From Tennessee to Shangri-la

My uncle recently returned to the United States from China to visit my family.  His jet-lag and our early morning schedule led to quite a few discussions over 5:00 am coffee.  During one such conversation, he mentioned that he had recently been appointed the Program Director of a brand new conservation center in Shangri-la, Tibet.

He and the members of his staff have made it their mission to stem the gradual destruction of China’s landscape, native species, and indigenous cultures.  His organization originally came to Tibet in order to help small villages with infrastructural projects, such as assisting in the development of economically sustainable trade to replace the farming of poppies.  Over time, they ended up providing the villages with an entirely different and equally invaluable resource: education.  Since its inception, the center has functioned as a hub for local artisans, international students, documentary filmmakers, and especially young Tibetans interested in learning English.

Our conversations centered primarily around the educational initiatives of the center.  My uncle mentioned that his staff subscribes to a place-based, student guided teaching philosophy.  He talked a lot about the landscape of Tibet, as well as the interactions between his highly educated, multi-lingual staff and the local residents of Gongbing, the Tibetan village within walking distance of the Zhongdian facility.  He lovingly described taking his mixed age class down to the lake to teach them to fish; the moment he turned his back, the children all stripped off their clothes and ran headlong into the water.  He laughed as he told me that it is standard policy for his organization to award a prize each semester to the first student to find a leech on his or her body.  I told him a few stories about the antics of some of my wilder students.


He talked about how impossible it is to teach his students English, math, and science with chalkboards and dry British-English textbooks.  Based on his experiences as a biologist, he chose to adopt a model of engaging students through their connection to the natural surroundings they call home.  The village leader was skeptical that learning was happening while the children of his village hiked, swam, played sports, explored local flora and fauna, and laughed.  To win his approval the center agreed to instate a single yearly written exam, although its results have no impact on the students’ good standing.  My uncle’s struggles sounded all too familiar to me.

During one of our morning conversations, I mentioned that the nature program at my Reggio Emilia-inspired school sounds a lot like his in Tibet.  He said that he had never heard of Reggio Emilia.

Over the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that despite never having read a single article by Loris Malaguzzi, Lev Vygotsky, or Jean Piaget, my uncle (a career field biologist) has as firm a grasp on what it means to work in the Reggio Way as any educator I’ve ever met.  After all, what makes an institution Reggio isn’t the name, but the practice itself.  What could be more Reggio than an educational center founded from an effort to help marginalized populations of indigenous people thrive?  What better way is there to ensure the survival of priceless cultural traditions than to raise strong, confident, young citizens?

In my opinion, the Reggio Emilia philosophy isn’t an educational dogma to be subscribed to.  It isn’t even really a specific set of techniques that can be implemented in a classroom setting.  In many ways, it is a consequence of a particular personal belief: the belief that children are an essential and incredibly influential part of their communities.  Regardless of what avenue or career path leads an individual to that understanding, the manner in which they choose to engage with young students will be reminiscent of the values held near and dear to Reggio educators.

I think we need to be reminded sometimes that “community” is a vague word.  Depending on how we use it, and how we think about it, it can stretch to the end of the block or to the edge of the Earth.  As educators, we negotiate a community of learning with our students.  We also create a sense of community between the parents of our students and the staff of our institutions.  But Reggio educators themselves form a widespread community as well.  The sharing of experiences, ideas, victories, and challenges through discourse, training, conferences, and social media is essential to the growth of the Reggio Emilia philosophy.  From the Far East to the West Coast, regardless of our political leanings, socio-economic standing, or education, we all believe in the profound power children have to influence their world.


But we also need to keep in mind that there are members of our educational community that we have never met.  There are “Reggio” educators all over East and Southeast Asia that do what they do because it is the most direct and efficacious way to protect their endangered localities.  The Reggio Emilia philosophy doesn’t belong to Italy, the United States, or even the West.  It belongs to parents, nurturers, guardians, and humanitarians the world over.  It belongs to any group of people who understand that the future well-being of their society turns upon the empowerment of successive generations.

So much of what we do every day in the classroom involves encouraging students to think outside the box, and I think it would be hypocritical not to the do the same when it comes to improving our practice as teachers.  Frank Zappa once said, “a mind is like a parachute; it doesn’t work if it isn’t open.”  It might be in our best interest to put an ear to the wall from time to time.  Whether teachers use the title “Reggio-inspired” or not, Reggio practice is happening around us all the time.  Homeschooling, nature education, place-based learning, and especially Responsive Classroom practices have a tendency to line up beautifully with the mindsets of many teachers working in the Reggio Way.  With a slightly wider perspective, it is easy to see that our Reggio community is far bigger than we could ever imagine.  Without the rigidity present in many other educational philosophies, we are free to incorporate the lessons that other alternative educators have to offer.

The learning that happens in our classrooms is beneficial to our students but the work we do also serves a greater purpose.  Education is the act of protecting and strengthening culture.  The communities we create, whether in the hills of Tennessee or on the steppes of Tibet, lay the groundwork for children to grow with the knowledge that they belong.



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