, artist Simon Dinnerstein. 

NYC-based Early childhood consultant Renee Dinnerstein and her husband, artist Simon Dinnerstein. 

Renee Dinnerstein who writes the blog Investigating Choicetime brought not only her colleague Nakoley but her husband Simon, the painter, and he also enjoyed the light room. Renee's words rang especially true to me: "This is the best PD for NYC teachers right now. This has nothing to do with 'career and college-ready,' it has to do with expanding the mind." These words from a veteran educator should not be taken lightly by all those teachers out there trying to make heads or tails of the Common Core and High Stakes Testing. What about the expansion of the mind, through working with materials like those found in these ateliers? I'm grateful that Renee is consulting in public schools all over NYC to help redirect teachers toward inquiry work.

Martha Foote, director of the Park Slope Childcare Collective

Martha Foote, director of the Park Slope Childcare Collective

Martha Foote brought all of the teachers from the Park Slope Childcare Collective to the exhibit. She had this to say: "Such an inspiring exhibit - and how reaffirming to see children truly respected by their teachers, not only in how the teachers speak with them but in the types of experiences the teachers nurture to allow inquiry and growth."

At the Wonder of Learning I was encouraged to see the enthusiastic response from so many teachers and families from all over the city and beyond, and especially to these ateliers. We cannot deny that American educators created these rooms, and that many American educators are opening doors to the "wonder of learning" in their classrooms every day. We need not idolize nor idealize Reggio Emilia so much that we forget our own strengths. These ateliers pointed us back to the original ateliers of the Diana School in Reggio, and others, but there's no denying that they were a phenomenon specific to NYC. Just look at that view!  

These moments and conversations are but pieces in the larger puzzle of what we as educators in the United States do with the Reggio Emilia approach. We saw at the Materials Conference the great work happening at Opal School in Portland, Oregon, and similarly beautiful work is happening at Beginnings in NYC, and many other schools in this city. Great things are in the works, that point to real bridges being made between Reggio and NYC. Will an infant center and preschool inspired by Reggio Emilia by way of Jönköping, Sweden, soon spring up in South Brooklyn (thanks to Beth Ferholt)?  I am very excited to see what Robin Koo is up to in the coming year. Teaching Beyond the Square is looking for a space to house its vast collection of found and natural materials, for use in early childhood, thus delivering a REMIDA equivalent that NYC sorely needs. Perhaps the 12,000 guests to the Wonder of Learning would agree . . .