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
I want to share a couple insights from a story called “The Star Child,” which I used to read to my children at bedtime on Christmas Eve. It is from a wonderful book called Gently Lead by Polly Berrien Berends. The story in its entirety is simply beautiful, and it is possible to read it on Amazon. (Click on “Search Inside This Book,” and then enter “Star Child” in the “Search Inside This Book” field – which might require logging in. When the results show, click on the bold text “STAR CHILD.”)
In the story, the author explains that most people were too busy inside their homes to notice the Star of Bethlehem shining brightly. However, some simple shepherds who were outside looking up at the sky saw the star. And…
“The only other people to see that star were three wise men. They had big houses with lots of lights and all the shiny treasures anyone could ever wish to have. Yet each of them still had one big wish. They wished to find something brighter and better than all the treasures on earth. The wise men saw the star because they were looking for light. So the only people who saw the star of the baby were some shepherds who had almost nothing and three wise men who had almost everything.” (Berends, p. 42-43)
Citation: Berends, Polly Berrien (1998). Gently Lead: How to Teach Your Children about God While Finding Out for Yourself.New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
I have contemplated this idea a lot over the years and find it quite profound, especially when I get caught up in the mundane preoccupations of life. I find that my life becomes more fulfilled when I take time to look for light and to make this quality of awareness a way of life.
The “Star Child” story goes on to describe the rest of the Christmas story and how Jesus grew up and discovered
“that God is love and that everyone is God’s child. Jesus saw everyone in the light of God’s love. No matter how unfriendly or sick or sad someone seemed to be, he could always see the star child shining through.” (Berends, p. 43)
What a powerful practice it is to look for the highest good in everyone with whom we come in contact! A quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow comes to mind:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should see sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
And it is every bit as powerful to experience someone connecting with our inner light. During the last meeting of a World Religions course at Ithaca College, the professor (with whom I remain closely connected) went around the room, looked into each student’s eyes, and stated that she saw our divine nature.
Remembering this experience, I entered the teaching profession vowing to connect with the higher nature of each of my students, no matter what kind of behavior or attitude they exhibited. This kind of presence is a gift for both the giver and the recipient. It has an elevating effect and is worth cultivating in our lives. It is a radical act that requires rising above so much worldly conditioning and the ego’s desire for comfort. Love – which I think of as a force of unity and connection – is radical and courageous. We must risk stepping out of our comfort zone and calling our prejudices into question. Every single one of them.
Every single person in this world began life as an innocent, radiant star child. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter and worthy of love. No excuses or exceptions. And we are all the sons and daughters of the same life force that created us, which makes us all brothers and sisters. We are more alike than we are different. This doesn’t mean condoning misguided or harmful actions or being permissive when firm action is in order. But may we hold every human being’s inner light in our hearts and pray that it may grow stronger. When we can do this, our light shines brighter, as well. And with that, I wish all of you who celebrate a very merry Christmas. May the love in our hearts shine brightly, revealing the best and the highest within everyone we meet.