“I’m done, Paul!” my first-grader said to me, sprinting to show me the final cover for her story.
The challenge that has written a great deal of her learning narrative thus far has been one of mindfulness, managing impulses, and persisting through challenges. She has been the child who focuses more on the outcome, less on the process, and almost entirely on the validation she receives from without, as opposed to intrinsic validation that comes from within.
So when she came to me with the first copy of her cover page, completed hastily and at a level of quality so much lower than that of her true potential, I told her I wouldn’t accept it. At first, this might sound a bit harsh for a first-grader, but this isn’t something I normally do. And when I do it, it isn’t flippantly.
I turned to her, my eyes staring right into hers, “Listen, honey, I want you to know that I love you so much and care about your learning so much that I won’t accept this as your final copy. I notice the crayon marks outside of the lines and the way your words are written, and I can tell that this isn’t your best work.”
She looked down, disappointed that I wasn’t reveling in this moment with her. I felt a slight tinge of guilt upon witnessing her disappointment, but I drew upon one of our morning meeting intentions for the week to guide her through it.
Over the past week or so, we had set an intention to be loving. It’s part of our student-decided classroom agreement–to be loving to others–but we added a layer to the idea this past week. We added that we need to be loving to ourselves, too. As a part of our mindfulness routine–when we sit with our eyes closed, noticing our thoughts pass us by, and noticing the feelings that bubble up–I asked them to imagine what they could do, not only to be loving to others, but also to show love to themselves.
“I’m going to draw today,” one student replied, “because it puts me in the green zone,” referring to the Zones of Regulation.
“I’m going to do my best work,” another mentioned.
I replied, affirming these intentions, and I used this very experience to anchor the feedback I wanted to give this child as I redirected her to start over and do her best work.
Her face still turned down in disappointment, I asked her to look at my eyes, and I said, “Remember how we talked about loving ourselves in morning meeting? This is one way you can show love to yourself. You can do your best work, so you can show just how hard you’ve worked and just how much you care about what you have to say in your writing. Is that something you think you can do?”
This slight change in vocabulary softened her somber visage, and gave her the boost she needed to walk back to her seat and start over. She decided to use pencil to first outline her shapes and colored pencils to fill the shapes a bit more accurately. She became less concerned with finishing quickly, and more concerned with finishing a high-quality product. And the results of this intention paid off in huge dividends the following day, when she ran up to me, yet again, with a similar statement, but an entirely different tone.
“Look! I worked so hard on this, Paul! I really persisted,” she said so astutely, using some of our habits language.
“My goodness!” I replied. “Now, that’s the work I knew you could do.”
I took her over to the carpet to help her document her work.
“I want to take pictures of both of these,” I said. “I want you to be able to remember what it looks like when you take the time to show love to yourself by persisting and doing your best work.”
She smiled back at me, her eyes bright, not solely from my validation, but clearly from the validation she had from within.
The world is a becoming a more challenging place in which to live. We’re surrounded–and now led–by hate, publicly rewarded and revered. At the root of hate towards others, I believe, lies a hate towards oneself, and I believe that, in the face of so many things we cannot control, that we, as educators, can perhaps circumvent future problems by teaching children to show love to themselves. This is partially in an effort to create intrinsically motivated children who find a sense of purpose and autonomy in all they do, but also because the seeds that children plant in themselves, whether they be seeds of love or hate, will grow exponentially over time, branching their influence into the world around them.
In effect, by teaching children to learn to love themselves–for their successes, for their failures, and for everything in between–I believe they will learn to love others, as well. It’s a radical thought, but at the same time, an imperceptibly conspicuous one, that love could truly sit at the center of all that is educational.
But it is a powerful one, nonetheless: one that could possibly transform your classroom, as I believe it is transforming mine.