As teachers we hope that coming to school feels fun, safe, inviting, and intriguing for all of the students in our classroom. During the first few weeks of school we are observing and listening and building relationships with students. We are finding fresh ways to connect and make meaning with this new group of children that we are so lucky to get to spend time with this year. As we work to articulate what we notice, we are struck by how even under the most optimal conditions, coming to school is truly difficult work.
Although we see children finding comfort in the relationships they already hold, connecting with new people is uncertain work. It's trial and error work. It's work that takes time. It's work that makes us ask continuous questions. We watch as children ask those questions (both verbally and nonverbally) and we watch as they receive feedback (also both verbally and nonverbally). But that feedback isn't constant or certain. That feedback can and will change with each new situation, new person, and new experience.
Each day we see children wondering:
What happens if I ask this person to play? How will they respond?
Will this person want to connect to my idea? What if they say no?
Will I be included?
Will my new friend think what I say is funny? Will this other person also think it's funny?
Can I connect with an old friend and a new friend at the same time?
How can I hold onto my idea and hear other ideas too?
What does this person expect me to do? How will they react if I do something different?
And as teachers we wonder:
How do we support the children to learn more about one another?
What happens when their attempts to connect and belong misfire or don't quite work out as planned (which they inevitably will)?
What would it feel like to be a part of a community that views each attempt, no matter the outcome, as an attempt to belong, to feel connected and included?
This work is difficult because this work is with people. There are no simple answers when we are talking about relationships. The answers to our questions will always change because people are complex. Relationship work is complicated. But it's work that is worthy of our time. And without it, we have nothing.
So how, then, do we dive into this complicated work together? How do we honor how hard it is? What kinds of experiences might support our community to see these complexities and begin to let them live as a part of our daily life together? And how do we create a place that feels safe and inviting for every member, when so much of the feedback they receive all throughout each day is unknown, uncertain, and unexpected?
We might begin by normalizing those uncertain feelings. Or by asking the children to become aware of and pay attention to their multitude of emotions. And then we might provide experiences that let us get right into the middle of that complicated work.
One structure we use in Opal 2 is a structure called Partner Explore. During Partner Explore children are partnered with another student that they might not have had the opportunity to spend much time or connect with yet. Teachers select the partners as well as which material the children will explore together that day. The children select what they will do together in that material and how they might go about doing it.
The children in Opal 2 have had time to engage in Partner Explore multiple times this year, with new partners and new experiences each time. They’ve been invited to explore math tools together, to connect a drawing together, to explore new materials together, to see how the materials might connect together, and of course to play together. And after many challenges and successes we asked them to think back and reflect on their experiences with a partner. We asked them:
What is the feeling you get when you connect with a new friend?
They helped us know more about their thinking by creating an image using the language of watercolor that captured those emotions:
CG: The blue is when I felt nervous. When it starts changing purple, I start to feel more happyish. And then when it’s red I feel kind of happy-more happy then the purple. And when it’s yellow I feel really happy and joyful!
RY: The purple lines are happy. The yellow stuff is surprised and I didn’t know what partner I was getting. Blue is sad because I didn’t want to go with that partner. But it ended up being ok. Green is weird because we don’t always like the same things.
LD: At first it wasn’t really that good because we were just talking and it didn’t feel that good and we didn’t know what to do and we were just talking. Then this side (blue) means we figured out what we should do together and it was really fun. And then it goes back to this side (red) because the bell rang and it felt bad that we had to stop- so it’s switching sides.
We hope that our work together will be fun, safe, inviting and intriguing. And we expect that it will get complicated and messy. But we know that we'll come out on the other side better off, because we had each other. And as LH said,
“With only with one person you can’t explore as much as you could with two. It’s better with two.”