Reggio, Citizenship, and the Power of Difference

The Reggio Way isn’t quite like other educational philosophies.  While it shares commonalities with many other approaches to learning, it holds the importance of citizenship as one of its core tenants.  Facilitating the mental and physical growth of students in a safe and inviting environment is the ultimate goal, but the method by which such facilitation occurs is of vital importance to Reggio educators.  Children are not along for the ride; as both the actors and directors of their learning journeys, they play an integral role in the formation of their classroom rules, expectations, and investigations.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines citizenship as “carrying out the duties and responsibilities of a member of a particular society.”  In a Reggio-inspired classroom, the teachers and the students are both equally valuable citizens, which endows them with a long and interconnected list of rights.  The citizens of a classroom have the right to learn in a judgement free environment; they have a right to safety; they also have a right to be respected, encouraged, and nurtured through positive social interactions.

But as most political philosophers would tell us, the rights of a citizen come with certain expectations.  Each and every citizen has responsibilities as well, not the least of which is to uphold the rights of other members of a community.  Together, citizens of a classroom (and of societies at large) work together to establish the framework by which they would like to conduct their learning.  In a Reggio-inspired environment, they discuss what captivates them, what makes them uncomfortable or discouraged, and what makes them feel empowered and content.

Politics is a difficult subject for many adults because, especially for Americans, it is incredibly divisive.  Political leanings classify us and sometimes encourage us to classify the people we encounter from day to day.  We agree or disagree with individuals chosen to represent our political groups, sometimes more externally than we mean to.

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Discussions of politics in the classroom can be a slippery slope.  As adults, we are more attuned to the comings and goings of the political status quo than children, which necessitates for us a certain degree of vigilance.  Because citizenship is an inherently political concept, we sometimes discuss the difficulties of American citizenship in the same breath that we express political frustration.  For many adults, they are so intermingled that we lose the ability to consciously separate them in moments of passion.

But for children, the responsibilities of a citizen, especially the responsibility to respect the unalienable rights of other citizens, must necessarily derive from universal principles of empathy.  Instead of presenting citizenship as a function of politics, we as educators have the opportunity to present it as a function of humanitarianism.  The reason we should respect the rights of others is not because they agree with us or align with our beliefs.  Children and adults should respect the rights of others because, no matter what they believe, every human deserves to belong to a community of acceptance.

It is my personal belief that it isn’t always enough to discuss principles of acceptance in general terms.  Even if we tell children things like “all people deserve our respect,” outcomes like Jane Elliot’s 1968 Brown-Eyes-Blue-Eyes experiment can still happen.  Just like most people, I have my political leanings, but they are irrelevant.  I believe that we shouldn’t shy away from conversations of how people are different, and we shouldn’t restrict difference to the categories that we as adults most commonly identify with division.  Race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation are obvious points of contention for politically aware adults, but age, ability, and education are also incredibly impactful in this day and age.  Not only should each and every difference be discussed, but they should also identified, contextualized, and celebrated, particularly in a context in which children do not agree with one another.

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People, whether children or adults, are more complex than the conscious and unconscious categories we separate each other into.  Political alignment is a tiny fragment of what makes a person’s identity, as is eye color, the brand of shoes on their feet, or how they choose to conduct themselves from moment to moment.  In our classroom, we discourage our students from essentializing each other based on isolated actions.  Statements like “she hit me, so she’s mean” can spread like wildfire and grow to profoundly affect the identity of a student.  Being called “mean” can eventually convince that student that they really are a mean person, and incite the very behavior others criticize them for.  In such situations, statements like “she hit me, and I don’t like that” can break the cycle.  Likewise, instead of using language like, “you are not my friend,” we advocate for statements along the lines of “I don’t want to play with you right now.”  We don’t always make an effort to arbitrarily encourage certain children to play together.  We don’t force every child of our school to get along, because doing so would be counter-productive to their social-emotional growth.  As a class, we have discussed the form we want our rights and responsibilities to take; whether or not we agree, we expect that children interact with each other and their environment in a polite and respectful manner.  We expect them to treat each other, and the adults in their lives, in the manner they feel a contributing, respectful member of their community ought to be treated.

The truth of the matter is that people are different, and they don’t always agree.  Our society isn’t egalitarian, and it often times isn’t fair.  As our students grow, they will inevitably come across people and situations that are anathema to them.  Part of our job as educators working in the Reggio Way is to cultivate in them a strong sense of moral responsibility for their communities.  It is easy to respect those with which we agree; maintaining respect in moments of disagreement is the ultimate test of citizenship.  As Gandi said, “honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”  Acceptance and openness are concepts we as citizens have to build from the ground up, both in our classrooms and in our world.  They are values that we have to work together to construct, strive to maintain, and actively espouse to other citizens who, like us, deserve to belong.

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