“Send him love!”

I believe that love and compassion are the strongest forces in any positive change.  The most inspiring people I have encountered operate from a a place of beautiful, powerful, genuine love.  Effective social justice activists are driven by a feeling of love for all people.  Effective environmental activists emanate a love for both people and non-people.  Effective teachers not only demonstrate unfaltering love for their students, but also provide a context for their students to love one another.  

My co-teacher and I have striven to do just that.  At the beginning of the year, I taught my children how to say “I love you” in sign language.  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out Spiderman’s hand next time he web slings; he too operates from a place of love– or something.)  I then unintentionally developed a ritual using this sign.  It started as an act of desperation to maintain control over the group when a child has an emotional meltdown during circle time.  I had tried talking over the crying child, but that just increased everyone’s stress level.  I had tried being really engaging, but, let’s face it, nothing is more fascinating to young children than another child’s meltdown. Eventually, I started saying things like, “Friends, _______ is really sad right now.  Let’s send him/her love.”  I would hold up my I-love-you-fingers towards the crying child, and my students would follow suit.  Eventually, the crying child would calm down, and we could all re-focus. 

This ritual really took off in our class.  Whenever a friend was physically or emotionally hurting, we would hold up our I-love-you-fingers.  I will never forget the time when one of my girls was telling me about a scrape she had on her finger, and I asked her if there was anything I could do to help her feel better, and she whispered to me, “Can you tell the class to send me love?” 

My children started to understand the potency of love.  Back in September, one of our children was home sick.  His peer came up to me, sat on my lap, and said, “I miss my friend.”  I suggested that he send his friend love.  He responded, “But he’s so far away.  Will it work?”  When I told him that it would, he said, “That’s cool!” and held up his I-love-you-fingers.  Often, during our meal times, my children will ask me which direction their house is, and hold up their I-love-you-fingers in that direction, saying, “I love you Mom,” or “I love you Dad.”  We have even sent love to people who lost their homes in Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma tornadoes.

My children have extended this ritual into the non-human world as well.  Just last week, one of my children sent love to a dead tree he saw on our hike.  In April and May, we did an extended exploration on insects.  My children were not only fascinated with bugs, but they felt so compassionate towards them.  Some of them came upon a dead bumblebee, and decided that it needed a funeral.  They placed it in a small hole in the garden, and sent it love as they covered it up. 

This ritual has been a pivotal component in building our classroom community.  I see it as a powerful tool in developing emotional literacy and empathy in young children.  They are learning that others may have emotions that are different from their own.  My children are learning that even when they are not with their mom, dad, or absent peers, these people would still appreciate their love.  They learn not only to recognize what it looks like when others are feeling hurt, sick, overwhelmed, sad, mad, etc., but they are able to recognize the expression of love, by both giving it and receiving it. 

I also see this ritual as a means for empowering my children.  I am teaching them that when they see someone whose heart is really hurting, they have the power to relieve some of that pain.  Everyone, no matter the age, has the capacity to give someone else his or her love. 

I have inadvertently adopted this ritual in my own personal life. I noticed this back in December when I was talking on the phone to a friend of mine who was going through something really tough, and noticing that as I was listening to her, my I-love-you fingers were subconsciously extending.  When driving past a wreck on the highway, I make sure to hold up my I-love-you fingers to those involved.  Sometimes I quiet my mind and form my hands into this mudra and send love to those in my life who really need it.  This meditation is the form of prayer that I have found to have most personal meaning in my life. 

I have to smile when I think about what the community could be like if my little ones keep up this ritual. I believe that when you have love for someone, you have a bond with them and you support them.  Imagine what it would feel like if, on your toughest day, everyone you encountered made a point to tell you, “I love you.”  Every emotion would be embraced and validated.  Simple acts of love are so energizing and empowering that our community would feel more alive. 

“Love is like infinity.  You can’t have more or less infinity, and you can’t compare two things to see if they’re ‘equally infinite.’  Infinity just is, and that’s the way I think love is, too.” -Mr. Rogers


Peace feels like relaxing with superheroes

I have often struggled with understanding  peace.  The same word that we use to refer to the end of wars also is the same word we can utter when we storm angrily out of the room: “I just want some peace and quiet…” As the great philosopher, Mr. Rogers, said:  “Peace means far more than the opposite of war.”  It’s a big, complicated concept, so naturally I turned to the wisest people I know to help me grapple with it.

September 21 is the international day of peace.  This year, I decided to explore the concept with my four and five year olds.  With the help of my lovely co-teacher, we had a very successful circle time (I still consider it one of the most successful of the year–sitting still has not been a strength of my group this year).  We started out by talking to them about a time when they got into an argument with their friends.  I asked them to remember what it felt like to have their heart hurt, and to make the face that showed how they were feeling.  From their expressions, I knew they got it.  We then talked about how they felt when they solved that argument, and their expressions melted into a relaxed smile.  I told them that grownups all over the world get into arguments, and sometimes say or do things that really hurt others’ hearts.   I told them that there are people who work really hard to help those people find a solution that can work, to help find peace for everyone.

We then talked about what the word meant for them.  What is peace?  Where do you find it?  What does it feel like?  What does it look like?  What does it sound like?  What does it taste like?  What does it smell like?

Our children were eager to share their thoughts, and together, we compiled this list:

Peace feels silent and nice
Peace feels quiet
Peace tastes like beans and chicken nuggets
Peace is respecting our playground
Peace is being nice and talking to our teachers
Peace tastes like macaroni
Peace smells like strawberries
Peace smells like crabs
Peace feels like relaxing with superheroes
Peace is up there
Peace is in the magnets
Peace smells like chicken
You get peace from under the water
Peace sounds like a cow
Peace smells like pizza

I love this list.  Not only is it profound, but it is perfectly representative of the personality of my class this year.  Few things excite my children more than learning that today’s lunch is pizza or mac-and-cheese.  The one that stands out to me is “peace feels like relaxing with superheroes.”  The child who offered this illustration is one with a particular interest in the dichotomous world of superheroes (another peace-related concept that I hope to process in a later post).   He was intrigued by the power and strength of superheroes.  He loved thinking about what it would feel like to be so powerful himself.  I think I understand what he meant by his perception of peace.  I wonder if he feels that he can relax and find peace when he knows that everything is secure.

Throughout the year, there have been other moments that have felt peaceful.  My coteacher discovered that The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow has some sort of hypnotic power that can calm our children even on the most crazy-pants day.  We also find a peaceful transformation when we are able to take our children out into the woods on a hike.  I often find that as soon as we leave the gates of our school and step out into the pasture, everyone gives a huge sigh of relief.

But the most peaceful moments I find with these children are not necessarily the most quiet or the most calm.  They are the times when everyone is playing together in synergistic creativity.  Some are sitting at the art table, swapping markers and showing off their masterpieces, some are in block center building a space station, some are working on a big floor puzzle.  During these moments, our classroom is so alive.  Everyone is engaged.  The room is alive with the harmonies of laughter and boisterous conversation.  At these moments, we are all equals, because we are all playing.   I no longer feel like a teacher, but like a peer.

This is what my vision of a peaceful world looks like.  People may not all play the same way, but they respect and validate others’ play styles.  They are genuine with each other, listening for others’ ideas while feeling safe to express their own.   They are fully engaged in exploring and appreciating life at it’s fullest.  When conflicts come up, they can work together to resolve them.  People everywhere can play for peace.

Another quote by Mr.  Rogers (I love him): “At quiet times, young children give us glimpses of some things that are eternal.”

Introduction– Why I started this blog

Back in high school, when asked what my plans were for the future, I would say, “to save the world.”  I would always imagine myself similar in intensity to Superman or Wonder Woman, battling villains like Discrimination, War, and Global Climate Change.   While in college, I found that my true passion lay in the field of early childhood education, and I reallocated most of my time and energy into becoming a teacher.  I no longer had visions of my red cape blowing in the wind as I struck a heroic victory pose.  I never lost sight of my villains, but my focus had shifted. 

I am fortunate to be surrounded by inspirational people who have done some remarkable activism for the sake of justice and peace.  I am constantly inspired by the stories I hear about people in my community who are able to risk everything for the things they believe in.  Part of my college culture was involvement in protests, rallies, and general peacemaking.  Many of my friends are currently serving in the Peace Corps.  I have attended a handful of rallies and protests, sign petitions upon occasion, and will every so often engage in a debate with a differently-minded peer.  Often, I have found myself feeling guilty for not participating more in the courageous actions of my activist friends who work for peace in outward ways. 

My first few months of teaching seemed anything but peaceful.  I was just out of college, and thrown into a challenging classroom.  During the first five months,  I was operating out of survival mode– grateful at the end of the day that everyone I was responsible for went home alive.  The challenges of teaching hit me hard, and I had no residual energy for anything but keeping my head above water. 

Over time, thank God, things started settling down.  Now that I am concluding my first full year of teaching, I finally have a chance to process the classroom community I have helped to create.  Upon my reflections, I realize that I HAVE seen glimpses of many of those activist buzzwords:  peace, justice, love, friendship, sustainability, Beloved Community, and most importantly–play. 

My hopes are that this blog will give me the opportunity to process my experiences with young children in the context of greater issues in the world, and process my experiences with greater issues of the world in the context of young children.  I believe that with awareness and intention, I can start to become the activist I always dreamed of being, within the context of my passion. 

“Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”  -Alexander Pope