When I took the Opal Advisory Council’s advice to the Opal teaching staff the day after our meeting, I also brought the same reading material: a copy of the Superintendent’s message, and the Hand to Hand letter. Additionally, one of the Advisory Council members had a copy of a letter sent from an older child’s school that framed their plans for the March 14 School Walkout, and so I shared that with the staff, as well. This letter to parents had been written by the middle schoolers at this K-8 public school.
Our teachers interpreted the school district’s letter as a request to look to the leaders instead of towards each other. Advising people to leave it to the people in charge seemed to our teachers to be an effort by the people in charge to maintain control. The Hand to Hand letter, while inspiring, was not enough for teachers. Unlike parents, the teachers’ concerns transcended the individual child, and placed both that child and the classroom group in a wider context. They felt strongly that, given this context, the school had a different kind of responsibility that included the approach guided by Ms. Idleman’s letter, but also went further. The letter from the middle schoolers at the other school was meaningful and inspiring to us, but lead us to wonder how meaningful it was to the younger children at their school – the 5-11 year olds who would walk out with them. We wondered what they would ask about the Parkland tragedy. We wondered about the implications of discussing this specific tragedy with those children. We also wondered about a part of the letter which stated that they were not proposing solutions. They were planning to walk out so that the grown-ups in statehouses would do something.
As we discussed these texts, we developed consensus around a few key ideas:
- A society is democratic to the extent that the individuals who make up its citizenry understand their role in taking care of one another.
- A society is democratic to the extent that its leadership values being in charge over being in control.
- A society can maintain its democracy to the extent that its children grow up experiencing strong relationships, a sense of belonging, a sense of self-worth, and have practice balancing their wants and needs with those of others.
- It is more productive to focus on what is possible than what is wrong.
- Adulthood has much to gain from its relationship to childhood. Adult decisions benefit from listening to children’s experiences, ideas and perspectives.
With these things in mind, the following day we began to explore ideas with the children themselves. I was fortunate to be in the classroom with our oldest students. As soon as I asked if they knew there was to be a big event across the country organized by students, a child blurted out: “because 17 kids were shot at school in Florida.” It startled me to hear it out loud and to feel it ripple through the air. I was suddenly afraid for them all. I had predicted that would happen. But still it made me feel afraid and more uncertain about how to move forward. So I tried this:
“It’s true. And the kids who survived stood up and have made speeches and have asked the world to listen to them. They want the world to change. They want guns to be better controlled in this country. Even more so, they want kids to be safe in school, have a right to be safe. These kids have organized in a way that invite kids across country to consider what we want to do, inspired and in honor of people who died.”
One of the fourth graders asked for clarification of what happened. I’m sure he wasn’t the only child in the room who hadn’t heard the news. It is heartbreaking to be in the presence of children who are imagining these things for the first time. I confirmed but moved on.
“This is not first time this has happened but we want it to be last. It is the first time in my lifetime I have seen lawmakers get serious about changing laws because those kids are saying their message over and over and over again. Kids are the reason things will change. We can start with the fact that this school walkout is happening everywhere because of those kids saying, ‘Stop’. What part do you want to play?”
Many children seemed relieved to turn their thinking towards prevention and to feel empowered to consider the role they might play.
“If we keep focused on what we stand for maybe if we stand for this thing that problem won’t happen anymore. Do we want to march around talking about guns or something that’s possible and beautiful that we imagine can be different or that might help?”
A child voiced concern that if we did that, it might be disrespectful to the people who died.
I returned the concern to the group.
Cooper: That’s part of it but we don’t want it to happen again.
So I asked, “What might we focus on so that it won’t happen again?”
Cooper: A better sense of community. Communication.
Maylin: Better relationships between you and someone else in your community — even if it’s an adult. When you build those relationships then you know other people have relationships similar to yours.
Susan: So– building empathy for how much we all care about someone else.
Maylin: And building community.
Oceana: One thing we might be wanting to show is that everyone has the right to feel safe and connected to people and walk into a room and have a strong bond with people in there. Belonging and feeling safe and being able to say what you want might be hard if you know you might get killed or hurt emotionally or physically.
Calla: Every kid has the right to walk in room and not ask, “Am I safe here?”. Kids have a right to not be paranoid.
Maylin: So they can learn.
Calla: And do things to change world so they don’t have to be paranoid all the time.
Isaiah: People shouldn’t argue on whether people have right to be safe but should argue on how to keep them safe.
Oceana: I feel like one that one word… instead of just feel safe, we need to be safe. We can grow together more if we know for sure we are safe.
Daisy: You have the right to be safe but it’s impossible to guarantee you are always going to be safe.
Susan: So what do we do here at Opal – what do we value that might be what we march for– what are we doing here every single day that we want to make sure people know?
Eleanor: To learn and not have to be worried about anything. To feel belonging and safety.
Maylin: It’s empathy.
Susan: So is it a march for empathy?
Calla: Empathy can’t be forced.
Susan: Does that mean we can’t march and say we advocate for it?
Maylin: You can give them the ideas.
Susan: You can advocate that the world would be a better place if we did.
Jasmine: This march wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have empathy- it has to do with empathy and care. We’re thinking about it a lot right now and that means we care about it. If we didn’t have empathy for them we wouldn’t be like, “We really need to stop this ’cause it’s a big deal,” we would be like, “It’s not a big deal, it’s not here and not going to happen here.”
Susan: Maybe a good way to think about it would be to start the sentence in your head, “This wouldn’t happen if people were…”
Children’s responses: Empathetic, Caring, A community —
Oceana: It’s not just to be empathetic. We’re advocating to help people learn it’s an important thing and it should be taught.
Susan: Is there a word that might get us closer to something the preschoolers might also understand? You’ve spent many years developing schema for the complexity of empathy.
Cooper: We want to treat each other with love. Love has a big connection to empathy. Love is how we want to be with each other. Our community is this whole entire world. We want to be able to love every single one of each other which is why we are marching.
Maylin: Care comes out of love.
Harry: If care is love then…
Maylin: Love is care.
So there we had our March for Love.
And then Jasmine asked:
Jasmine: Will parents be there too? If it’s only children it’s different. I’m just wondering.
Calla: If adults come people might think this was their idea and they made us do it.
Magnolia: I don’t think grown-ups should be there because they already have a big voice in this world and will be a more powerful voice.
Oceana: I’m thinking if it’s just kids, parents would be there- just observing not marching. That could still show this was coming from us and not teachers and that we want to show this.
Maylin: As kids.
Oceana: It’s more powerful.
Cooper: We want to show we have a voice.
Calla: When there are a lot of adults sometimes it seems like less kids because we’re smaller. Or adults made kids tag along.
Maylin: We want to make it look like the kids made the grown-ups come along.
After our many discussions with parents, teachers, and children, we were hatching a plan together. The other classrooms had their own conversations, guided by the age of the children and the relationships within each classroom community.
Here is an excerpt from the letter I sent to the parent community that evening:
You may have received an email this week from the PPS Superintendent which acknowledged the National School Walkout planned for March 14 at 10 am. Parents at the Opal Advisory Council this week, teachers, and students have all spent time considering our participation in this event.
We know — because the children in Alder [our beginning school] have told us so– that “love is our superpower”. We think that is precisely the message we want to make visible to the world that day. We think a “March for Love” is exactly where Opal School’s greatest gifts meet the world’s greatest needs — especially right now.
On Wednesday at 10 am, we’ll meet as a school on the playground and march around the parking lot back to the Museum’s front plaza. Children may do some speaking. There will be singing.
Parents are welcome to join, but I encourage you to consider what some of our oldest students had to say about this. They said that they were concerned people would think that adults gave them the ideas and they want people to know that the work, the thinking, the ideas are theirs. They also said that because they were smaller than adults, too many adults would make them less visible. They are asking that you let them do this on their own (with their teachers). Younger students may feel differently, and you are free to make the decisions that work best for you.
While the tragedy in Parkland, FL did surface briefly in the 4th and 5th grade today, we have otherwise decided not to discuss it, and though it is each family’s decision, we do not encourage you to discuss it at home. We want to focus on what’s possible rather than on what is wrong. We want to stand up for what we believe in and what we want to see in the world. We want Opal School children to be in solidarity with all the other children throughout our country who are saying, “ENOUGH,” and to do it in a way that makes sense to Opal School children.
After studying some of our national struggles in 5th grade, an Opal student named Max said, “The children of the future should know this history because if they don’t, how will they know how to hope? They need to know that you need to have belief and strength to be able to make the world a better place.” Hope is a product of uncertainty. For children growing up in uncertain times, it seems critical for them to make a practice of sharing it with one another. And as they do– as they stand together and tell us about the world they want to live in — we all benefit.
I hope that you enjoy the video that offers a window into the March for Love. In my next post, I’ll share reflections on the experience. In the meantime, in what ways is this moment in time supporting you to better understand the powerful possibilities that become available to us when we listen and pay attention to the unique gifts of childhood?