Beginning dialogues in a pedagogical project with Santana

It’s late August of 2018, a few days before the start of the school year and a lively event is happening in the piazza of Nivel Inicial. Mountains of children’s dolls, puzzles, beads, pipe cleaners, tall leaning towers of plastic ‘foamie’ paper, tubes of glitter, bedazzled dress up costumes, small plastic animals, kitchen gadgets, mickey mouse stickers, gi-joes, phonics booklets, pom poms and Barbie dolls overtake the common space. It’s a frenzy of movement – educators running in and out of classrooms carrying boxes and plastic bags, lively conversations and confusion over what materials to keep, what to purge and why it matters, as well as a gaggle of neighbouring elementary teachers stocking up on free swag. 

After some days of these bustling movements and exchanges, the classrooms were almost empty. The educators and I struggled for months in thinking together – slowly – about what materials and furniture arrangements we wanted to invite back in the rooms and what their compositions might do. The educators were invited to read their classrooms like a ‘text’ and trace the symbolic value that every pencil, poster, book, rug, chair, desk and arrangement of things told about our pedagogical intentions – as well as our relations to the place in which we are situated. 

The mountains of things in the piazza found their way to the many corners of Santana – they trickled into the classrooms of the elementary school, hid in the bodega beside the principal’s office, and piled in the attic of the groundskeeper’s house up the hill. Some pieces were difficult to let go of and inconspicuously emerged again in the classrooms at different points throughout the year, while others found homes in the drawers of teacher’s desks. The teacher’s desk itself has been an infamously contested material-arrangement throughout our project, and is one example of an important artefact with a thick, sticky pedagogical memory that I will discuss more later on.

A few days before this expansive purging event, the educators and I had our first meeting together to plan what Nivel Inicial might look like within a common worlds framework. We talked about feminism. Not ‘femininity’, but rather what it means to ask a feminist question – as well as the histories that provoke that question. We engaged in dialogues about what feminism does to pedagogy – how it interrogates aspects of life, and in our case ‘schooling’, that are so familiar they somehow become a-historical, a-theoretical, and a-political. We discussed neoliberalism, capitalism and what feminism might offer us in noticing and calling out those structures/forces that enable us to forget their presence. 

This orientation to staying with the problems of a life in question was, and is, difficult and differential. Many educators wanted answers via lesson plans and curricular guidelines to organize their time with the children. In these early days of the project, we encountered uncertainty and conflict in a collective struggle as we tried to remain hesitant to an answer that could appease us into docility. We continued to be puzzled by pedagogical questions such as:

What is it that our educational project is in response to? 

What matters to us pedagogically in Cuenca? How is this visible? How do our aesthetics act as a threshold for the kind of thinking we want to do here and now?

In these first weeks, we generated radical changes in the structural organization and material conditions of Nivel Inicial: our schedules/durations, gathering places and the composition of those times and spaces and how they worked in dialogue. We considered who and what would be in each room of the school. How would we be together there, what might we be doing, and most significantly – in the name of what? These questions initiated uneasy dialogues that began to unravel some of the logics that oriented the existing pedagogical work at Nivel Inicial. Many of these logics were intimately wrapped around developmental psychology: its instrumentality of children’s ‘creativity’ and the arts, desires for skills-based productivity, behaviour management, elementary school readiness, individual autonomy, children’s ‘fun’ and the purity of the innocent child.

We were provoked by several heated conversations around the ideas and purposes behind annual school activities and holidays. For example, in December we thought together about the pedagogical intention behind children’s individual Christmas crafts that lined the entrance to the school – unified rows of glittered-foamy snowmen in a city along the equator which never encounters a white winter. Interrogating the purpose of theme-based holiday activities a transcendental image of childhood, particularly around Halloween and Christmas, made palpable neocolonial formations that benevolently guided pedagogical decisions at Nivel Inicial. These conversations were uneasy, and stirred us in ways that activated a feminist attention to our personal beliefs and customs as deeply political.

With much hesitation, we rethought many fond rituals and symbols typical of early childhood ‘schooling’. For example, ‘Bring-your-toy-to-school Fridays’, routine recesses and divisive breaks outside from the formal work of school, and strong dependencies on the playground and other busy activities to occupy young children. We laboured together in the significant process of rewriting Ecuador’s national ministry curriculum, and rethought our languages of evaluation from report cards to ‘retrospectives’ – compositions of pedagogical documentation that do not seek to measure, but rather trace and honour the life of our pedagogical inquiries. We continue to unravel long-held allegiances to curriculum as a governing document that regulates educators in a delivery service of ‘learning’ to children. Confronting these curricular legacies, suspending them outside of ourselves, noticing and discussing them together often created dissensus and anxiety in the group. These dialogues made visible intimate attachments to developmentalism and promises of neoliberal happiness via education (Vintimilla, 2014). With long histories of an education tied to child development we often found ourselves swaying adrift, in-between contradictory imaginaries and hopes of early childhood education. Introducing processes of pedagogical documentation as ‘the heartbeat and memory’ of our projects (Vintimilla & Kind, 2020) has been crucial for this work, as it often renders visible developmental logics that are unwittingly present in our processes, brings them open to dialogue and enables minor, but important, interruptions.

Ephemeral permanence of developmental memory: Conjuring the ghosts of developmental psychology

In these early days of the project, we began experimenting with a framework and material conditions that might enable us to think and do things differently. We participated in weekly sessions together that laboured in dialogue through these acute changes that happened quickly. Though the physical spaces, materials, and schedules changed so profoundly during the first year, our subjectivities and ways of thinking and being that enliven these spaces continue to move between worlds of conflicting discursive presences: the archival patterns of developmental psychology, and a less familiar feminist memory of common worlding pedagogies – one deeply rooted, and another in the making. Perhaps it is in this irritating gap/conjuncture of conflicting presences where we fall back into the arms of a dominant past. The visible symbols of developmentalism disappear, but we are still haunted by their memory. 

For some time, we left the barren classrooms almost entirely. Haunted by the memory of things that used to be there, noticing our dependencies and unsure of what to do without them. We began walking to the forest beside the school to better notice the happenings of this place beyond the classroom (where we met prickly bushes, angry dogs and bees – these memories are vivid), and though we left the developmental materials and symbols of a familiar childhood that perpetuate a separation of nature from culture, we unwittingly sought them out and found them again in the assumed purity of nature and the romance of a fun/happy childhood ‘getting dirty’ in the woods. It is only later on in visiting our documentation of purity that it became visible we were being haunted.

How do we know we’re being haunted by a memory?

What are some of the logics of developmental ghosts?

How do the memories of these archetypal patterns manifest in particular situations/spaces?

Returning to the transient memory of the teacher’s desk

For the educators and I at Nivel Inicial, the teacher’s desk is profound example of being haunted and moved by a memory. A symbolic pinnacle of education ‘for’ the child, and a division between educators and children, it gives comfort of a landing space to complete agendas, eat lunch and plan lessons – rituals that continue to separate the educator from being with children. For months we discussed the symbolic value of the desk and what it does in the space. In the middle of the year some educators decided to remove the desk as an experiment to see what might happen in its absence. Where would they be pulled and how might bodies circulate in the room without that landing pad? What was interesting about these moments was that even in the absence of the teacher’s desk, educators continued to physically hover in the space it used to be. It wasn’t until we noticed this magnetic bodily movement to return to what used to be there that we were able to actively decide to move differently. Do some pedagogical decisions require a haunting memory? If what becomes is predicated on what was there already, then perhaps we need to be haunted in order to make a decision to do otherwise. As the educators and I continue this work together, I am provoked by two questions:

How do we notice that we are being haunted?

Once we have noticed, what might we do with that?

Perhaps it is not only a decision to act on what has been noticed, but it is also a decision to ignore. Both decisions are with consequences that move well beyond notions of the rational, acting human. Taking seriously the real social-political inheritances that differentiate positionality to carry the weight and effect that might follow a feminist response in neoliberal institutions such as the school, what does noticing and deciding to sustain a common worlding pedagogical memory require?

Alex Berry

With deep gratitude to Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw and Cristina Delgado Vintimilla who have included me in collaborative dialogues that enable me to think through these ideas.