Using children’s stories to bolster a sense of community connectedness and improve the culture at your school
Imagine this… You are a classroom teacher or a counselor or a principal. You see and feel the culture of your learning community and note the need for a change. It is 2021 and people from all walks of life are facing truly challenging situations in their lives. They haven’t seen family for several months. They have lost jobs and are struggling financially. They’ve spent unparalleled amounts of time at home with their spouses; some realize that they are not as compatible as they once were.
These are just a few of the real-world situations our families and children are facing. The children who walk into our schools have no control over any of these situations, yet they certainly feel the brunt of them. You, as their sensitive, empathetic teacher, counselor, or principal, are put in a position to manage and navigate these overwhelming challenges. What do you do to make a difference? How do you support the children, meeting them where they are; yet still offering assistance to move them forward in their journeys?
As I have so many times in my life, I have turned to stories; parallel stories which are relevant to the situations we are facing. Let me share a story here… lol. My daughter-in-law is pregnant with twins that are due in June/July. This past weekend, we had her baby shower. One of the “games” we played was taking a word or phrase from a list and sharing tips for the mother-to-be. My daughter, who is not yet a mother, shared her experience as a little girl. She used the words “cuddle” and “bedtime.” She, with so much love in her heart and on her face, shared how much she cherished bedtime cuddles and the stories I used to tell her.
I reminisced right along with her, as her memory took me 18 years back in time; as if we had stepped into a time machine! I shared that the stories I would tell were a mixture of books that I read repeatedly and stories I created which discussed what had happened that day or recently. The stories I would create often highlighted acts she had done which were positive and that we hoped would occur again… things like going potty in the toilet, or playing nicely with her brother. Some of them related to situations that didn’t go so well but in the story, the actions were adjusted to elicit more productive endings.
One such story was about when she and a friend were playing, and her friend upset her by selecting her favorite doll to play with for the afternoon; a doll that she, herself, wanted to have with her. My daughter went off to play with a different set of toys and left her friend to play dolls by herself. In the story I created, the girls were able to play with the various dolls and get along by showing off the doll’s various talents.
We talked about how her favorite doll was special and desired because it was her favorite; and when her friend chose to play with that special doll, it was like sharing a gift which didn’t actually need to be given away. Her special doll was not only special to her, but also special to her friends, which made her that much more special. We didn’t discuss the story as it related to her; it was simply told to her.
The beauty was when my daughter’s friend came over again and a similar situation occurred and played out just as had been shared in my story. My daughter had listened and internalized the actions of the “fictitious” characters and mimicked their behaviors and attitudes and enjoyed her friend’s presence much more. She wasn’t hurt by not being able to play with her favorite toys. She, instead, felt pleasure in sharing her treasured gifts with those whom she loved.
While playing the baby shower game, my daughter didn’t share any of the details I just laid out; but they all came flooding back to my mind when she mentioned her love of those times. I felt that closeness and connection, as well. (Yes, there were tears shed.) I also felt the evening stories were probably one of the best parts of my own parenting. The “aha” moment happened when I realized I had intuitively taken the practice into my work in schools. I had used children’s books with my junior-high and high-school students and with my various staff to share messages. So, when I was named principal at an elementary school, I was excited to expand this work to impact students (and adults) individually and for our school family, as a whole!
The first year in the position, it was clear to me there had been some adversarial relationships created which resulted in a culture of unhealthy competition and some underlying fear and distrust. During an assembly with the students, I mentioned I saw Cookson as the school with a K in the middle of its name and that K stood for Kindness! I read the book The Dot by Peter H Reynolds. The book exemplifies kindness and how it is shared with one another; and the incredibly positive impact it has on the direct recipients and eventually the overall community.
At our school, we created multiple opportunities for our students to share their kindness with one another, with their teachers, with our community members and beyond. (Our teachers also engaged in several appreciation opportunities. Our school counselor and media specialist met together to design and implement a monthly talk with each of our classes where various success attributes and facets of kindness would be discussed and highlighted. We will talk more about these books-stories at a later time). The stories they read, the situations they shared, the questions they asked, and the discussions which ensued have led to a really open and honest community of people who accept where they are, own their actions, work towards growth, and are connected by the focus on being kind to oneself and others.
In January of 2021, when we returned to school after the winter holidays, I anticipated a rejuvenated and refreshed feel. However, after the first day, the look of exhaustion on the faces of staff and students returned. I was thinking, “We have an entire six months of school left, and so much learning to do and the cold, dark winter to somehow endure. The COVID-19 numbers are at an all-time high. How can we possibly do this?” We needed stories; we needed really good children’s literature!
On the announcements, I read The Dot. I asked the students to picture the pages in their minds as I read aloud. I encouraged them to make a movie of the story; especially since many of them have heard it so many times already. We began sharing stories on a weekly basis which had specific messages – kindness, endurance, perseverance, owning your actions, etc. This re-connected our community. We now all had a similar weekly experience to reference in discussions. Just as in other years, teachers were heard referencing the stories in their classrooms; students had characters to relate to and use in discussions with fellow students. We had re-built a very important structure which is critical to our school’s culture.
During the shutdown, we did so many virtual read-alouds. Teachers have been reading in their individual classrooms. However, as a school, it didn’t occur to me that I should be doing this. (Wow, I find I have to learn some of the most basic lessons over and over again!) In a time when we are struggling to connect on so many levels and when we are oftentimes ready to totally cancel out what we don’t like, focusing on the simple messages found in children’s books is exactly the right medicine for what is ailing and alienating us.
For more information about the Kids Read Now Summer Reading Program for K-3, please contact us.