This past week was a school vacation week, and it’s been a powerful time to dwell in the Big Questions as various circumstances converged. Yesterday I wrote down a “letter in verse” that was drifting through the air when I was tuned to that channel. Although it probably could stand on its own, I thought I’d provide a little context. This week I have reflected on my role in the lives of the children in my care and engaged in some deep and honest conversations with my teenagers. The teen years aren’t easy ones – so many questions about “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?” and how to manage the challenging circumstances and conflicts that arise, with self-esteem intact. As I wrote in a previous post, I was blessed with a mentor who guided me throughout my teen years and beyond and became a dear friend. He passed on a week and a half ago, and I was honored to participate in an incredible celebration of his life last weekend. Rereading the letters he wrote me throughout my late teens and twenties made me realize how much patience is required of parents and mentors before they finally have the satisfaction of seeing kids “turn out” (in his words). You have to be really patient with the process! At the same time, my dad came home from a two-week hospital stay for open heart bypass surgery following an episode of cardiac arrest. There’s something interesting about open heart surgery. There’s a sense of appreciation for still being alive and a desire to “return” (in my dad’s words) the outpouring of love, concern, and support from so many people. The heart truly does open up, and you feel closer and more connected to the people in your life. And when this happens to someone else, you are better able to provide support, having experienced it yourself as either a patient or family member. Finally, in the midst of a very challenging school year, I set the intention this week to reconnect with the passion and guiding values that led me to a career in education in the first place. If the following words resonate with you, I invite you to share them as long as you cite me as the author, along with this blog address. Namaste!
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An Open Letter to the Children in My Life
The divinity in me
Sees the divinity in you
And from this perspective
Knows we are One,
Honors our differences
As expressions of the One;
We are brothers and sisters.
Our unique talents and gifts
Are to be celebrated
And cultivated to the fullest
So that we may inspire and uplift
Others through our example And experience the extraordinary Flow of being in our element.
At some points in the school year, learning themes sync up so perfectly that the rich threads connecting them simply beg to be elucidated. This is the case right now as our study of snow overlaps with our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. unit. Diversity and tolerance are the major themes that run through both units.
This week, I watched on DVD Wilson Bentley: Snowflakes in Motion, an hour-long movie about the life of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer who became fascinated with snowflakes at a young age and was among the very first human beings ever to photograph a snow crystal, after years of trial and error. His passion for snowflake photomicrography made him a pioneer in the field. He took pictures of more than 5,000 snow crystals and asserted that no two snowflakes are alike; each one is unique. Wilson Bentley celebrated and shared the beauty and diversity of the thousands of snow crystals he photographed so the public could appreciate them – and so their brief existence did not go unnoticed. Here is a short video that shows several of the images he captured:
After watching the Wilson Bentley video, I fell asleep thinking of the aesthetic and transcendent beauty of snowflakes and how each snow crystal is an exquisite mandala. I woke up in the morning excited to introduce the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to my students by exploring the diverse beauty (beautiful diversity?) of snowflakes. I couldn’t wait to show my students images of myriad, unique snow crystals, balanced with a discussion of the properties shared by all snow crystals. The next day, we would consider both how human beings are diverse and what we all have in common. I’ve never linked our January learning themes like this and couldn’t wait to give it a try. It brought to mind the following, previously shared quote from “Mister” (Fred) Rogers:
“As different as we are from one another, as unique as each one of us is, we are much more the same than we are different. That may be the most essential message of all, as we help our children grow toward being caring, compassionate, and charitable adults.”
Reconciling our uniqueness with an appreciation for the uniqueness of others is important work. This is described by some as “tolerance” and others as “acceptance.” It is about respecting our differences. Here is another quote from Mister Rogers that came to mind after being dazzled by the images of several dozens of snowflakes in the video – and impressed by the painstaking care with which Wilson Bentley photographed individual snowflakes so they could be seen by others:
“As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have – something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”
Watching the Snowflakes in Motion video, I was struck by the idea of how much joy, fulfillment, and meaning Wilson Bentley’s dedication to snow crystal photography brought to his life. This passion stemmed from his love and appreciation of the natural world that began when he was a child. I related strongly to his discovery of tremendous beauty in dew drops, frost, and other evanescent natural phenomena that are so easily overlooked. When you do look and notice, you can’t help but wonder how you never noticed before! Beauty truly is everywhere if you keep your eyes open and slow down enough to perceive it. In Wilson Bentley’s own words:
“There is a need of a greater love for, and appreciation of such things, of the beautiful and wonderful in nature… There are oceans of enjoyment, soul satisfying pleasure to be had in Nature’s art and beauty, as shown freely to us in the common things all about us.”
Yes, yes, YES!
Yesterday, I was with my students on the playground and was drawn to a willow tree towering above us on the other side of the fence. Its slender, golden branches swayed gently against a vivid, blue sky. It looked like long hair blowing in the wind and was so beautiful. I felt the rhythm of my breathing become deeper and more relaxed as I tuned in to the here-and-now channel. Then I noticed some small evergreen branches that had fallen to the ground. I picked them up and inhaled their fragrance deeply. A few children noticed me holding and admiring the evergreen branches and came over to look at them. They noticed “baby pine cones” growing on the branches. And then they looked for evergreen branches on the ground and brought some inside for our nature table. Word of the “baby pine cones” spread, and there was a flurry of children around the nature table, trying to catch a glimpse of them. That was the most authentic and gratifying lesson I facilitated all day long.
Back to snowflakes…
My kindergarten students get so excited when snow is in the forecast and when they glimpse snowflakes falling from the sky. They also love magnifying glasses. To help them observe snowflakes, I plan to provide them with frozen swatches of dark cloth and magnifying glasses the next time we are outdoors when it snows. We also will cut paper snowflakes and notice how each child’s snowflake is different.
Similarly, we will learn about skin pigmentation and notice that nobody’s skin is actually white or black; we come in all different shades. In past years, I have had children mix paints to find their own skin tone, or compare their skin tone to paint cards and determine the closest match. We come up with descriptive names for our skin tones after getting ideas from picture books, such as The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children by Sandra L. Pinkney, and Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly. Some years, we use “multicultural” skin toned paint, construction paper, or crayons to create self-portraits, using different colors and textures of yarn for hair.
We round out our discussion of human diversity by talking about how we all experience the same feelings; have hopes, dreams, and fears; and live our lives as passengers on “spaceship Earth.” The topic of snow is part of a larger study of the water cycle and the changes water goes through, and we learn that we all share the same water that gets recycled, over and over.
As a postscript, I would add that Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have another, very personal, common thread, and that is my grandmother, who was born on Dr. King’s birthday and raised on a Vermont farm. She has been gone for more than two years now and would have been 94 today (January 15th).
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” – H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama
In response to some recent headlines in the news, I have committed myself anew to the practice of kindness, including intentional, random acts of kindness. There has been a lot of discussion recently about mental health care, gun control, violence in the media, etc. Kindness is a form of activism that can go hand in hand with political activism.
A few days ago, I came across a video that really touched me and reminded me that you never know who you might inspire as you go about your day planting seeds of kindness – or who might inspire you if you keep your eyes open.
My favorite recent, local example of kindness is Lorenzo, who directed traffic through a road work site close to my school. His smiles, waves, and greetings – given to every single person who passed by him each day – uplifted so many people that he was made an honorary citizen and given the key to the village for sharing his gift of “unbridled joy.” He showed us the power that a smile and a few kind words can have on an entire community, which was a powerful lesson – one that inspired me to reflect on how I can channel more kindness and joy into my work and into the world at large. As an early childhood educator, I have an abundance of opportunities every day to offer a warm smile, a sincere compliment, and a listening heart. I remember how great it felt as a child to be noticed by and to connect with certain teachers. Simply running into them in the hallway and receiving a smile and a hello was such a treat!
That kind of warmheartedness comes naturally to most early childhood teachers. However, I’d also like to cultivate a random acts of kindness habit in the New Year that requires more intentionality.
The day before Christmas, I saw a picture online that made quite an impression on me. It was of a card a couple received on the windshield of their car when they came out of a hockey game. The card contained a $5 bill and a kind message and was given in loving memory of a certain child who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack. I had heard of the new “26 Acts of Kindness” movement to commit a kind deed in honor of each victim of the school shooting and had intended to accept this challenge. However, the picture motivated me into action; a new wave of kindness already had begun!
I decided to begin with a copycat act of kindness in our community with my son. I found a handmade card, wrote a kind message, and invited my son to select the child in whose memory we would perform this random act of kindness. His eyes widened in an urgent sort of way, and he said that there was a particular child who really stuck out in his mind. We looked at pictures of the 20 Sandy Hook students, and he found the child immediately. I wrote her name, age, and the name of her school on the card with tears welling in my eyes and slipped the money into the card. Focusing on that one child – learning her name and deciding to offer a kind deed in her memory – was a powerful, emotional experience. At the bottom of the card, I wrote, “Remembering this precious child through a random act of kindness that hopefully will make the world a better place. Please pass it on in some way.” We drove down the road to our town’s grocery store, selected a car, and left.
After returning home, I felt compelled to learn more about this little girl. I read about her interests and considered the idea of future acts of kindness being related to what each child loved or something unique about him/her. For instance, we might decorate a tree with treats for the birds in honor of a child who loved animals or donate a book to a library in honor of a child who loved to read.
Normally, I engage my kindergartners in a random acts of kindness project between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Valentine’s Day. We create a paper quilt detailing 100 acts of kindness performed at home, school, or in the community. The children color heart designs, and their acts of kindness are written in the borders around each quilt square. I ask families to email me or send notes about kind deeds their children perform outside of school.
This year, I’m considering challenging each child/family to perform 20 acts of kindness – in honor of each of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are focusing on the numbers 0-20 in math, and there would be no need for the children to understand the significance of the number 20. I just love the idea of responding to tragedy by flooding the world with kindness and light and the message that love is stronger than evil, hatred, and ignorance. Acts of kindness in the classroom also count.
Personally, I think I’d like to begin with the “26 Random Acts of Kindness” and then extend it by performing a kind deed every day during 2013.
Here is the link to an article about kindness research underway in Vancouver: Random Acts of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular. I have to admit to fantasizing every now and then about moving to Vancouver to study with lead researcher, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, whose work I have been following for several years. (And I have some really awesome relatives in the Vancouver area…) But perhaps I can work to implement research-based practices related to kindness, empathy, and awareness in schools in my area.
There are a number of resources online with ideas for random acts of kindness, in case you are so inclined and would like some ideas. Here are a few links:
There is another book about kindness that I refer to quite extensively in my classroom but must recommend along with a suggestion. The book is called Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids. The book explains that each of us carries around an invisible bucket that holds our feelings of happiness. When our bucket is full, we feel good, and when it is empty, we feel bad. We can fill other people’s buckets by being kind and helpful, and in the process of filling their buckets, we also fill our own. However, we also can dip from other people’s buckets by being insensitive or hurtful. But dipping from someone else’s bucket does not fill our own bucket. The ideas of bucket filling and bucket dipping are easy for young children to grasp; however, there is an important element missing from the story, which is learning how to put a lid on our bucket, to prevent others from dipping into our bucket in the first place. This piece involves resilience and personal empowerment and ensures that our happiness is not dependent on the actions of others. Although this idea does not appear in the book, I have seen it presented on the Bucket Fillers website and feel it is a critical piece.
Please let me know if you know of other good books about kindness!
And then there’s the movie, Pay It Forward, about a boy who started a kindness movement as a school assignment:
Whereas the various issues being debated in response to recent acts of violence will take some time to work out, kindness is something each of us can do today. It is a way to heal the world more immediately. May it spread like wildfire!
“Every kind act, no matter how small, is like a pebble tossed into the pond of human caring. The rings reach out far beyond the point of impact; the action of our kind deed acts more kindly toward the people around them, those people act more kindly toward the people around them, and so it goes, on and on.” –Author unknown
Lately, I have been reflecting on some of the images I captured on the river over the summer and remembering my plant and wildlife friends – especially water lilies and dragonflies, which I spent countless hours observing with awe and wonder.
Recently, tragedy struck the family of a child in my life, and in my search for stories to help grieving children, I came across a gem of a booklet called Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Strickland. I requested it through the library and was delighted to finally get my hands on it. The gist of the story is that a colony of water bugs wondered why every now and then one of their own would climb up a lily stalk and disappear, never to be seen again. They got together and came up with a plan: The next one who went up the lily stalk would come back and let the others know what happened. In time, another water bug found himself climbing up a lily stalk and turning into a dragonfly. After zipping about for a while, he landed on a lily pad and noticed his old water bug friends at the bottom of the pond. He wanted to go down to tell them what had happened to him, but since he was now a dragonfly, he wasn’t able to go below the surface of the water. And if they were to see him looking down at them, they wouldn’t recognize him in his new form. So he decided that he’d have to wait until his friends climbed up the lily stalk in their own time, and then they would understand for themselves.
I absolutely love the way the dragonfly life cycle can be used to explain death to children. I remember attending a hospice memorial service one December during my internship and hearing what must have been this very story – but I thought it was about caterpillars and butterflies. It was a powerful story that I loved immediately, although I must have misremembered the details over time.
After reading the little booklet, I recalled one afternoon this past summer when I paddled to the lily pads and arrived just in time to witness a newborn dragonfly fall out of its exoskeleton (which was still clinging to a reed) and onto a lily pad. It was pale and colorless and looked completely disoriented. It just lay there still, and I wondered if it would be okay, hoping the fall wasn’t too much for this tiny creature. (The little booklet mentioned such a fall, so it must be a normal part of the transition.)
I felt honored to have witnessed the dragonfly emerging from its nymph state; it felt like a Very Important event to observe despite it being a common occurrence in the natural world.
After seeing the newborn dragonfly resting on the lily pad, I noticed numerous shells, or exuviae, of dragonfly nymphs clinging to reeds and water lily stalks all around me. They were completely motionless and looked like they were sleeping or just resting there. All this time, I had mistaken them for living creatures.
Dragonfly (top) and two clinging exuviae (middle and bottom)
As I read about the dragonfly life cycle, I learned that the exuviae would continue to cling to the stalks. However, they were simply empty shells, ghosts of former selves. Something about this image felt profound to me, and I became fixated on photographing them.
I didn’t understand the power of this image until reading Water Bugs and Dragonflies with the child mentioned above in mind. I realized the exuviae piece could further explain to a child that the body of his/her deceased loved one is merely a shell, not to be confused with the living presence s/he had known and loved.
Although I did not feel it was my place to discuss the dragonfly allegory with the child in question, I passed the information along to someone who is in a better position to do so. The adults with whom I have shared this story since reading it myself were very touched by it, which is why I feel compelled to share it with you. My hope is that it will bring comfort to someone who is in need of it.
As a mother and a kindergarten teacher, my heart goes out to everyone affected by today’s tragedy in Connecticut. I remember hearing about the Columbine school shooting when my own children were one and four years old and how it shook me to my core. Now a new generation of parents has to grapple with unanswerable “why” questions and concerns about their children’s safety. You just want to hold them tight and keep them safe.
I recall driving my oldest child home from the hospital 24 hours after she was born. Passing through a crime-ridden section of Albany in the darkness, her newborn life seemed so fragile. Those first days of her life, I kept thinking about how she was going to have to share the world with so many hurting people who, as a result of their own pain, would be capable of hurting her. Protecting her from harm had become my new life’s purpose.
Children are especially on my mind this evening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a child and to hear about innocent children “just like me” being killed so senselessly at school. Every single day, I use the language of safety in my classroom, reminding my kindergartners that my number one job is to keep them safe, and that the various rules they are expected to follow are there for their physical and emotional safety. School is supposed to be a place of safety. For children with challenging home situations, school is a place of consistent, comforting rhythms and routines, an atmosphere of caring.
I hope families – parents, older siblings, extended relatives – will be mindful of how and to what extent their children are exposed to news about the Connecticut school massacre. Some families will be vigilant in limiting their children’s exposure to the news. Others may have the news on in the background and assume the children aren’t paying attention. Still others may communicate more or less openly with their children about what transpired. Even when families are vigilant, we can’t control what young children may overhear on the bus or from older siblings.
Here is what I wish, most of all, for children to know about tragedies such as this one: Yes, something happened that was very wrong. However, there is more light than darkness in this world. People are capable of fantastic, wondrous things.
I am inspired by a quote from (“Mister”) Fred Rogers that I copied down several years ago:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
May we do everything in our power to nourish the gardens of our children’s hearts and minds with the sunlight of kindness, the pure water of beauty, and the warmth of goodness, and be vigilant in tending to the weeds of fear and sadness as they arise. May we teach them through our example and loving presence to be kind and resilient and to do good work in this world each day. May we expose them to positive role models – the helpers of this world who rarely make front page news but go quietly about the business of filling our world with light, hope, and love. May we bring children’s attention to the goodness that exists in this world and surround them with opportunities for developing kindness, compassion, and caring. May we guide them to feel safe and secure, knowing that many people are looking out for them and safeguarding their well-being and that there is much more good than evil in the world.
I also envision a world in which people who need help have easy, affordable access to appropriate, effective health care.
For the adultsstruggling with fears, sadness, uncertainties, and unanswered questions, I offer a poem that has comforted me on numerous occasions titled “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
As a parent, one of my favorite memories is of reading truly beautiful books with my children at bedtime. As a teacher, the moments I feel most in-the-flow are when I am sharing wonderful literature with my students. I was like a kid in a candy store when I worked as a shelver at our local public library and was able to discover so many unknown treasures. I love books and have a passion for children’s literature – picture books, in particular. There is something incredibly compelling about the pairing of beautiful art with an inspired story. I love how certain children’s picture books can express such depth in the space of only 30 or so pages with limited text.
Giving books as gifts has been my biggest exception to homemade gifts, and I thought I’d create a list of what I consider the best of the best in children’s literature for anyone looking for some ideas for children, grandchildren, or other special children. The books on my list truly honor and are worthy of children through their aesthetic value and inspired content. Rather than describe them myself, I created an online list that makes it easy to click and find any information you would want about a particular title: Click here for my list of The Best, Most Inspired Children’s Books
My original list was twice as long, but it seemed too overwhelming with so many choices, so I forced myself to narrow it down.
A few of the books on my list are more like prayers or meditations than stories. These include:
All I See is Part of Me
The Circle of Days
The Secret of Saying Thanks
The Wonderful Happens
I asked my teenagers what books they remember most fondly from their childhoods. For my daughter, it was Grandmothers’ Stories retold by Burleigh Muten. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey and Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger were the ones my son remembered. However, I also recall all the times I read The Country Noisy Book when he was little, and I remember him laughing like I’d never heard him laugh before as we read David Wiesner’s version of The Three Pigs. I also remember how much my daughter loved the rhymes in Catch Me and Kiss Me and Say It Again by Clyde Watson when she became a big sister, and snuggling with her for repeated readings of Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse, The Big, Big Sea by Martin Waddell, and The Tomten adapted by Astrid Lindgren.
So many wonderful books. So many wonderful memories of time well spent with my children!