As a K/1 multi-age teacher in Upstate New York my students are not aware of the details of the Florida school shooting. They are not aware of the gun control debate. They are not aware of the mental illness discussion. They will not be marching in protest in the upcoming weeks.
They are, however, VERY aware of the tension in the air. Like me, they feel the heartache and confusion in our country. What can I do with my five, six and seven-year-old students to give them comfort? To give them voice? What can I do to give them a sense of control? How do I teach them the skills of productive action?
Books. Books. Powerful, emotional and challenging books.
Every September I read Alexis O’neill’s book, The Recess Queen, where we meet a playground bully who picks on everyone. Through O’neill’s delightful rhyme and rhythm we meet Mean Jean who “…hammers and slammers ’em, kit and kajammers em.” My students easily identify the bully behavior and discuss appropriate playground rules. Lisa Huliska-Beith’s illustrations are equally delightful and when we meet Katie Sue, “a teeny kid. A tiny kid. A kid you might scare with a jump and a boo” the students easily identify the quiet kindness she shows Jean. Together the author and illustrator create a safe entry point for discussions. “Why was Jean so mean?” “Have you ever felt bullied?” and the trickiest question, “Have you ever bullied someone because you felt left out?” These discussions in September are BIG and powerful and they set the tone for our community.
In October I read Kathryn Otoshi’s book, One. As a class we have been together for 30-40 days and we have all experienced the feeling of being left out, of feeling sad, of saying things that hurt. Otoshi uses colors as the main characters and this invites the students to identify with the hurt of sadness (blue) and the tension of anger (red). As Red picks on Blue over and over we see the other colors (green, yellow, purple) stand by silently. Quietly they tell blue they don’t think it’s right, but they never say that to red. Soon all the colors are afraid of Red.
Student make wonderful connections to Recess Queen and make predictions of how to help include Red. “If yellow played with Red they could make Orange!” “They could tell Red they need him for fire engines!” But alas, none of the colors are brave enough to tell Red to stop. Until one day…One arrives. In kind and peaceful word, One says, “No.” The other colors feel stronger and they stand up to Red.
This alone would be a nice quaint book on how to stand up to bullies. But Otoshi knows the power of words and the power of kindness that looms in young children’s hearts. Blue, who has been bullied so much turns to Red and asks, “Can Blue be cool, AND Red be hot?” Oh, that moment…
Our discussions revolve around how can we see and celebrate each other’s strengths? How will we, as a school family, develop the power inside to say something when mean things happen?
Jan de Kinder’s book, Red, is next on my list. In this book it’s not a bully that starts the teasing, it’s a friend. The main character thinks it’s cute that Tommy’s cheeks go red when he blushes, and she points it out. Other kids notice it and start to taunt him. Tommy repeatedly asks them to stop but they don’t. The girl stays silent. When the teacher asks what happened the powerful text draws us in to the girl’s ache of shame and anxiety of getting in trouble. de Kinder’s beautiful language challenges my students to decipher metaphors and infer complex emotions.
As the teasing continues the teacher again asks who saw what happened and in the sparse illustration of the girl’s hand being raised we once again feel the courage to be the one voice. Other hands go up and we feel the comfort of solidarity.
In the final pages de Kinder creates room for students to recognize and define true empathy. As Tommy and the girl head out to recess, she blushes. We realize, through tender honest discussions, that we have all been embarrassed and we have all done the embarrassing. We realize, what happens to you, happens to me – maybe in the same way, maybe in a different way. We realize we are all connected. And when we recognize our connections we become stronger, kinder, happier.
It’s January now and our classroom community continues to grow and mature both academically and socially. We have celebrated each other’s accomplishments in writing and math and the monkey bars! And yet, there are still moments when something new or different brings out a sharp retort or hurtful jab. In Nan Forler’s book, Bird Child, we are once again faced with the dilemma of speaking up.
Lainey is a new girl at school that looks and acts differently. Eliza notices the intricate and vibrant drawing Lainey creates but as the teasing starts those drawings become darker and sparser. But Eliza says nothing to the bullies.
As a baby Eliza’s mother taught her to fly with the words, “Look down and see what is…Now look up to see what can be.” As Lainey’s hurt seeps into Eliza’s heart Eliza finds her wings and stands up to the bully and once again we see the strength in unity. In the end Lainey and Eliza build a “snow castle that reaches the sky.”
My students enthusiastically debate what “to fly”, and “found her wings” and “snow castle to the sky” really mean. We create a poster making connections to our lives. Chloe tells us she “flies” when she is writing poems because they feel good inside. Aiden shares his Dad teaches him “to fly” when he helps him get back up when he falls in hockey. Shannon says her “snow castle to the sky” happens when Clara allows her to make up the game at recess.
And then, Parkland happened.
And then, in my mailbox, was this:
Oh my. Such sweetness.
Amy June Bates with her daughter, Juniper has created a inspiring book of lightness paired with depth, of tenderness with boldness, of humor with acceptance. And after the fifth read I have yet to add any comments to the dialogue that flows among my students. They have interpreted, inferred, disagreed, collaborated, compromised and concluded: We accept everyone.
I have 180 days to create a community where students accept, inspire, challenge and bravely stand up for one another. This is not a tag along activity, a one-day lesson, a throw in on a half day separate from the curriculum. Community building IS the curriculum. It is THROUGH the development of a safe and caring community that students engage, debate, calculate, write, defend, persuade, read, question, fail and ultimately succeed. It is through books and honest dialogue, that I teach. This is what I can offer Parkland. This is what I offer our future.