“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” –Brené Brown
We’re only in our third week of school, and the Dogwood community has been spending a lot of time thinking together about what the word community means and how we want to be together as a community this year. As teachers, we have an intention to create conditions where each individual feels a sense of belonging: to create a culture together with the children where everyone feels safe to share their stories, to take risks, to work together, to grow ideas, to ask questions, and to make mistakes.
One structure that we are returning to this year as we work to create these conditions is called Partner Explore (which you can read more about here and here). Last week during Partner Explore, children were invited to think about someone who they haven’t had many opportunities to work with yet or who they don’t know much about and wanted to know more. With this lens, one at a time, individuals paired up and chose a material to explore together in the classroom.
From the beginning, this structure – along with the eagerness of the children – seemed to be supporting new connections to be made and ideas to be shared. These connections are important and exciting and they feel good. And we also know that for all humans our best attempts at belonging will sometimes end in misfires. We unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings or exclude someone. Communities are places where these things will happen. Conflict is inevitable.
Which is what happened to A and R as they realized, by process of elimination, that they were going to be paired together during Partner Explore. They looked at each other and immediately shook their heads no.
Kerry: What’s happening? Tell me more.
R: I’m not working with him. He’s mean to me.
A: No, she’s mean to me!
Within a split-second, multiple ways of responding crossed my mind.
I wanted to say, You don’t get to say no, go work together.
Or, Really? It’s the second week of school. How could you possibly think you already know this about one another?
Or, obviously, you two should be partners.
But as these responses quickly crossed my mind, I also knew that this wasn’t what would support these two to move forward. I thought we needed more information about what was going on for each of them. I knew the desire to connect and feel a sense of belonging was there. It’s there for all of us. I interrupted the back and forth of who has been mean to the other.
Kerry: Hmm, I hear you both feeling unsure about one another. I’m wondering, R, were you trying to make A feel like you didn’t like him?
Kerry: A, were you trying to make R feel like you didn’t like her?
A: No, I wasn’t.
I wondered how I might support them to see what I saw after my first glance—that they both wanted to feel a sense of belonging and connection, despite their initial misfired attempts to connect with one another.
I decided to ask another question:
Kerry: You just got some new information from one another. Each of you thought the other was intending to be mean, but neither of you meant to make the other person feel that way. What do you want to do with that new information?”
R: Well, AR and I are just alike, so sometimes we fight because of that.
Kerry: Hmm, I wonder if you and A might find out that you have a lot in common? One thing I know about both of you is that you both love to play with the kinetic sand. Did you know that about one another?
Sideways glances turned into smirks and arms crossed turned into a shrug of the shoulders. Body language, although still hesitant, began to suggest they might be willing to give it a try.
Kerry: Would you be willing to give it a try?
And they did. And at the end of Partner Explore, they didn’t want to stop.
We create opportunities for connection not because we expect things to always go smoothly, or for everyone to feel connected all of the time. But because we know, that as humans, we are all attempting to belong all of the time. And sometimes (even often) our attempts are misfires. This year we will all make mistakes. And that’s ok. R and A will remind us that this can be a place where we’ll figure out how to get through them together.
Kerry: What did you discover during Partner Explore today?
R: I discovered A wasn’t that mean but at first I thought he was.
A: I thought R was a liar, but when I played with her she actually had really good ideas and we had fun.
How are you navigating conflicts in your communities in these first few weeks of school?
How are you working to create conditions that support all students to feel a sense of belonging?
I love your story here about partner explore and the ways in which you supported these 2 children to re-connect. I love the idea of misfire! We are also in the midst of the first part of the year and being intentional about our community! I love the sand! Giving me some inspiration! Thanks! Liz
Kerry, the way you navigated the conflict and information shared was very thoughtful. I am thankful that you were willing to share your “spit-second thinking” with us as I am assuming that most of us (including me) have those responses in our brains as well. It seemed that making space conversationally for the emotions of anger, frustration, rejection were necessary for this pair to work together. I am curious how often I have moved past the emotions and missed wonderful opportunities for new perspectives and relationships to be created. Thank you for working with the children to create a new, and healthy, foundation for their friendship. I wonder how their relationship will expand with more time, misfires, and partner exploration?
Thank you for the reminder that we are all ultimately seeking connection and a sense of belonging. And will certainly make mistakes along the way!