Creating The Best Possible Story
“We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter, then, is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world one story at a time.”
In Oregon, the school year is just beginning. People – teachers, staff, children and families – are feeling tremendous anxiety. Just a few months ago, we thought we were leaving the pandemic behind; instead, the Delta variants are leaving few hospital beds empty. Even in this very young school year, the US has already had stories of transmission across classrooms as a teacher reads a book aloud; of superintendents dismissed for following mask rules.
This health crisis demands accommodations to reduce transmission. Engineers and public health experts are addressing the proper ventilation and groupings to achieve that aim. The trauma we are all experiencing requires tending, too. It invites us to reconsider and throw aside many approaches that have become habitual: we can use this pandemic as a portal and stitch a new garment.
Doing so means finding a way for each child to enter school fully, with their identities intact, and coming together with others to encounter the world and come out transformed. Maria Popova, says that “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete.” There’s no question that moving forward is bold action – it always has been. Any effort towards greater justice in the world has required courage but has been emboldened by hope. Our education systems are the best hope we have for stitching that new garment together. But that is only true if educators understand they must take charge of re-inventing themselves first.
To play is to dwell willingly in uncertainty and imagination, and because play is the most natural language and learning strategy of children, to work alongside children is to work alongside hope. Hope is a drive to make sense of things and to generate the courage we need to do something about the things that don’t. The children arrive ready. And we can choose to make school a place that is ready for them.
Schools are often fragmented from the world, and so children are fragmented from much of what goes on in the world, while they sit in classrooms that don’t talk about the world as it is, but spend a lot of time being talked at about things that are supposed to prepare them for the future world. When the world comes in, teachers are often unprepared. Because we are so accustomed to the fragmentation of the school from society – thinking of school as preparation for work and not for civic discourse or participation in the present tense – we often don’t know how to respond. We are afraid to respond. But Paola Cagliari, pedagogista from Reggio Emilia, Italy, makes a bold point. She writes:
“There is no point in discussing a renewal of our educational system if we do not tie politics and pedagogy closely together.”
Because, whether we acknowledge it or not, life in the classroom is preparation for life in society. And if we are not intentional about preparing children for participation in a democracy, we very well may be preparing them, incidentally, for facism. This is why we need to be so intentional about the relationships between what we’re doing now and what we want to see in the world, and to recognize that they are all connected. They matter. All pedagogy is political as it sets in motion the systems that we design to govern ourselves.
Because we have willfully built a system that does not require connections between what came before and what happens next, and that is not often courageous enough to ask questions that no one knows the answer to yet, as citizens we are too easily convinced to rely on promises of certainty or a strict set of rules. Because we do not practice sharing our stories and seeing how much we live in each other’s lives, we are willing to live with consequences that strip others of their basic human rights. If we cannot think interdependently, it is reasonable to keep doing things that don’t work and insist that someone else is to blame. It is easy to forget that a life that is not beautiful or just for one cannot be beautiful or just for any.
The classroom is perhaps the most powerful place to nurture the democratizing impulse. A classroom is a place where the personal or individual joins together with other individuals to form a local group that is influenced by what is going on in the world and that has the potential to work together to make the world a place where they want to live together with other individuals and other local communities. We see our role as teachers as the primary negotiators of relationship between these things, all of which are vital contributing forces and concerns in the classroom.
That’s the kind of experience that each of the young adults reflecting on their childhoods discuss in this film: one where being seen wholly was a precondition to seeing others and growing with integrity. It happens when teachers view the standards identified by state agencies as questions that children have a right to engage with – and where that engagement will help them make sense of things that they already care about.
We believe that play offers a strategy to construct the pathway between the personal, local, and global. That is something that the pre-primary programs of Reggio Emilia offered as a springboard out of – and bulwark against – Italian fascism. It is something older children have shown us repeatedly. We look forward to sharing and unpacking those stories with you.
Susan Harris MacKay & Matt Karlsen
Image: PILAglobal. For more information about how you can support Nests serving children experiencing dislocation crises, visit https://www.pilaglobal.org/
Susan and Matt’s upcoming webinar, Reinventing Schooling – A Practice that Connects the Personal, Local and Global, will be online on Saturday September 11th 2021. Please click here to register.