Today we were immersed in the beautiful space of the atelier. Two atelieristas explained the long term projects they did with their students and the basic framework of a long term project. As they did, I will use the exploration I in which participated, The Secrets of Paper, to explain the Reggio framework for an atelier project.
Every project starts with a question or questions about a topic that has arisen among the staff, children, or community. The question for the on-going project I witnessed today was, what is the culture and what are the values surrounding paper despite it being one of the world’s most ‘disposable’ products? The first step for the staff of a school is to consider all aspects of this guiding question for themselves and decide what entry-points they can give children so they too can access a complex idea. These entry points will mainly be in the form of materials presented. As you can see from the pictures, we were presented with a plethora of different types of paper and tools with which to manipulate it. The atelierista had the materials organized and displayed in a beautiful way. She had carefully curated what types of paper and tools she presented. She specifically left out tape, staples, and writing instruments. She made sure to have paper in all of its forms, some that you might not immediately think of as paper, like boxes. She encouraged us not to make something, but to explore the properties of paper.
The experience of being an active member of the atelier was exciting and scary! Everyone was immediately self-conscious that we were supposedly innovative educators and being watched by our peers...we had to be creative! We had to show we were capable of doing what we asked our students to do! The atelierista let us explore and came around only to narrate what we were doing and offer extensions or suggestions. Mainly, she encouraged us to use more tools and materials. She was supportive (she fixed the sewing machine when I broke it), but also allowed us to struggle (she refused multiple people’s request for tape and staples).
It was fascinating and inspiring to see how everyone worked. I have always liked doing tasks. So I naturally chose a box to build and then enjoyed the satisfying hum of the sewing machine as I joined tissue paper together to make a long scarf. Others wanted to get messy. They were scraping, soaking, tearing, and cutting. Some people naturally formed groups. Others worked alone. At the end we were told to ‘come to a stopping place’ and reminded again that we did not need to finish anything.
During the group discussion each person explained their piece by explaining their process, their problems, their solutions, and their emotions. The atelierista’s comments were never that something was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but simply validating what we had done and how we felt, and suggesting how we could extend it or how we could relate it back to the guiding question. Despite not giving us a certain task and encouraging us to explore, almost every person had a product. There were carpets, stories, statues, and mobiles made out paper. Some were more abstract than others, but all had a name and a story. It was clear we had all been educated to make a product.
Then we were taken upstairs to see what the Reggio children had done with this same provocation. Instead of objects there were experiments. Different types of paper were folded, crumpled, and twisted. Different opacities of paper were on top of the light table. Paper was strung from the ceiling. Paper was left to deteriorate in buckets of oil. Wads of paper in any other context would have been seen as a soggy piece of trash were actually the subject of an afternoon where students explored what would happen when paper interacts with snow. There was no purpose to the end products, even though some of them were unique and aesthetically pleasing sculptures.The purpose was the act of creating them. It was a great example of how the atelierista had explained to us that the importance of any piece of art is embedded in its process.
The atelierista explained that this comparison between the adults’ projects and the children's’ explorations provided some of the most interesting answers to the original question. She said this comparison was similar to when all the ideas and answers that different classes and schools come up with during a project are compared. Out of all the ‘messiness’ and individual processes comes a synthesis.