We believe that even very young children want to and can make meaningful contributions to decision-making at their school. We also think that children learn more in an environment where everyone is considered a thinker and theorist with valuable ideas to contribute-when truth belongs to the group process, rather than residing only in adult authority. To that end, we encourage what Reggio educators call “discourse”-ongoing engagement in constructive, respectful conflict, or the intentional exploration of different points of view. And we are thoughtful about our questions, because, as Krista Tippet writes, “A question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet… it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.”
Every day, Children Firsters help make decisions about simple things like what to serve for snack, what to sing at meeting, or what color paints to mix. Likewise, we encourage kids to question us about the reasons for our decisions. We treat questions like “Why can’t I go in the shed?” or “How come he’s going to the river today and not me?” as invitations to discussion. And quite frequently, we invite children to think together about answers to bigger questions -What should we do about all the gerbil babies who have been born? How shall we deal with all the arguments about the little box in the loft room? How can we comfort Andrew after we hurt his feelings? Over time, we believe that all this explaining, discussion and negotiation will help children understand that, in our community, authority lies in the principles identified, articulated and embraced by the group, not in the people with the largest bodies.
And of course the kids talk to each other about rules all the time. You often hear the old-timers helping new kids learn the rules. Kids debate about how different rules apply to different situations, and they also talk a lot about rules and how to change them (or not) when they play organized games like “Max the Cat” or basketball, or when they create their own games with rules, like a racing track laid out with chalk on the bike deck, or a store whose items are priced based on money made from bits of playground nature.
These conversations about rules and reasons often result in what we call “agreements” — written descriptions of what we expect from each other and why. We write down our agreements about everything from “Laugh with somebody, not AT somebody” to “Ask someone before you pretend to shoot them” to “Write on paper not on blocks.” That way, when issues arise, we can refer together to an agreement that was co-constructed within our community, rather than relying on rules that seem to belong exclusively to the teachers.
Here’s one example of discourse from a discussion about a “Book of Agreements” some older children are writing to help orient a new “sometimes teacher”:
Truth is an external conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.