“To prepare a student for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means to train him so that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.”
– John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer
“Think about a thoughtful act,” says Sean Dolgan to his first- and second-grade students as they sit in a meeting circle on the classroom rug. He spreads out some of the words children have offered about how they want to feel at school: safe, welcomed, super happy, magical, excited. “What other actions might we add to these words?” A small white board captures some of their ideas: use kind words, ask someone to play, help clean up, don’t throw nature. The children put a tally next to some of the thoughtful actions they would try that day at school, and they offer explanations about why some actions might be harder or easier for them. This is what it looks like to believe in children’s capacity to care and how they are guided to put care into action.
Next door, in Amanda Haecker’s third-grade classroom, the class has spent several days generating a class charter of shared agreements about how they want to feel and work together. The evidence is visible on the wall, where they have illustrated words and written examples for how those words can be made real in classroom life. At school we want to feel ... heard, respected, happy, loved, determined, stay curious, fun!!!
Their ideas for how these feelings could be enacted demonstrate the integrity of third graders who have a voice and activate care their classroom.
“Encourage each other to do our best and believe that we all can do hard things.”
“Help each other, especially when we see that someone needs a friend.”
“Be assertive, asking for help when we need it.”
“Learn new and interesting things about the world.”
This is what it looks like to believe in children’s capacity for integrity and voice, and how they are guided to put their integrity and voice into action.
Out in the garden, teacher Morgan Padgett is standing in a circle with her first- and second-grade students. Their watercolor paintings of flowers and plants are spread carefully on the ground, and she is asking them to notice interesting things about each other’s paintings. “I like the way that one mixes the colors to really look like that green of the leaf.” “That one is pretty, the way the colors mixed.” “I like the way you painted that flower so watery, it’s almost see-through.” The day prior she had challenged them with watercolor explorations in the classroom, letting them experiment with mixing colors to match a found object, such as a pinecone or a rock. From the way they honored one another’s work, one would think these students had been talking about each other’s artwork for many months, but this was only the seventh day of school. This is what it looks like to believe in children’s capacity for respect and how they are guided to put respect into action.
These are just three small examples of the big work that is going on in all our classes during the first weeks of school as teachers are building authentic foundations of care, trust, respect, resilience and belonging with their students. Regardless of the age of the child, our teachers seize on their intrinsic curiosity and motivation to learn, as well as their inherent desire to be known and loved. Indeed, in the words of Dewey, we are actively training and preparing students “so that that [they] will have the full and ready use of all [their] capacities.” The natural outcome is a community of kids who are ready to learn, eager to take on challenges, and capable of kindness and thoughtful actions that might even inspire John Dewey.