Words have power. They can hurt…and they can heal.
Our students have been learning about our local history. They’ve studied the lives of the first settlers, learned about the homestead act, and are fascinated by the stories of those who lived here before us. And they’ve taken these stories and invented their own playground game. They call it history. Essentially, they role-play the lives of these early settlers–some playing the adults, others the children. (Our school is a part of that history–one of the early schools of the area)
But at lunch recess today, it all went wrong. Things got rough, and mean words and hurtful actions happened. We got a heads-up from one of the playground monitors, and expected to see tears as we headed out to our students. But things were surprisingly calm…until we started to walk back to the classroom. As the story unfolded, we got a glimpse at both our students’ creativity and imagination…and the escalation of energy, excitement, with some poor choices sprinkled on top of it all. It became clear that this was not a scuffle between two students, it was a result of good intention, poor choices, swelling anger, and overreaction.
So instead of the plan we had in mind for the afternoon, we decided to address this incident with the entire class…to help our classroom community grow and hopefully give students more tools to use to resolve their own problems.
After talking through the pain and frustration and hearing a variety of perspectives, my teaching partner Margit pulled out a book she had bought a few weeks ago…one we were saving for a time when it seemed useful…and she began to read. Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus tells the story of Gandhi’s grandson and his feelings of anger…and of not living up to his grandfather’s reputation and expectations. The ultimate message is that anger is a normal emotion that we all experience–it’s how we deal with it that matters. Gandhi explains to his grandson that anger is like electricity. It can split a living tree in two. Or, he explains, it can be channeled and transformed. A switch can be flipped and it can shed light like a lamp. We can all work to use our anger instead of letting anger use us.
We talked about the difference between being a bystander–one who stands by and sees things escalating and chooses to do nothing. Or we can be upstanders, people who make a positive difference and think about how they can help. People who notice when things are escalating and make an effort to change the dynamic. For our young students, that might mean summoning an adult or using kind, calm language to help their classmates remember to pay attention to the choices they are making.
Our students took some time to breathe out the pain of the negative lunch interaction and breathe in some warm light…and turned to a partner to talk about what they learned from Arun Gandhi’s story of his grandfather. One student asked me, before heading out for afternoon recess, if they could still play the history game or if it was now off limits. I responded by reminding that the game itself wasn’t bad…and that I believed they could play the game as long as they remembered what had gone wrong before, and made different choices.
Our students are wonderful. They are inquisitive, imaginative, and caring. And they are kids. They get excited, wound up…and sometimes they make choices that get them into trouble. The words we use as adults are powerful too. We can use them to punish or we can use them teach.
As we sent our students off for spring break today, I could feel the caring and the healing in our community. We all learned today. Words hurt…and words healed…and we all learned.