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Learning at its Best

One Day of Sharing and Caring

The graduates

The graduates

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:

Can you make out the poem in blue? Salmonberry; Classes; No Homework; Cool Teachers; Outdoors; Lot’s of Fun!

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.

the tribe

The Tribe

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.

ring of fire

ring of fire

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.

giving and receiving

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

"Thanks for being my friend"

“Thanks for being my friend”

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!

A Picture

…Worth a Thousand Words

About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


8 thoughts on “One Day of Sharing and Caring

  1. Obviously Salmonberry is a unique and special place. What may not be so obvious is that there are, fortunately, other equally unique and special places. My wish is that all such places could become known to those who believe that “this could never happen here”and who use that as an excuse to not create their own distinct version, *their* variation on the theme of a caring/compassionate/collaborative/creative community.

    Once people see how different such places can be, I think, they will be freer to believe that they don’t have to duplicate (as if they even could) but rather work toward the same ends. None of these places is Mecca–the one and only way. To believe that would be counter-productive and stifling of initiative.

    Thank you, Paul, for sharing this description of *your* expression of the goal, AND for inviting others to do the same. I know that “my” Open Connections, and Ken Danford’s North Star, and Jim Rietmulder’s Circle School are amongst many others who share similar values and are equally proud of their accomplishments. Perhaps some sort of group display would have a cumulative effect and show the rest of the world that they, too, can choose the path of what Riane Eisler calls the Partnership society, as opposed to continuing to follow the ultimately self-destructing Dominator model. We must find a way to reach the Tipping Point, where people begin to *expect* the kind of treatment that you have described here and will accept nothing less.

    Posted by Peter A. Bergson | June 22, 2015, 3:50 pm
    • Awesome, Peter. Thank you! Yes, for years I’ve been wanting to help shine some light on schools and non-schools that work! The Co-op feels like an ideal venue for this. Let’s do it! There are so many different models and approaches that are creating learning environments that embody a counter-hegemonic vision. Each local community or small group of parents making it happen for their kids. Let’s shout about ’em all! And, importantly let’s paint some portraits. Parents and educators need to feel the texture of schools that work. Please invite school leaders to post their stories here. I know some have already done so!

      In terms of Eisler, yes! The partnership lens is a powerful one to help us distinguish between places nurturing life (partnership) Vs extinguishing it (dominator.) Thanks for reminding us of her important contribution.

      I’m going to add to your list of schools that work a selective few of my fav’s: Summa Academy, Portland, OR; Bellwether School, VT; Whole Life Learning Ctr, Austin, TX; John Muir School, Ashland, OR; and Peconic Community School, Long Island, NY. These are places people should know about and celebrate!!

      Posted by Paul Freedman | June 22, 2015, 8:06 pm
  2. What a lovely, post. If only more school end-of-year celebrations, moving on ceremonies, etc looked like this. I like that teacher goodbyes and acknowledgements were done in the presence of students. Often, these events are kept separate. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | June 22, 2015, 10:01 pm
  3. Thank you so much for your comment, Elisa. I feel rituals are so important, and I should acknowledge a couple of these gems were borrowed from Rachel Kessler’s work. Now, I must say my hat is off to you for the powerful writing you do. I just spent a bit of time poking around your blog “A Teacher’s Ruminations.” I hope you’re cross posting some of those pearls here on the Co-op too. I’ve been out of touch for a bit, so I’ll be catching up on my Co-op reading this summer.

    In terms of “keeping things separate,” yes, I agree, way too much compartmentalization, atomization and secrecy in schools. Our little school is way too small for secrets. 45 students in three multi-age classrooms, pre-K-6. Everyone knows everything, for better or worse. Parents, teachers and students alike – we laugh together, cry together, worry together, celebrate together. Sometimes it can feel a little close. Okay, occasionally way too close. But for the most part this is what community is all about – human-scale, openness and integrity.

    Posted by Paul Freedman | June 22, 2015, 10:22 pm
    • Thank you for your kind words, Paul. I know that certain celebrations and routines are easier to do if your numbers are low, whether in the classroom or in a school, however, I think there must be ways to take the best of these situations and adapt what we know are effective practices. I, too, need to reconnect with the Co-op. I’m hoping to organize myself better this summer and maintain a schedule during the school year.

      Posted by Elisa Waingort | June 26, 2015, 9:25 pm
  4. What a beautiful pictures of school can and should be. It is about people caring for each other and learning together, growing, developing and challenging each other! Thank you for sharing and thank you for providing a place where children can feel this care! I don’t think this type of care and sharing needs to be limited to a small island in the NW. Schools and learning communities can create their own version of this wonderful celebration. It reminds me a lot of Mission Hill in Boston actually! Thank you friend!

    Posted by dloitz | September 21, 2015, 12:59 pm
    • A-men, my brother! Thanks for nurturing the Co-op along all these years and for circling back from time to time. I love re-connecting with you here. AERO ’16 in Portland? Let’s tawk!!

      Posted by Paul Freedman | September 26, 2015, 6:32 pm

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