On the Shoulders of Giants

Recently, while doing some research for a new textbook I am writing with Beverlie Dietze (http://www.amazon.ca/Playing-Learning-Early-Childhood-Education/dp/0135125464) I found this article by Bernard Spodek and Olivia N. Saracho called “On the Shoulders of Giants”: Exploring the Traditions of Early Childhood Education– http://www.slideshare.net/Alanevans25364/on-the-shoulders-of-giants. The article explores the traditions of the past so that we can come to understand the practices of the present in order to seek better ways to work with young children.

I have had \ many professional learning experiences over the years. I have “giants” that I look up to. By giants, I mean the pedagogical leaders that have inspired my work. I thought I should start my own tradition of paying tribute to three giants of early childhood education that I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with! In this blog post I pay tribute to Lella Gandini, Cathy Topal and Deb Curtis. It is the mission of my work to use social media as a platform to engage others and inspire others but before I can do that I feel the need to share where some of my inspiration has come from.

I have followed the work of Dr. Lella Gandini for decades. Lella is the North American liaison for the dissemination of early childhood education known as the Reggio Emilia approach. I have had the opportunity to meet Lella a number of times but it was this past spring that I shared some close encounters with this inspirational leader! When Lella visited my colleagues at Acorn School (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Acorn-School/194325153914930) and Richland Academy (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Richland-Academy/500962613256697) I had the opportunity to spend time with her. In fact, I guess you could call me Lella’s unofficial driver for a few days that she spent in the Toronto area. Lella is such a warm and giving person. She is someone that understands the pedagogy of listening! I thank Lella for her inspiration and hope that she has recovered from the exciting drive to the Toronto International airport!


Lella, in her always kind, gentle and honest manner shared her insights with us, teachers from Acorn and some of our colleagues. Lella’s heightened sensitivity to the power of aesthetics and the importance of art, the atelier and inquiry and investigation in children’s learning is boundless and every encounter we have with her, in person and through her many publications fills us with inspiration and wonder. We are proud to stand on the shoulders of Lella.
I had the honour of meeting and learning from Cathy Topal a few years back when she came to Toronto to present at a conference. I love that Cathy and Lella have a connection – they are neighbours and co-authors of “Beautiful Stuff” which has inspired our commitment to the loose parts theory. I wrote about loose parts in a previous blog with reference to “Beautiful Stuff”. Acorn School has recently embarked on a Beautiful stuff journey and Richland Academy has documented several examples of the use of loose parts in their classrooms.


Examples of children’s work…at Acorn School, investigating one hundred and exploring Beautiful Stuff. At Richland Academy, and exploration of symmetry.

Cathy also introduced us to Thinking with a Line (http://www.smith.edu/twal/). Children are invited to use a line making tool (easily created with cardboard) in two lengths. As they experiment with the tool and the paint, children soon discover the power of a line to represent objects and to create, usually spontaneously, the standard symbols of math and literacy.

Deb Curtis has done a lot of work with Margie Carter (http://www.ecetrainers.com/) and I am inspired by their collaboration and insights. On two different occasions over the years I have had the opportunity to have Margie and Deb present at conferences where I have been involved. Margie and Deb have been inspirational in expanding my understanding of the power of an image in  documentation and have enhanced my appreciation of awareness, aesthetics and wonder. In 2011  I had the chance to visit Reggio Emilia on a study tour and was so pleased that Deb was there too! Recently I have been thinking and talking a lot about this article by Deb: http://ssot.sk.ca/+pub/Educational%20events/Creating%20Invitations.pdf
Please read the article, take a few moments to gather your thoughts and then share your reflections with us on the Big Ideas page. I would love to start a discussion about giants in our field, those we share and those that are unique to each of us as educators. I would also be thrilled if you took some time to join our ongoing Big Idea discussion on loose parts.

6 thoughts on “On the Shoulders of Giants

  1. All three of these “giants” transformed what ‘relationship’ truly is. Relationships with materials, the environment, the child…relationships with everything. They have provided me with a true gift of feeling what relationship means. They have enlightened me to a new level of pedagogical thinking, learning and teaching.
    I am now able to be immersed in everything and be committed to each moment.
    They helped me transform my journey. For this I thank all of them.


  2. Ah, these three certainly qualify!! Each has inspired us as well! We have seen Lella Gandini several times at Lesley University. She truly inspires wonder. A giant in many ways! We met Cathy Topal at a state conference and were impressed with her ideas in Beautiful Stuff and Thinking with a Line as well. She inspired us to look at simple materials in a new way. We were very fortunate to have Deb Curtis and Margie Carter visit with us and present a local workshop for us a few years ago. Our school was in its early stages then and our time with Deb and Margie had great influence on our role as administrators and teachers.

    Thanks for this post and for bringing these three “giants” together in my mind.


  3. I am humbled and honored to be named among these women who i have been so inspired by. It’s interesting to reread the article I wrote years ago. I still believe in and use the principles around invitations, but now I’m focusing on these ideas more specifically in my work as a toddler teacher and the study I have been doing about their amazing fluid and flexible thinking. The multiple ways toddlers use rich combinations of materials is astonishing. Thanks again for including me and for your kind words.- Deb


    • Deb, not sure if you remember coming to Martha’s Vineyard a few years back, but it was a great experience for us! I’d love to hear about your work with toddlers – I’ve taught toddlers for 20+ years and find relatively few resources addressing toddlers in the classroom. If your work is published, I’d love to know where I can find it! (Toddler Teachers are a unique breed – glad to know I am in such amazing company!!)
      Leigh Ann Yuen


      • Hi Leigh Ann, I do remember coming to Martha’s Vineyard. You had an amazing program there. I would love to think with you as you have so many years of experience that would inspire me. I’ve been writing some articles about my work with toddlers in Child Care Exchange. I’m loving writing these days so I image more will come. Maybe we can do something together. \Deb


  4. Diane and Louise,

    The “role of technology” in my own professional learning includes reading your blog and making connections in this way. It’s amazing, really! It is a brand new world that fascinates me and surprises me regularly. Thanks for including me in it, even in a small way.

    And Deb, I would love to talk toddlers with you. They really have been my passion for a long time! Feel free to email me at ryuen@vineyard.net .

    I’m looking forward to catching up on the blog and reading new posts!

    -Leigh Ann


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