Previously I posted a plea to turn our gaze towards nurturing kids capacity to care in schools. What follows is one example of what caring can look like and feel like (I’ll drop in some more photos when I have a chance)…
180 days of building towards this, the last day of school with my fifteen 4-6th graders. Well, much longer than that really, most of these kids I have shared my classroom with for years. Three of my graduating 6th graders, about five years each! And throughout this journey, what we’ve tried to nurture, perhaps more than anything else is our individual and collective capacity to care. This has involved deep engagement with our school work, deep commitment to community and ecological service and above all developing reciprocal and caring relationships with each other within this incredible community of learners. Our last day together will provide one example of this ethic of care:
The day begins with a curated gallery of outstanding work. Students spent two weeks selecting work samples from throughout their year: their most creative art pieces, their most lyrical poetry, their highest achievements in math explorations, passages from their favorite novels, carefully constructed displays from their genealogical research, beautiful, anatomically accurate three-dimensional paper mache models of the native and migratory birds they researched during the year, and much more. They took time to craft these work samples into breathtaking displays. And they practiced and honed their presentations so they could powerfully share this work with visitors, why was each piece selected and what does it say about their learning and growth this year? These displays were a quintessential example of caring for their studies and the product as well as process of learning.
Parents, grandparents, friends and supporters arrived to view the displays and talk with the students. These 15 students welcomed over fifty visitors. The adults were patient and attentive. They gave wonderful feedback, expressed genuine praise for the quality and care they witnessed and most importantly asked insightful questions, engaging in rich dialogue with the students. For an hour and a half the community celebrated these kids learning. What a powerful act of caring these adults shared. And it was here that the kids got the chance to practice the art of being cared for. They accepted the praise with graciousness. They engaged in the dialogues with confidence. They thanked the visitors for coming and for caring. I tried to become invisible and blend into the scenery as much as possible and just revel in what I was privileged to witness.
In part two of our closing rituals, students took to the outdoor stage we had constructed for this event. Supporters gathered in rows of chairs. Students performed a series of musical pieces on their ukuleles and xylophones ranging from Vivaldi and Beethoven to 60’s folk songs. Studnets held space for one another to shine. One student tore up some freestyle rock & roll solo leads. Some highlighted their voice and harmonized around the melody. At one point a group of six students showcased a self-created dance/song routine featuring waving silks and carefully choreographed movements. They demonstrated care for the art and language of music as well as for each other.
Part three of this special day brought us back inside. The 15 students and 2 teachers gathered in a tight circle on the floor. The much larger group of loved ones formed a concentric ring seated in chairs around us. I shared some thoughts regarding what we had created this year, and why I felt it was so very special. Then I opened it up to both kids and family members to speak as they felt moved. The outpouring of care during the next half hour was staggering. There were few dry eyes as students said goodbye to one another, many times getting up to cross the circle and offer an embrace. Students thanked their friends and teachers. They offered reflections and memories and appreciations. Parents and grandparents chimed in repeatedly with some of the most beautifully articulated sentiments I have heard. One student pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and tried to read, but overcome with emotion he ended up just handing the paper to me. Later I pulled it out and read to myself…”To the best friend, to the greatest mentor, to my teacher Paul…” (the rest of the note is private, but you get the idea…sigh.)
After we had all we could possibly take in from this sharing, we began the annual exchange of flowers. Each student had brought a small bouquet of a single variety consisting of 17 stems. One by one each student walked around the circle and handed a stem to a friend or teacher, each time making eye contact and nodding or expressing a simple thank you, in yet another beautiful symbolic gesture of care. At the end each student and teacher held a mixed bouquet symbolizing the diversity and richness of our class.
I closed the circle with a short Asian folktale. The gist of which is this: at the end of a school year, a teacher takes his students on a long hike up through the mountains. As they reach higher elevations, the teacher eventually comes to a point where the trail runs along the edge of a sheer cliff. The students hang back in fear. The teacher calls them over to the precipice reminding them of the times he has protected and cared for them during the year. They come only half way. He entreats them to step closer, assuring them that he would never put them in real danger. “You can do this,” he says. They come closer and then, one by one he pushes them off…and…they fly. With that we headed outside to a lovely potluck lunch provided by the families.
During the informal whole school potluck there were several gifts given to retiring teachers and other dignitaries. A few rounds of “happy birthday” were sung and a generally fun and festive atmosphere. So many expressions of care and appreciation were shared.
In a final ritual, all the students in the school as well as many parents and teachers gathered for our closing “Angel Walk.” In this activity, in a large field all in attendance formed two long parallel lines about two feet apart and facing one another. Students were blindfolded one at a time and were gently guided with the successive soft hands of
friends and family on their backs and shoulders, through the alley created by the long lines. As the child walks along people whisper into each ear an appreciation, a memory, or a sweet wish for their summer to come. Some of these whisperings are reverent and personal, the blindfold providing the anonymity for some of the sweetest expressions of the day. Other offerings are more irreverent or humorous. But at the end of the line, student after student removes their blindfold with a combination of tears in their eyes and huge smiles on their face. The combination of vulnerability and trust that is called for here serves to heighten the meaning and intensity of the care that is shown during the Angel Walk.
And with that, our school year came to an end. Not surprisingly though, many families stuck around for hours longer, just enjoying the beautiful spring day and the lovely nest of care that our school represents.
What does caring look like in your school, home or educational environment? Paint us a picture!