Lunch With Dr. Lilian G. Katz


I had lunch with Lillian Katz. She is a leading voice in the US as someone who advocates for a more progressive approach to education and has strong ties to Reggio Emilia. She is well accomplished and has published great works that cannot be missed if you are a Reggio inspired educator.

So you can understand that I perked up a bit in my seat when I heard that she was attending our study tour. And you can understand that I was determined to have a conversation with her the first chance that I had.

I did not imagine that it would turn out the way it did.

Lilian is a story teller. A great story teller. She started off telling stories about her children and her life, and people at our table couldn’t help but listen. She asked us questions wanting to hear our interests and she listened with great poise and responded with dignity and confidence. She certainly had a knack for forcing people to articulate what they were thinking, and through that articulation any flaw or mischaracterization on our behalf would be easily identified. She was great at this.

But she is a story teller. Her points were driven home by these stories, and I couldn’t help but think, ‘How many of these stories does she have in her back pocket?’ Furthermore it was so refreshing to listen to an accomplished academic who didn’t use jargon or the names of theories and theorists to support her arguments. She used stories.

It seemed that anytime someone presented a question or idea to her, we were just waiting for her to respond with a story. She would continue to force us to really articulate our question and then when she deemed it appropriate, she would set off on another story. I never met anyone who made me feel glad when I was interrupted.

She had lunch at our table, and we were given an hour and a half with her. In this hour and a half I can’t tell you how many times I felt illuminated to a new idea or way of thinking. It was incredible.

She has such a great sense of humor. I asked her out to dinner and wine. She smiled. I told her I always wanted to fall in love in Italy. She laughed. That’s when we took the picture above.

Here are some notes I took from our conversation. It was a loud room, and she had a quiet voice. I got what I could, and may have missed some things. I may even misrepresent some of what she said. The fact is, her ideas are so nuanced that it would be hard to really explain them all. Unless I retold her stories the way she did word for word. No chance on that.

The thoughts may seem disjointed as well. It was hard to balance listening to her, and also recording my thoughts as well. I felt as intensely aware as I am when listening to the children in my classroom.

Arguments in the Reggio Emilia Classroom – She told us that the children argue all the time with each other. Feverishly. And sometimes the teachers get involved in those arguments. They just argue. The sense from those arguments, however, is that it everything is out of love and respect for each other. The difference may be cultural, or it may simply be that the teachers have identified that the children need the time and space to overcome those kinds of difficulties. This was a running theme in what Lilian was sharing with us.

Contents of a Relationship – Lilian shared a story about one of her sons. Her son had a tendency to fall madly in love with women. Different women. One day, her son asked her, “How do I know who to marry?” She threw her hands up and had to think of a response to tell her son. She told him, “You marry someone who will grow with you.” Once you get past being madly in love, you grow with each other and that this kind of a relationship is one that will last. She turned this back on the idea of teaching and a teacher’s relationship with a child. She asked, “What is the content of your relationship with the children?” Are we always asking them to do something like put on their boots, or sit quietly, or to move along to some new transitional activity? Is it loving? Are you spending time being silly? Are you being serious and respectful in response to their ideas? What are the contents of your relationship? Choose one where you will grow together and your relationship with the child will last.

Children Can Read Through Bull**** – She told us a story of a child who threw sand straight up into the air in the sandbox. The teacher responded, “We don’t throw sand here.” The child responded, “Well, I just did.” She drove the point home by saying, “Say what you mean. If you don’t want the child to throw sand, say it. ‘I don’t want you to throw sand in the sandbox!'”

Serious vs. Happy – I told her a story of a conversation I had with someone who described their impression of a Reggio classroom. This other person told me, “You know those days where everything is just perfect? The children are busy. It’s fun. Everyone is having a great time? And everyone is happy? That’s what it’s like in Reggio Emilia everyday.” Lilian snapped back at me, “It’s not about being happy. It’s about being serious.” She was telling me that the children are engaged in a way that everything they are doing is so respected, and the adults respond in such a way that places importance and forces children to think deeper. The children and the adults are extremely serious about their work in Reggio Emilia.

“Nothing to Learn in this Area” – Lilian told us about a conversation she had with a teacher who lived in a rural area, and the teacher told her that there was nothing to learn about in the area. There was nothing to see. Lilian told the teacher, “Go take a walk for ten minutes in any direction. Then stop and just look around. Ask yourself ‘Is there anything I can see that is worth knowing more about?'” The teacher found a large machine She didn’t know what it was. Lilian instructed the teacher to have the children draw it. They did. They missed details, put things in the wrong places, and had misconceptions about how it all worked. Lilian then had the teacher find the person who operated the machine come to the classroom and tell the children how it worked and what the machine did. She then instructed the teacher to have the children draw it again. The children redrew it noticing new details, placing things in the right place, and representing new understandings of this machine.

A Pat on My Back – Lilian asked me, “What is it about this approach that really interests you?” I thought about it for a second. I responded, “It’s about the image of the child that they have here. It’s a strong image of the child. It’s that when you have a strong image, it is worth our time to take notes and pictures, to document, to have dialogue and reflect. It’s worth traveling to Italy about to hear a story. It’s worth leaving traces everywhere. It’s important.” She responded, “That’s a great way of putting it.” I squealed from my insides at her response.

The Digestive Model – As we were reflecting on how delicious our lunch was at the Loris Malaguzzi International Center, Lilian went off on how she disagrees strongly with America’s strong focus on outcomes, “Outcomes outcomes outcomes. Blech! Outcomes is based on an industrial model. You input something and it goes through a process, and out it comes.” She picked up her fork, “In Italy it’s based on the digestive model. It’s about the experience. Teachers ask about what kind of experience to create that will create an opportunity for interaction.” I don’t think Lilian was talking about the actual digestive tract, she was referring to enjoying a delicious meal and reflecting on being present in that joy and interaction with food and people.

“If so, then what?” – Lilian reminds us constantly to ask open ended questions. Shes uses the example of children drawing a bicycle (which reminds me of George Forman’s video). “Ask them, what is this? What is that? Why is this there? Who made that? Why did you put that there?” Open questions. Ask them open questions and make them think. Allow them to struggle. Challenge them and they will challenge themselves. This is a skill towards critical thinking and creativity.

“Six what?” – She tells us a story of a child. She comes to the child’s six year birthday party. She thanks the child for letting her come. She asks the child, “Why are you having a birthday?”
He responds, “Because I’m six.”
“Six what?”
“What are you six of?”
“What makes you six?”
The child shrugs. Later at the party, another child says that they are six and a half. The child who is
having a birthday party asks, “Six what?”
“Huh?” Asks the six and a half year old child.
Another older child with a totally different understanding of age asks, “When were you born?”
The six and a half year old child responds, “Like ten years ago!”

Just a Great Quote

Teaching is showing someone something that they already know.

A Great Soul – One teacher quietly admits that in her community she has no other like minded teachers to talk to about this approach. That she is in a rural area where she feels alone in this journey. Lilian gives this teacher her personal email address, “I’ll talk to you.” I almost cried.

The Sixth or Seventh Principle of Teaching – A college student once asked Lilian, “What’s the first principle of teaching?” She responded, “I don’t know, but I think the sixth or seventh principle would be to teach the learner how to ask questions.” Teach them to ask for clarification or to challenge their own understanding.

Just Another Great Quote

Never confuse excitement with education. Enlighten the child. That is education.

Educate Children’s Interests – Lilian tells us that it is possible to educate a child’s interests. To create new interests and to expand on existing ones. I wish I could ask her more about this.

Take Pleasure in Each Other’s Company – One teacher bravely admits that the children in her 4-5 year old classroom are just rude to each other. Lilian asks the teacher, what do you do about it? I miss a lot of the response as the room became very loud. But I figure that Lilian is telling another story. I hear her end point, and I just almost fall out of my seat at the brilliance. “Teach children to take pleasure in each other’s company.” That just makes so much sense to me, that I wouldn’t have to spend my time reacting to rudeness and giving attention to something that is undesirable. Why wouldn’t I spend my time teaching something desirable?

“Malaguzzi was a difficult man” – Lilian tells us a story about how she once walked out of a classroom with Malaguzzi and he says to her, “I never want to go in that classroom again.” He expressed to her that this teacher was not in line with his vision for education at all. She reflected on how he could have asked to meet with the teacher or to enlighten the teacher. But he has always been a man of conviction and a man with a vision. He was a difficult man.

“They don’t get enough credit” – Lilian tells us that we always talk about Malaguzzi, but points out that others don’t get enough credit. She tells us about how Vea Vecchi was an incredible photographer. She would capture amazing moments before digital photography. These beginnings in documentation really defined the Reggio Emilia approach.

I can’t believe I got all of this in just an hour and a half. If you were there and you are reading this. Please leave a comment. Tell me what she told you, because I certainly did not hear every story and every point she made. I certainly wanted to hear everything.

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1 Response

  1. Nora says:

    Thank you, David! I loved reading this.

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