Some say Seattle has always been ahead of the curve. From human rights issues to the environment, the Seattle community supports progressive thinking. So it was fitting that Seattle served as the host city for the 9th NAREA Winter Conference entitled “Constructing a Culture of Shared Values for Children and Childhood: Honoring Diversity, Differences, and Democracy.” Over 290 participants from 26 U.S. states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 4 countries convened in the Microsoft Auditorium of the award-winning Seattle Central Library to encounter the values and experiences of the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy. It was powerful to see every seat in the auditorium filled with educators and advocates dedicated to advancing early education.
NAREA board co-chairs, Barbara Acton and Margie Cooper, opened the conference with a warm welcome to participants and featured speakers. Representatives from the Washington Collective, the local host community, Paula Jones and Tom Drummond, greeted participants, and Tom oriented all of us with this thought, “It is our responsibility to make sure all voices are heard” (March 22, 2018).
The organization of the days followed a rhythm, beginning each morning with plenary sessions offered by the featured speakers from Reggio Emilia, Italy, Paola Cagliari and Ivana Soncini, interpreted by Jane McCall. The plenary sessions included the titles, “Honoring Diversity, Differences, and Democracy: How to Know the Knowledge of Children and Adults,” “The Context as a Potential Space of Discovery and Knowledge Building,” “Building a Culture of Shared Values for Children and Childhood: Participating in What?,” and “Learning in Groups and with Groups.” A strong thread connected to words within the conference title was woven through the sessions. Paola’s comments helped us stay attached to the idea that, “[t]here is a plurality in the world, but there is also a plurality in children’s ways of seeing the world and, therefore, children’s ways of representing the world, and this is the democracy that we owe to children. This is the respect that we owe to children’s ways of seeing things” (March 23, 2018).
Paola opened Thursday’s session by reframing the title, “The title that the organizers of this conference . . . offered to us is a particularly interesting title . . . that requires some hard work . . . and is very broad . . . The idea of constructing a culture of shared values immediately brings to mind the idea and practice of participation. [For this morning’s presentation,] we have added a subtitle to “Honoring Diversity, Differences, and Democracy,” part of the title [of the conference, which is]: “Knowing the Knowledge of Children and Adults” . . . We believe that this kind of knowledge is a way for educators to honor diversity and difference. It is a way that we have of promoting democracy and of realizing democracy. . . . to give voice and to give value to every diversity, to give voice and to give value to all the different ways that children express themselves and all the different ways that children build and construct their knowledge” (March 22, 2018). As director of the Preschools and Infant-Toddler Centers, Istituzione
of the Municipality of Reggio Emilia, Paola set the framework for our time together, using a variety of means: exchange, videos, and presentations. Ivana, pedagogista
responsible for children with special rights for the Municipality of Reggio Emilia Department of Education, shared clear and forthright presentations and videos that gave insight into working with possibilities, emphasizing the dynamic nature of acquiring knowledge: “All children all over the world have theories about how the world is working around them. Another possibility [for acquiring knowledge] is . . . to share my theories about what is happening in the world with other theories of people around me, with the children, to see the discrepancies between those different theories. . . . We hope that we have generated a lot of different discrepancies in your ideas because it is the research . . . that each one of us does individually to re-equilibriate our knowledge only takes place when . . . what is already known within us encounters new knowledge. That is when each one of us begins this process of re-equilibriating what we thought we knew. It is that re-equilibriating that creates a desire [and] a purpose within human beings to construct new theories about the world. When I say theories, I mean . . . to give meaning to things or to make sense of things. . . . the philosophers have said, ‘If we all think the same thing, then nobody is actually thinking’” (March 24, 2018). Keeping in mind the importance of sharing thoughts and hearing from others, Paola and Ivana encouraged exchange each day by inviting participants to share their doubts, comments, and questions through written messages. The invitation emphasized the sense of responsibility Paola and Ivana felt to encounter the questions and weave their responses into their presentations and comments.
One unique feature of this conference was the frequency of spontaneous applause when participants felt strongly about a statement made by the speakers. It was not unusual for applause to breakout several times over the course of a session. It was apparent that the participants felt passionately about Paola’s and Ivana’s message. The conference took place during a unique time in the history of North America, as students and adults from across the country sought to be heard. The “March for our Lives,” student-led demonstration took place on the final day of the conference and underscored the idea that, “[e]ach person, each one of us, whether we are an adult or a child, is a bearer . . . of diversity and a bearer . . . of difference, and each should be seen and should be recognized” (Cagliari, March 22, 2018). After the morning plenary sessions, conference participants made their way to lunch in the city. It was a way to explore downtown Seattle and taste the local fare, while reflecting on all that they had encountered.
The afternoons were filled with a variety of breakout sessions, which included cultural tours of the Seattle Central Library, and discussions around the concepts of participation and democracy based on articles in Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Emilia Exchange and facilitated by NAREA board members. In addition, the host community made it possible for the exhibit, “The Wonder of Learning – The Hundred Languages of Children” to be open each afternoon. A short walk to One Convention Place led participants to encounters with the exhibit and with other colleagues. At the exhibit venue, participants found special pre-stamped postcards featuring the words: rights/diritti
, and plea/appello
, along with an open invitation to use the postcards to give voice to their thinking about the rights of children. These encounters highlighted connections to a plurality of perspectives.
Each afternoon session was designed with exchange in mind because as Paola reminded us, “The learning of each one makes the learning of all grow. It is possible to increase the possibilities for learning in contexts if within that context, there is a circulation. . . . By circulation, I mean listening that is responsive . . . and the possibility for change with all the people together.” Each day concluded with opportunities for discourse and thinking together. Saturday afternoon was dedicated to visiting local schools. As participants boarded school buses bound for Hilltop Children’s Center, Our Beginning, Epiphany Early Learning Preschool, and Pike Market Child Care and Preschool, Paola and Ivana made their way to the airport to return to Italy.
It is with gratitude that we thank our colleagues from Reggio Emilia, Italy, Paola Cagliari and Ivana Soncini. It was a pleasure to work with the Washington Collective, and we are sincerely grateful for their contributions to the 9th NAREA Winter Conference. We extend our appreciation to the children, families, and educators in the schools we visited for all they did to shape the conference. We are inspired by all the educators, from a variety of contexts, who value and respect the rights of all children and who participated with us during the conference.
Our hope is that the time spent at Seattle Central Library, participating in the ongoing study of the Reggio Emilia educational project and reflecting upon the responsibility of educators, will serve to support everyone who attended and that each participant will continue to look “with an optimistic gaze,” as Paola suggested:
Each one of us—each child, each adult—is asking to be looked at with an optimistic gaze, to be looked at with a gaze that gives value to us—a gaze that looks at and sees the resources and the potentials of each of us. (March 22, 2018)
We believe the words of the participants in their conference survey responses reflect our collective thoughts:
“Paola and Ivana delivered an intelligent, inspired, and thought-provoking conference experience. The stories with video that were presented spoke volumes about their respect for the rights of children.”
“The presentations from the Italian educators were terrific and really built day-by-day with a good mix of philosophy articulation and concrete stories. I loved hearing more about teacher thinking and process at this conference than I had experienced at other NAREA events. Topics were important, relevant, and challenging.”
“Overall, I found the content very engaging. I appreciated the amount of deep thought given to the ideas about education and the connections with democracy and inclusion.”
“As a relative newcomer, I was able to significantly deepen my understanding and appreciation for the principles of the Reggio approach! It was a privilege to be there, and I am excited to learn more.”
“I think that the perspective that Ivana gave concerning children with special rights and children with behavior issues really spoke to a lot of the participants. Teachers are faced with a more diverse group of young learners, and the insights that Ivana shared from the Reggio school context was something I had not heard before from them. It would be nice to have more of this dialogue.”
“I was so happy to learn from all of you—everyone who spoke and moderated inspired me and touched me with their sincerity. I have been wanting to learn more about Reggio since I came into this field, and I have my cup filled up and overflowing from this one conference. Paola and Ivana and their wonderful translator, Jane, were so clear in presenting ideas through their precise words and the very helpful videos. So glad to receive their collective wisdom. Thank you.”