“Art is not a part of life, it is not an addition to life, it is the essence of those pieces of us that make us fulfilled. That give us hope. That give us dreams and provide the world a view very different than what it would have been without us.” – Hasan Davi

Afrofututrism-Part 1, A New Lens By Which to See, Inspired by Cyrus Kabiru

This Spring as a school, we focused on elevating Black Joy, Excellence, and Culture through living folx throughout the African diaspora. And while this is a project that we engaged in from February through beginning of April, Black Joy is intended to be a provocation for continued expansive teaching practice and curriculum development at School Within School as a core principle.

Super Heroes inspired by Artist Hebru Brantley By Ava, age 5 “My super power is spreading LOVE!!!!!!!”

In the Atelier, Black Lives Matter at School is 24/7, through expression, art, culture, movements, and making. The narrow expanse historically of art, art institutions, and art education has centered white male Eurocentric artists, with a handful of women and BIPOC thrown in during their designated cultural months.

I dare say it is easy to scrap the white supremacist model of art education because there are limitless and boundless histories, cultures, and BIPOC and women artists to center to inspire young children (and ourselves) to express and transform power, beauty, and aesthetic.

Inspired by an art exhibit I visited in Barcelona 5 years ago “Making Africa”, and as the Early Childhood Atelierista (working virtually yet live with the children), I centered our Black Joy, Excellence, and Innovation projects around Afrofuturism.

Part 1 was inspired by Cyrus Kabiru.

From the essay Afrofuturism Has Always Looked Forward: How can the ideology serve as a blueprint for cultural growth? by Taylor Crumpton:

“For the uninitiated, Afrofuturism is a fluid ideology shaped by generations of artists, musicians, scholars, and activists whose aim is to reconstruct “Blackness” in the culture. Reflected in the life and works of such figures as Octavia Butler, Sojourner Truth, Sun Ra, and Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism is a cultural blueprint to guide society. The term was coined by Mark Dery in 1993 but birthed in the minds of enslaved Africans who prayed for their lives and the lives of their descendants along the horrific Middle Passage. The first Afrofuturists envisioned a society free from the bondages of oppression — both physical and social. Afrofuturism imagines a future void of white supremacist thought and the structures that violently oppressed Black communities. Afrofuturism evaluates the past and future to create better conditions for the present generation of Black people through the use of technology, often presented through art, music, and literature.”

We began by being inspired by the vision and genius of Cyrus Kabiru.

The 3 to 6 year old children were spellbound listening to and watching Cyrus speak and create Making Wearables Through E-Waste.

“I grew up surrounded by a lot of trash,” says Cyrus Kabiru of his childhood. “The biggest dumpsite in Nairobi was right opposite my house. I used to tell my dad, ‘When I grow up I’ll give trash a second chance.’ I used to feel like trash also needs a chance to live.”

After looking at Mr. Kabiru’s glasses ( C-Stunners, as he calls them), glasses no one had ever imagined before, I explained how he is called an Afrofuturist. He is an artist from Kenya who creates art that no one in the world has ever seen before, he creates by making a new and better future, where trash is given a second chance. All of his C-Stunners also tell a story. Each one is different. He is a creative genius.

“To me, being an Afrofuturist is a mix of creativity from different continents.” •

His increasing success in the art world has afforded Kabiru the opportunity to travel and to expand his collection of found objects. •

He says: “When I go to London, I’ll pick up trash. I always pick up trash from different continents. If I make an artwork with European trash, my work will look newer, so I try to combine old Kenyan trash and new European trash.”

This was a project we returned to for many weeks. This returning is to practice depth, as opposed to a make-it take-it crafting hour. Each class we re-visted Mr. Kabiru through looking at his art and watching and listening to him speak to us through videos. As children constructed, an Afrofuturism playlist that I created of SunRa, Janelle Monet, Laura Mvula, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kamasi Washington, Eryka Badu, Valerie June and more played. The sensory and delight of the creative process was compelling to observe. The music helped keep track of time and guide children into a state of flow.

I could see into all the squares on the Teams Meeting where children were experimenting, constructing, and creating, all while centering the Afrofuturist ideals of Cyrus Kabiru.

Cyrus Kabiru, Mixed Media Art

We did multi-modal language shifting by using our sculptures as a provocation for mixed media 2d collage art (as Cyrus Kabiru also uses photography and mixed media collage to express his stories.)

All of this project work is happening during a global pandemic. This is relevant. There is no doubt that each child and adult has experienced trauma, loss, and abrupt change. Because trauma is experienced inwardly, with no words to express,(especially if you are 3-6- years old) the act of making and creating in an open-ended and expansive manner allows one to process (often unconsciously) pain or anxiety. The brain shifts and creates new passageways during making. When these neurological passageways shift, you are released from the biological and emotional effects of fight, flight, or freeze. Expression through the arts releases and heals emotionally and neurologically.

Right now, in the newspaper is the unrelenting horror of the details of the murder of Mr George Floyd. What strikes one, is the fact that the police officer who kneeled on the neck of Mr Floyd and killed him ceased to see his humanity. What strikes one, is the fact that a trial is even necessary when the world witnessed his tragic death via a cell phone video. What strikes one, is those who watched who had the power to stop another Black man, another human being, from being killed just watched. The othering and dehumanizing of Black and Brown children and adults hails from the transatlantic slave trade. It is enmeshed in all of our systems, including our education systems. We are raised in the subtle and the obvious ways that creates internalized hatred of BIPOC.

We are all, within our capacity able to create, demand, imagine, and act in a way that centers Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and dismantles white supremacy culture. For me it is as a mother, artist, educator, and activist.

As children gazed at the beauty and genius of Cyrus Kabiru, valuing his existence, we are reminded of the importance of our our daily work. Especially with our youngest citizens.

“Why do we care about what the Afrofuturist has to say? And why would we suspect that their answers would differ from that of an average futurist? It is because the Black experience is defined by a historical struggle for existence, the right to live, to be considered a person, to be afforded basic rights, in pursuit of (political, social, economic) equality. Because of this, the Afrofuturist can see the parts of the present and future that reside in the status quo’s blind spots.”

From the article “How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend”, by C. Brandon Ogbunu

Our paths co-constructing Afrofuturist thinking and making in the Atelier/Art Studio led us next to The Black Indians of New Orleans, The Super Heroes of Hebru Brantley, and The Quilters of Gee’s Bend. The journey of learning and thinking as an Afrofuturist makes visible Black Joy, Excellence, and Innovation intrinsically. It goes on and on. Like the C-Stunners of Cyrus Kabiru, Afrofuturism offers us all a new lens by which to see, especially in the blind spots.

“People speak different languages, because that’s how they are made.” Remy, age 5

Wow, it has been a looooong time since I last blogged.

I will start from today though, from now, November 12th, 2020.

And right now, I can share that it is not only possible to connect and create virtually with 3-6 year old humans in the Atelier, it is meaningful, compassionate, and inspiring.

There is still opening and closing rituals, music, stories, provocations, and just like being in person, there is sustained time where there is a flow of constructing, experimenting, and expressing (with music flowing and me, not talking.) And there is still Reggio Inspired Projects and the possibilities of expressing understandings in 100 Languages.

We began the school year with the provocation of Monarch butterflies and as they emerged and began their migration to Michoacán, Mexico, we moved from local to global. We moved from the simplicity that all living things migrate to the complexities of human migration.

Here is some documentation to connect you to the rigor, depth, and joy of our weekly one hour Atelier LIVE with Ms McLean.

To end this post, I leave you with a link and a quote.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is an extraordinary Mexican artist who uses technologies to create art about human connection. In 2019, I took both PreK classes to his interactive exhibit that connected human heartbeats and fingerprints to beautiful pulsing lights and waves. It was transformative.

He recently creating mind blowing art interactions at the US/Mexican border.

If you have 17 minutes to spare, watching this video by Art 21, Rafael Lozano Hemmer “Borderlands” will surely move you. I hope it will also give you perspective on the importance of the thinking and doing that children manifest in the Atelier. Children, in fact, imagined, like Hemmer, ways to connect people, despite the complexities of pandemics or borders.

Artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer on the Importance of Telling Complex, Nuanced  Border Stories - The Texas Observer
Hemmer’s installation allowed people in both Juarez and El Paso communicate by manipulating and crossing search lights and speaking into microphones that worked as a sound tunnel.

What Hemmer has imagined and created is not so different than Delilah or Aliya, both in PreK4

“There is art on the ground on both sides of the wall, and people can talk about it through the tunnel.” Delilah

“”I made a big chair in the Middle of the wall so the kids from both countries can sit together to talk or read books. Kids holding hands together and dancing I also draw a tree house with a balloon and a big bear.”  Aliya B., PreK4

Delilah
Aliya, PreK4

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.”
— James Baldwin

I hope you will engage through leaving comments, wonderings, or connections below. In gratitude.

“Optimism is our instinct to inhale while suffocating. Our need to declare what ‘needs to be’ in the face of what is. Optimism is not uncool; it is rebellious and daring and vital.” Ava DuVernay

This year, when I asked kids if they knew who the Dr Martin Luther King was, I knew what I did not want to hear.

I did not want to look at faces of children ages 3-6 as they explained in detail that “I know about Martin Luther King, Jr! He was shot and killed. By a gun!!!”

I did not want to hear, “He is dead! He was killed!”

I did not want to hear, “My mommy/daddy knows about him”

This year, with our youngest students, my goal was to take a deep dive into the meaning of Dr Martin Luther King, and especially the relevance of his life and words to children ages 3-6 years old.

My goal was to explicitly talk about race.

My goal was that when they see his face that the thoughts they have might revolve around love, power, non-violent resistance, awe, Black hero, American hero, strength, optimism, and change.

And so, I began by introducing the concept of love.

I asked:

What is love?

What does it look like?

Who do you imagine?

How is love powerful?

What can love do or change?

A group of PreK3 children responded:

Collins, Age 3

“We love our Mommies” Brayden

“And we love our Daddies, our brothers, our friends” John

“It looks like when you paint and make it sparkly.”

Lucy, age 3

“True love. It means you get married. And we don’t bite anyone.”

Some PreK4 responses:

“Love is giving a hug, you can share.” Daylin , age 4

“You can make (draw) lines and colors of love.” Tinsley, age 4

“Love is Peace.” Jack B., age 4

“Love is true-ness and happiness.” Milo, age 4

Bryce, PreK

“Love is the bottom of the water that you don’t resist. It means love is like the water on the bottom of the heart.” Ethan, age 4

“Kindness is what you can do with love.” Sebastian

Some Kindergarten responses:

“You can love other people if you try. If you’re mean, other people won’t love you.” Eli, age 5

“Give love out. Go to that person. I love you. I like you. I want to play with you.” Aiden F., age 5

I had this conversation with all 100 plus children.

All this work has been further supported by Black Lives Matters in Education Week, a Black Lives Matter in Education teacher group at SWS, and of course Black History month.

Talking about Racism, Race, and Black Lives is not limited to February, however there is a wealth of great resources and workshops that pop up every February that enriches and expands perspectives.

From the Women’s Wave March

Black families live with the daily conversation of race and racism. White families struggle with talking about race or don’t. (Throughout this post are some wonderful resources.) The article below is really well written for families.

How to talk about racism with your children (for white parents.)

A group of SWS Educators attended multiple events through DC Educators for Social Change. One seminar that was extremely supportive in terms of materials, information, resources, and colleagues was Looking at Race through Early Childhood Picture Books.

For the past two years I have been urging teachers to look at the picture books in their rooms. I ask, What if the majority of your picture books that are out in your classroom  have protagonists that are majority of color?

How could this small act to your environment change the paradigm of race for your children?

Children of color would have the opportunity to be the characters in books that everyone loves and see themselves!

White children would fall in love with brown and black characters.

I started seeing glimpses of this when Black Panther came out last year. Seeing white children pretend to be Black Panther and love Wakanda alongside their enthusiastic black and brown friends was a first for me. Usually it was the Black children dressing up as White Super Heroes and entering into popular culture dress ups that were not inclusive of them.

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Attending this session of Race through Early Childhood Picture Books really broadened and motivated my studio project which encompasses Social Emotional Learning, History, Anti-Racist Education, Arts Education, History, Social Studies, Science (projection), and Regional Arts, and Making.

The next phase of this project went something like this:

“We’ve been thinking about love and what it looks like or does.

One of my heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr. He is so important we get a Holiday off to honor him. He is a Black American Hero.”

He said:

“Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend.”

Do you know what an enemy is?

“A super hero has to have an enemy, so he can destroy him and save the world.” Kaleb

“An enemy is the bad guy.”

I clarified:  An enemy is a person who is always against and mean to someone or something.

What do you think this means? Would it be hard or easy to be nice to someone who was acting like an enemy? How do you turn an enemy into a friend?

This response was on the interactive board asking is it hard or easy to stand up for someone.

“I’m thinking about my family. You can hug people and talk to them when they are mean. It would be hard, but I’ll try.” Orly, age 4

“Laugh, and they will laugh back. And then they will be friends with you.” Aviv, age 4

“Be nice to them. Say I want you to be my friend. I want to play with you. I actually want to. And not fight.” Thulani, age 5

Braden, PreK3

“You can be my best friend. You don’t have to be mean.” Owen, age 5

“It would be hard not to be mean back.” Aiden M.

“You could say, Can you have a play date with me?” Minami, age 5

I began reading a few pages at a time of the book Martin’s Big Words. It is beautifully illustrated. The children were amazed to see Martin Luther King as a boy.

“He was a kid?” they often shouted out, when seeing the images of him walking by a whites only sign.

I stopped on one page and explained that a long time ago, the white people did not want to share any of the power with the brown and black people. In fact, only white men could make the rules. They didn’t share the parks, the schools, and the restaurants with the black and brown families. In fact, it was against the law. It was against the law to have all the children go to school together or even live together. Was that fair?

After each conversation or reading a few pages in the book at a time, we would draw, showing our thoughts on a photocopied picture of martin Luther King. I wanted his face to stay present as they explored their own thought through art making.

Children understand this idea of sharing power. After introducing this concept, when two children had a conflict, I would ask, are you two sharing the power? What can you do instead?

Each session in the Atelier/Art studio was layered. Reflecting back to the last conversation yet going deeper.

I added the quote, “Hate doesn’t take away hate. Only love can do that.”

For the children to ponder, I equated it to if someone is kicking you and being mean, and you kick back at them, then you have joined the meanness and made more kicking. What can you do instead? What if you see someone kicking a friend?

We ventured into what Standing up means.

Both historically, like Rosa Parks, but also within our school.

Another form of standing up and showing that Black Lives matter is through Art.

Renee Stout speaking at Phillips Gallery

I introduced Mural Arts as “Art for All the People.”

If I make a painting and hang it in my house, who gets to see it?

If I make a painting, and hang it a museum, when can people see it?

If there is a mural on the wall of big building, who gets to see it? When do people get to see it?

We watched video clips of DC Murals, time lapse of the process, and some clips about local mural artists like Aniekan Udofi.

“Hey, Ms. McLean, he’s black!” Christian, age 5, exclaimed with a huge smile.

More than 75% of artists in US Museum collections are white males. The NGA is even less diverse. (Article here). Similarly to exposing children to literature with pictures of black and brown characters, children must see the same robust diversity within the arts.

Signage from an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in NYC!
Tracing projected lines.

I proposed that each grade level would make a mural of the message of Dr Martin Luther King. Children could use projections and or trace their drawings or MLK’s portrait. Just like Aniekan, we would lay down the black lines first.

Before each mural painting session, we revisited some ideas.

What is martin Luther King’s message that you want to share?

Even though the times are better, there are still white people who do not want to share power. What can you do? When is a time you did or didn’t stand up for someone?

What murals have you seen? Do they have a message? We read more books, we looked at more murals, we talked about love and bad guys, and we talked about Martin Luther King fighting the white people who would not share power without ever using his fists or weapons.

I shared that I too would like to be more like Martin Luther King, but sometimes I make mistakes.

Lily, age 3
Kate P., age 3

This led children to really open up and think about their actions.

Remi, age 3

“Even when we make a mistake, we can go back and try to make it better or fix the situation. And we also learn from these mistakes.”

Teddy, age 3

In the past month the news has shown us photos of politicians in blackface, the fashion industry marketing fashion with racist implications, and an article from Alabama in support of bringing the KKK to Washington, DC (to name just a few).

We must plant these seeds of love and knowledge of injustice now.

I’ve been accused of being an optimist. Honestly, I know that my power lays within art making and art education/teaching. I do believe that intentional holistic anti-bias and anti-racist education does make a difference. Standing up and speaking out through the 100 Languages.

A friend shared this Time Magazine with a theme on Optimism.

“In this project, we explore not only the idea of optimism but its representation. The literal visibility of the proverbial bright side. To me, that is the job of art. To meet us where we are and to invite us in—to think, to feel, to wonder, to dream, to debate, to laugh, to resist, to roam, to imagine. Art is worthy of our interrogation and is in fact an antidote for our times. For the vital moment comes when we each must understand that the social, political and historical connectedness born of traumatic experiences can and should transform to true, elongated engagement with one another.” Ava DuVernay

Currently at SWS, two groups of teachers are involved in book studies. One is White Fragility and the other book is Beyond Heroes and Holidays .

By exploring white supremacy culture through reading, discussing, and widening perspective, we all become stronger.

Three year old Lucy, made a connection when we were questioning if an enemy can change.

“It’s like the Grinch. He took all the presents and then he heard all the singing, and his heart grew. He gave all the presents back. He changed.” (My heart grew 10 times in hearing this metaphor she was able to construct and share, at age 3!)

I have so much hope.

And then Beck, age 4 asked,

“But Ms. McLean, When is he coming back?”

“He’s not coming back Beck. Martin Luther King died. But his message lives on through all of us.”

“Well, we should send all our pictures and words to his family then. They would like that”

A sparkle of optimism.

Focusing on love.

In August, most of our school met for a retreat. At one point, we were asked to go around the table and share our intention for the school year. When it was my turn, I took a big risk, and I said, “This year, my intention and goal is to teach, learn, and encounter all the ups and downs with love. Not just the hippy part, but the hard, gritty, difficult part.”
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For 20 years I’ve been researching young children, creativity, and wonder.
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For eight years I have taught a Graduate University class called Art and Science-Developing Creativity at The Corcoran College of Art & Design/George Washington University.
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Research is in my favor here.
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Businesses want creative curious people. Think tanks want creative curious people. Scientists need creative curious people. Look at this article link here!
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Alas, policy only slides deeper into forcing children younger and younger to spend their formative years in a fixed mindset being coerced to decode and read long before they have had the experience to comprehend ideas, problems, relationships, and the world around them.
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Love.
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This is not a flaky word.
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Love is extremely difficult. It takes practice, passion, commitment, and grit when applied to any instance…sharing, mistake making, idea forming, friend making, conflict resolving, exploration, imagination, conversation.
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Without the source of love, there is no reason to keep on trying, to create something, solve something, learn something, get up after a fall.
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Often in life we are required to love a person (our children, our spouse, our sibling, our students, a neighbor), so in need of support that they act unloveable. Where does one build the capacity?
And what does this have to do with the Atelier, School Within School, with children, with collaboration, with wonder, with the 100 Languages?
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I would say everything.
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In the studio “can’t” is a bad word. A disabling word. What can you say instead? I need help, this is tricky, what do you think, how can I, what is not working here, can someone lend a hand, any ideas how to solve this?
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What else is a bad word: Good Job! The children are living life, not performing. What does one say instead?
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You worked really hard, how do you feel? Tell me about this? How? Why? When? What?
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What part was frustrating? How did you figure out how to solve the problem? What do other people think? What makes you say that? What are you thinking of next? What do you need to practice? You must feel really good, you stuck with it, even when it got hard!

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What else is a bad word?
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Scribble scrabble. There is no such thing.
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Easy peasy. No such thing. If it is that easy then you are not growing.
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I know that, I know everything, I’m an expert. (said the 5 year old)
No person knows everything. Life and school would be so boring if you knew everything. We are all researchers here learning together. Different people have different areas that they are very strong in. Together, we learn from each other and strengthen each other. Some grown ups spend many years researching things, we invite them to share with us so we can learn from them. We also learn from our friends who are children.
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This is love.
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Recognizing mistakes. Leaning in to the unknown. Asking questions because it is rewarding and awe inspiring as opposed to answering the question correctly. Listening, observing, watching, admiring, and loving those around us in our learning groups.
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Sometimes this is painful. Sometimes this is joyful.
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Let us be a witness to these moments instead of being a fixer.
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Let us facilitate the language, the environment, the hands, the mind, the body, and the heart to develop equilibrium in this spinning complex world.
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When a child is afraid to make a mark on a paper because they are afraid of making a mistake, this is the opposite of love. When a child is afraid to answer the query, What do you think?, because they are not sure what the “right “ answer is, this is the opposite of love. When a child doesn’t try something new, because it’s different, that is not love. This is fear.
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The studio is a place where children practice, express, and communicate in 100 ways.
IMG_0986Conversation in the Atelier with 3 year old Sebastian:
Sebastian: “Ms. McLean, you need to let those butterflies out of the glass, so they can fly home to their families.”
Ms. McLean: “They are called specimens. A scientist found them dead, and instead of letting them just stay on the ground, they carefully put them in glass so we can look closely at them.”
Sebastian: “Well then they need to go to a Dr. so they can get better. So they can go fly out the window to their family”
Ms. McLean: “They are dead Sebastian”
Sebastian: “When will they be done being dead?”
Ms. McLean: “They already died honey.”
Sebastian: “Why?”
Ms. McLean: “I don’t know, they probably lived their whole life, and then got old and died.”

And they they do this hard; with me facilitating, in an environment that provokes curiosity, awe, tenderness, rigor, and satisfaction.
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Let’s give our children the gift of failing, of asking for help, of finding delight in the surprise of life and making.
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Let’s give our children the time to experiment, practice, and make visible their wonder of the world around them.
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Let’s nurture this type of love that does not need an external reward to feel fulfilled,
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for the fulfillment is in the experience,
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in the doing, in the thinking, in the imagining, in the making.
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Love.

I am not alone in my research.

Ron Ritchard (Harvard Researcher, HGSE, Project Zero ) has written a new book, The Cultures of Thinking,  on these very ideas, he calls it “the residuals of learning.”
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Vygotsky called learning in this context Zone of Proximal development, and Howard Gardner talks about Multiple Intelligences.
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Loris Mallaguzzi, Reggio Emilia Visionary and founder,  writes, “We need to define the role of the adult, not as a transmitter but as a creator of relationships — relationships not only between people but also between things, between thoughts, with the environment.”
IMG_1199To which Milo M. responded, “I’m a vegetarian.”

Let us give our children these opportunities so they can be justice seeking, wonder filled, problem solving, curious, creative, compassionate, and risk taking humans.
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This year I’m focusing on love.