“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!
I just finished an exhausting but totally-worth-it week in my classroom kicking off what is probably my favorite unit of the year: Holidays Around the World. This unit spans the entire month of December and provides children with rich exposure to geography, multicultural folktales, and winter holiday traditions around the world (avoiding belief systems since I teach in a public school, but of course you could go into that in different settings or at home). It is organized around the Gingerbread Baby’s travels around the world en route to the North Pole. Anchored in literature and social studies, the full unit spans the curriculum, integrating art, technology, science, math, and music, as well. It packs a powerful punch in terms of the Common Core Curriculum. The unit begins with a study of my favorite gingerbread stories, including: The Gingerbread Man, The Gingerbread Boy, Gingerbread Baby, and The Gingerbread Girl. When we get to the last page of Gingerbread Baby, we find that the Gingerbread Baby has jumped out of the book and left a note in his place with clues regarding his whereabouts. Thus begins a search around the school for the Gingerbread Baby. Finally, all clues lead back to our classroom, and as we get closer to the room, the smell of gingerbread (room spray) becomes stronger. When we return to the classroom, we find the Gingerbread Baby’s house and the Gingerbread Baby inside it sleeping on a pillow of cotton snow!
Children holding down the roof so the Gingerbread Baby wouldn’t escape while I got some tape
This year, we put a scarecrow out front to keep watch, and the children insisted on putting up a sign to ensure nobody would disturb the house and let the Gingerbread Baby out.
Despite the safeguards, by the time we return the next morning, the Gingerbread Baby has escaped and left a note telling us he plans to run, run, run to the North Pole and send us mail along the way. This segues into a study of winter celebrations around the world. Throughout the month of December, we receive a letter, postcard, or email nearly every day from the Gingerbread Baby telling us about various multicultural celebrations taking place at this time of year. He is directionally impaired to say the least and even ends up in Antarctica at one point! He is a curious cookie who just loves a party!
We read stories and do art projects related to many of the different countries, cultures, and traditions. The places where the Gingerbread Baby stops any given year vary depending on the ties my students have to different geographical locations or traditions.
Poinsettias (Mexico), faux stained glass (Italy), menorahs (Hanukkah), and an Australia display
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am able to show my students videos of these diverse celebrations taking place far and wide via our large SMART Board screen. I also use Google Earth to show them the Gingerbread Baby’s route by “flying” from one place to the next. We touch down at various places to see landmarks or just navigate down a road to see what it actually looks like in different countries. For example, the letter we receive from Mexico references monarch butterflies (which we released in September), and we are able to touch down and see actual monarch butterfly sanctuaries! It takes a little research to find interesting locations and attractions, but the connections are so rich and entirely worth it in my opinion! Each time we read a letter from the Gingerbread Baby, we use Google Earth to determine whether he is getting closer or farther away from his destination. We notice what kind of land masses or bodies of water he travels over, determine what mode of transportation he may have taken, discuss the different seasons occurring in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, notice how climate is a factor in the way holidays are celebrated in different places, and more. It is so much fun. I have spent many hours searching YouTube for the best videos related to multicultural celebrations and have created a Pinterest board that I am thrilled to share with you. (Note: I have found that researching the terms used by those cultures and locales yields some really great search terms that lead to authentic videos of community celebrations!) I’ve included videos from Thailand, The Philippines, The Netherlands, India, Sweden, Mexico, Italy, Israel, Australia, Finnish Lapland, and even Antarctica. I’ve really tried to target places and traditions to which my students have personal connections, and therefore the list is by no means comprehensive or balanced. It is a work in progress, and I love adding to it! Click this link for my Pinterest board: http://pinterest.com/susantara/holidays-around-the-world/ Watching these videos really puts me in the spirit, and I appreciate how so many of them focus on beautiful traditions and festivals featuring light. If I had access to these videos when my own children were younger, we definitely would have enjoyed them together. I just love sharing them with my kindergartners! I don’t know who is more excited – they or I – to see a whole community gathered to witness the festive arrival of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) in The Netherlands aboard a steamboat from Spain! We learn that there are so many ways to celebrate at this time of year and that children around the world are a lot like them. Being able to see the expressions on the faces of children across the world is quite powerful. When we learn that the Gingerbread Baby finally has made it to the North Pole, the unit culminates in a Polar Express party. This is a magical time of year! I love it!
This year, I have spent much time observing the Eastern Cottonwood trees on the riverside and have fallen in love with them. They have amazing energy and a fascinating life cycle, and I want to share their story with you. Recently, I learned that cottonwood trees are sacred to the Lakota people and are central to the Lakota Sundance ceremonies. I experience cottonwood energy as quite powerful and therefore was not at all surprised to learn of the cottonwood’s significance to the Lakota.
Spring came early this year, and I was able to start kayaking in March, which was unprecedented. I took a lot of photos of trees along the shore, to share images of tree life cycles with my students on our SMART Board. Actually, I was quite blown away by noticing that leaves in spring begin with colors quite similar to the colors of autumn. (How can it be that it took nearly half a century for me to notice or remember this?) I photographed maple, oak, and willow trees and a mystery tree that took a while to identify. The mystery tree turned out to be an Eastern Cottonwood.
First came the buds.
The buds continued to grow
…developing more scales.
When I showed my kindergartners the photo below, they loved the “starfish” and began calling it the “Patrick tree,” after a starfish character in the SpongeBob cartoon. After seeing this picture, they made a habit of asking if I had more pictures of the Patrick tree. Naming the tree was a very important development, which came entirely from the children. Once the tree had a name, it seemed to come alive and become interesting to them. Even I began to think of Patrick as a personality and wanted to learn more about him.
I still didn’t know what kind of tree Patrick was but continued to photograph his changes. Next, the catkins developed – drooping strands of tiny flowers.
Eventually, tiny leaves came out and began to unroll.
The leaves continued to grow, appearing shiny and waxy at first.
At this point, I had become downright intrigued with the “Patrick” tree, did some research, and was able to identify him as a cottonwood. The next day, I went to school, excited to tell the children that I learned Patrick’s last name. He has been “Patrick Cottonwood” ever since, and I just love that name!
Patrick Cottonwood’s leaves continued to grow in size and deepen in color, losing their waxy sheen.
I have read in multiple sources that one of the reasons why the cottonwood tree is considered sacred is because its leaves provided a pattern for the tipi. According to The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion by Kathleen Cain, Lakota (Sioux) holy man, Black Elk, explained that children began making little play houses from cottonwood leaves, which inspired the elders to construct tipis. In addition, if an upper branch of a cottonwood tree is cut, the cross-section reveals a five-pointed star (which seems to explain the five-pointed starfish pattern of the buds).
I read that cottonwood trees are either male or female, and that the name “cottonwood” derives from the appearance of the female cottonwood tree in fruit stage. I was eager to see which cottonwood trees would go through this stage in late spring. Patrick didn’t, which meant he was, indeed, male. But here is a photo of a tree across the river from Patrick producing green fruits that contain cottony seed clusters quite similar to milkweed. The children named this tree “Fluffy.”
I explained to the children that Fluffy was Patrick’s girlfriend, and he sent gifts (pollen) to her through the wind, and then she would reciprocate by becoming cottony and releasing cottony seed fairy babies into the air when the little fruits opened. Patrick and Fluffy love to give each other gifts!
On windy days in late spring, I enjoyed stopping to float near the cottonwoods and watch the seed fairies fly into the wind. (Fortunately, I seem to have outgrown my pollen allergy.)
Here (below) is Patrick, living peacefully on the riverside. Cottonwoods are similar to aspens in that their leaves quiver and rustle in the wind. When I approach Patrick Cottonwood by kayak, he is an endearing sight because it looks like his heart-shaped leaves are waving hello and beckoning me to pay him a visit – which I do. I rest for a while beneath his canopy of leaves. This is one of my peaceful places where I bring my questions and often find answers. Patrick teaches me a great deal about patience.
Patrick looks pretty much the same throughout the summer.
But now, on the first day of autumn, his leaves have begun to turn gold, much like human hair turns gray with age and wisdom.
Soon he will be completely golden and then will release his leaves throughout October until a late October breeze comes along and leaves him bare. And then he will take a long nap. When he awakens, the fascinating process will begin again – one big circle that includes a time for rest. As I watched what seemed like millions of cottonwood seeds floating on the river back in late spring, I wondered where the new generation of cottonwoods would make their home. Only time will tell.