Before I launch into my thoughts on this topic, I want to state that I know everyone is trying their best- especially in recent months. Parents of young children in particular are deserving of much grace and support as they work to navigate these trying times. I in no way mean to belittle or diminish anyone’s efforts as I look at parent engagement through the lens of innovative educational practices. My criticism in the paragraphs below (and posts to follow) is pointed at the traditional Western system of education and how that influences adults and children.
In my experience, young children essentially behave the same in the virtual learning space as they do in a physical learning space. The major difference between the experiences, as it relates to what I’m seeing during my Zoom/Outschool classes, is the influence and/or interference of caregivers. The children who are offered complete autonomy and children who attend meetings with a supportive caregiver (i.e. one who does not interfere with or interrupt their experience) consistently contribute to the group in ways that indicate authentic, reciprocal engagement. Occasionally children will participate in the experiences with caregivers who appear to be unsure of how to afford space in a Reggio-inspired learning experience. In this latter category I get the sense that these caregivers are behaving the same regardless of the context. For example, even after I offer “best practice” suggestions of how to provide children with access to the class experience that are aligned with a strong image of the child, some caregivers will mute the child, restrict access to the device during the class and/or answer questions for the child if she hesitates or seems unsure of how to respond to an open-ended question.
As I reflect on my teaching practice and the possibilities for bringing Reggio-inspired practices into the virtual space, I often return to the question of how to utilize documentation in my new, somewhat ephemeral classroom experiences. Loris Malaguzzi’s thoughts on documentation provide inspiration, as he explains in the Hundred Languages in Ministories, “Teachers must leave behind an isolated, silent mode of working that leaves no trace. Instead, they must discover ways to communicate and document the children’s evolving experiences at school. They must prepare a steady flow of quality information addressed to parents but appreciated also by the children and other educators. This flow of documentation, we believe, introduces parents to a quality of knowing that changes their expectations and their views about the experience their children are living; they take a new and more inquisitive approach toward the school experience. With regard to children, they become even more curious, interested, and confident as they contemplate the meaning of what they have achieved.”
In October 2020 broadened my documentation practice (which had once just included written notes and Zoom meeting recordings for documenting virtual classes) to include capturing screen grabs and more intentional recordings from some of my multi-day classes (with consent of the caregivers, of course). Through the process of creating and sharing these documented artifacts I discovered subtle details of the children’s actions and new ways of offering children and families to engage in their learning. Lately I’m thinking more about how the experience of participating in Zoom classes is in itself an experience in making learning visible. Many of the children appear to be keenly aware of their likeness on the screen and experiment with making adjustments to it by changing things such as facial expressions and distance from the screen. Many appear to be familiar with how they are seen by the camera and others; for example when sharing items from home they appear to be making adjustments to the items placement based on what they are seeing in their video box and/or hearing from other participants.
I am deeply encouraged by the Reggio-inspired messages regarding teaching as a practice that is meant to be reciprocal and active. When I read Carolyn Edward’s description in The Hundred Languages of Children on the role of the teacher in Reggio Emilia as one that “is complex, multifaceted, and necessarily fluid, responsive to the changing times and needs of children, families, and society.” I feel empowered to continue to fine-tune my teaching practices for the virtual space and I hope to offer caregivers, namely those who do not carry a strong image of the child, with a dynamic perspective about children’s abilities in the virtual learning space and beyond.