The Mosaic of Marks: Reflections from Reggio Emilia

Each Spring, the entire class of graduate students in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program travel to Reggio Emilia, Italy to attend the US Students and Professors Study Group. Below is a reflection from Sam Prince, a 2016-2017 graduate student.


Each Spring, the entire class of graduate students in the Boulder Journey School Teacher Education Program travel to Reggio Emilia, Italy to attend the US Students and Professors Study Group. Below is a reflection from Sam Prince, a 2016-2017 graduate student.

My trip to Reggio Emilia was overwhelming in the best way possible. An abundance of important and thought-provoking experiences were packed into a very short period of time. In the days after leaving the conference one moment is sticking with me as being particularly remarkable.

On the second day of our conference, I attended a learning experience in one of the ateliers in the Malaguzzi Center. The setting: twenty educators situated around two small tables to spend open-ended time with a set of drawing materials. My tendency when confronted with a large group of unfamiliar people is to slip into the background as much as possible. I go out of my way to go unnoticed.

Early in my time at Boulder Journey School, Alison, Boulder Journey School Education Director, told us to run towards areas of dissonance. Messing about with open ended materials is an area of dissonance for me. Working in a large group is an area of dissonance for me. I fought my tendency.

To attain the right frame of mind, I had to ignore the atelierista, her assistant, and a translator who perused the room, scribbling furiously on clipboards and talking to one another.

I focused on the materials.

What were they meant for? How could I tweak their meaning? What could I create? What did I want to create? What had I never seen before? What seemed appealing to play with?

I let myself go.

I felt the teaching team gathered behind me. My concentration slipped in an out, fighting with slight anxiety and a whole new set of questions.

Was I using the materials right?  Was I not being loose enough?  Was I acting like I thought I should be acting instead of letting the moment simply exist?

Eventually a tap on my shoulder pulled me out of my own head. The atelierista in training and I talked. She asked me what I was doing and how it was going. It was inquiry disguised as idle chit-chat. She pointed out the colors I was using, the way the shadows were interacting with the page. I hadn’t noticed. We took turns exploring, using our hands to make shadows on the page.

Then a mysterious light appeared on the page, a reflection. We tried to see if it was her watch; not the culprit. A metal pen; nope. The atelierista joined in. She tried more objects that could possibly be responsible. Eventually, through some more experimentation, we realized my name tag had made the light. No language was needed. We shared ear to ear smiles, pointing at what we had figured out. No translator was needed.

At the end of the session we debriefed as a group. Someone asked about what had happened between me and the team. The atelierista included the following ideas in her response:

Documentation and observation are forms of caring. They are a way that we show people they are valued, that their process is valued. When we co-construct with someone we open ourselves up to great joy—the joy of discovering, of exploring, and of empowering. What happened there clearly was of great benefit to the person being observed. It was also of great value to the observer. It incites in both a feeling that reminds us why we are teachers. 

It is okay to not be good at something. Even teachers who have been in the profession for two and three decades aren’t good at everything. Running towards the dissonance is the only way to get better. If I had faded into the background, embracing my most base level instinct, the profound moment I had the fortune of sharing wouldn’t have been possible.  I would not have felt the overwhelming joy of discovery, neither would the teacher who co-constructed with me.

The trip to Reggio has been a time of great reflection for me. Over the course of this year I have been given multiple opportunities to evolve as an educator, from optional workshops to mandatory classes to insightful conversations with colleagues in passing. This year has been designed for me to grow. I’ve embraced it as much as I can. The trip to Reggio Emilia felt like a culmination in a sense, a time of realization that I am not the educator that I was nine months ago.

Below is a panel Sam created from photographs of the experience.

Mosaicofmarks 2

The Professional Quality Series: Reflective Observation

This post was contributed by current Mentor Teacher Meagan Arango. It is part of a series on the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities.

Reflective Observation: This quality speaks to your capacity for close and careful observation and how to use your observations in ways that raise the quality of work and life for those with whom you are in contact. Through reflective observation of yourself, of children, and of other adults you will develop a keen level of self-awareness, awareness of your work environment, and awareness of the world around you that can be used to make informed decisions regarding your professional work. You will engage in a mindful attitude of work with children and adults. Through reflective observation of children, you will be capable of giving words to the children’s gestures and actions, as well as capable of silence and listening to the children. You will be capable of a micro gaze even when you are in a macro environment, and you will understand what is going on enough to notice, capture moments, value these moments, and use these moments to re-launch ideas.

Why Observation?

qUbY57UHxNO6I4E96RNejFQMU2UqdPuMiz8hxKxinZkOxpLiX5Tp5Nz3a1s7KRfb0i_7MivRdU7cEIAVobg0QUJhOXWcjbq7RG7bDYG-AFOcH0IVEM49aPWkraqHSFbTWTkEHDI_3NJlYVU9V8KnrYYDUMABD-3EjAeNukEACcUj68gLR89DvyykG5Observation is integral to the work we do at Boulder Journey School. It is one of the most powerful tools we can use to keep pace with the children as they rapidly learn and grow. Regular observation allows us to design dynamic, high-quality experiences and environments. It allows us to cater our approach to suit the developmental level, cultural background, and personality of each child. Most of all, it invites the voices of the children into these processes–even those who are not yet speaking–because we work in response to what we observe. Most educators, I would bet, can get behind that. Traditional and non-traditional settings have long required teachers to perform formative assessments, inviting educators to tailor their instruction to each child’s observable signs of learning. We think observation can be taken even further.

67Rp-_dbsoXmSTYX5AO5WQygpH8yhZQ1c3LUmKH-lG-BAbdQ5FRbruVMKp_lViBI1f6vSBMpqVHc6SoozP89NcaYCc_n0KKUjgZ_ww9dM9igQBua7GlkUl7FxeOoDfBu5YsI9MKvfFhbve26uXJN_FCjASP0A6pTR2X2JQHrjoQr54yNltAX3P_2b9In the context of our school, observation is not just an occasional tool of assessment. It is a frame of mind, a cultivated skill that becomes second nature. We use it to know the children, to know ourselves, and to know our surroundings. We strive to be in a constant state of observation because we believe that people are–by nature–in constant pursuit of their own learning. Using observation, we join the children on that path, learning alongside them and negotiating an emergent curriculum together.

What does it look like?

To give a sense of what observation looks like at Boulder Journey School, I posed a few simple questions to my colleagues:

When is the best time to observe?

What are your favorite tools of observation?

What do you do with your observations?

Their responses were anything but simple. Let’s start, for instance, with tools of observation.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 6.57.00 PM

There are certain tools that are popular by consensus: still and video cameras, audio recording, and good old-fashioned note taking were commonly listed. But the difference is in the details. As each educator described their tools of choice, they often elaborated–insisting that different tools were best-suited to different tasks: video gives us insight into gesture, context, relationships. Audio recordings help us focus on the expressive potentials of voice, breath, language, and silence. Note-taking invites us to jot down quotes, noticings, interpretations, sketches, questions, and ideas for the future. Most teachers, for this reason, described using a combination of tools to work toward a diversity of data.


But how do you know where to look, what to listen to, and when to start recording? The answers, again, varied widely, running the gamut from: “All the time!” to “When I have a specific goal in mind”. Everyone agreed, though, that whether you meticulously prepare or discover a meaningful moment off the cuff, observation is a process that carries the promise of surprise. You just never know what the children are going to do! Our Studio Teacher, Jen Selbitschka, described the balance between intention and happenstance this way:

“Sometimes I go in planning to observe something specific, but experiences with children take so many paths that I cannot predict ahead of time, and I find myself constantly making moment-to-moment decisions about what is important to capture at the time. I often uncover stories I was not aware existed when I look at my photographs after an experience.”

This brings me to my next question: what do you do with your observations after the fact? Here, the responses were pretty consistent: we share them, we use them, and we reflect on them. Our educators described sharing observations with co-teachers, with directors, with parents and–especially–with the children. They discussed using their observations: to inform decisions, to theorize, to spark conversations, to develop curriculum. And everyone described a process of reflection. So what does that mean?

What is Reflective Observation?

IcGmjxur4OPpKi1gJBtseE0tRRxsTmRQiQtKNgRLv3WqLSGH5wkphNiC-XbSvUQ8V-gMHPHysTeZQh5AgXNfgtHlImUV45bscOSfjcQgpwzoSyLlTnmwQB3IRNYVRQ33CRl2DeLqMi_YNeIveMncmlpzlFSA1pUTMkB6nP_viwUmPNAMkODSsZVxkaReflect is one of those great words that carries two oppositional meanings. The first refers to the way a mirror reflects. This definition describes the interplay between waves and particles of energy and the surface of an object: instead of absorbing light, the mirror bounces it back, creating a reflection. It is a moment of active contact: energy collides with an object and is ricocheted back, sometimes seeming to be multiplied. Imagine echoes in a tiled room; bright sunlight on a fresh snowbank; trees mirrored on a still pond. These are all forms of reflection. The second meaning of reflect is an internal, mental process. To reflect is to think deeply, carefully, intentionally. Unlike the first, this type of reflection requires absorption. Where the first is a product of energetic movement, the second implies a stillness that is necessary to process information.


So when we describe observation as reflective, you might expect that we mean the word one way or the other. But here, we mean it both ways. That’s because our job as educators is not only to process and interpret what we observe internally, but also to bounce it back to the children and adults we work with. When we reflect inwardly, we deepen our work; when we reflect outwardly, we amplify it. It’s the dual action that offers access to the metacognitive processes that so enrich learning.

So, when the educators at Boulder Journey School described the process of reflecting, it naturally took on many different forms. Journaling, thinking, watching and re-watching video, looking back at photos, transcribing conversations, analyzing, researching, synthesizing, wondering, questioning. Reflection, in short, is the action we educators take to learn alongside the children, using our observations as our guide.

How can you get started?

Reflective observation is a complex and individualized process. It looks different for every person. No matter what form it takes, quality observation requires flexibility, openness, focus, and rigor. So pick a tool. Pick a time. And remember that it doesn’t end with watching, listening and recording. Reflective observation is ongoing. It has a quality of reverberation, creating waves that affect change both inwardly and outwardly. And as we cultivate these skills and habits, it is a process by which we can become ever-better versions of ourselves.

Oliver Goes to the Moon: A Video Analysis

As a school, we use video documentation to guide our work with children. One crucial piece of working with video is revisiting the video, analyzing it to pull out questions for further research or to reach new understandings of children’s and teachers’ motivations. We practice analyzing videos with interns and mentors.

Below is a video and write-up that we have shared with Videatives, an organization with whom we partner.

“[Study] results indicate that children may sometimes be confused about the nature of imagined objects, although these confusions do not occur all the time. Thus, it is not the case that children are either perpetually confused or perpetually clear about this distinction between imagination and reality.” – Weisberg, D. 2013.“Distinguishing Imagination from Reality.” The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination. P. 82 

The video opens on a child, Oliver, 3 years old, sitting inside a structure composed of fabric and piping. It is a little hard to see in this video, but there is a projection of a space scene on the fabric in front of him.

He is holding his hands about “steering wheel distance” apart and making a steady hum engine noise in his throat. About 15 seconds in, the sound in his throat catches. He continues with the sound, now a broken hum (we will use the onomatopoeia “hm-hm” for the broken sound), for about four seconds. At this point, Oliver’s eyebrows knit together, and he looks down.

“Why did it just go “hm-hm”? He picks up a block and, while examining the block says, “We need to stop it for a sec. We need to stop it because it just went ‘hm-hm’” He makes the broken sound again a few times.

His teacher, Charlotte, who is holding the camera, asks, “That’s not how it’s supposed to sound?” Oliver shakes his head, no.

Charlotte asks, “Alright, are you going to fix the engine so you can keep traveling to the moon?”

Oliver looks to the projection of space. He points to a spot, “Maybe to that over there. I’m supposed to drive over there.”

He then arranges a series of loose parts (pvc type piping) in front of him and says, “Beep-beep- beep-beep,” while poking at the blue block he was holding earlier.

Charlotte holds up another loose part, “Oli, here’s some tools.” He takes them from her and proceeds to touch them to the piping, concentrating intently on his work.

A question to consider is, how did Oliver write the script for his play? From his initial actions and his teacher’s initial attempt to redirect him to flying to the moon, it seems that the script was to fly a spaceship to the moon.

Did Oliver’s voice break, causing him to hear the engine as breaking? Or was that intentional? His initial look of confusion implies that for a moment, he may have truly believed the spaceship was broken. Did he temporarily forget that he had control over the script?

As Weisberg noted in her study (link above), “It is not the case that children are either perpetually confused or perpetually clear about this distinction between imagination and reality.” Where did Oliver sit in this distinction?