This article is a part of a new series called In Good Company,
featuring friends of the Conservancy
as guest contributors to our Journal.
The scariest storms are the ones we aren’t prepared for. My family and I spent last weekend getting ready for Hurricane Douglas–extra trips to the store and gas station, filling water bottles and propane tanks, lining and boarding up windows. Emergency sirens sounded midday while our kids played outside in the pre-storm calm, and my anxiety abated in proportion to our readiness. In the days leading up to Hurricane Douglas’s arrival, it looked like Kauaʻi might take a direct hit, but we slept through the strongest rain and wind as the Category 1 hurricane passed just north of us in the night.
This morning, the winds are still swirling in confusion, and we can see huge storm swells moving over the reef directly from the north. But patches of daylight are now visible through the storm. We are okay.
With teachers and students slated to return to public schools (and many private schools) next week, we are now preparing for a different, strangely parallel challenge. Opening schools during a pandemic presents us with so many unknowns, new requirements and schedules, and a general feeling of angst. As I begin to prepare, I realize that what I want for my kids and my students is simple: safety, love, and rich opportunities to learn.
Figuring out how to provide these things is not simple. Parents are worried, angry, unsure. Adults and children are anxious, frustrated. How do we possibly adjust to the fact that everything is different, that so many of the changes feel unwelcome and unpredictable? Many of the old structures of stability appear to have disappeared or become unrecognizable. What now?
When the Merwin Creative Teaching Fellows recently gathered via Zoom to reflect on how we “return” to school this year, we discovered that many of the answers to those questions land us right back where we started together on Maui two years ago. In June 2018, we gathered for five days as the first group of educators selected by The Merwin Conservancy to immerse ourselves in the garden, poetry, and conversations around creativity and social-emotional learning. In stillness and community, we found new ways of seeing our work. In nature, we found inspiration and renewal. In our recent virtual conversation, we realized the seismic shifts in society and education might serve to set us on a better path altogether.
Taking shelter in our shared experiences, we talked about equity and action, creativity and imagination, and these essentials for teaching and learning right now:
1. Safety and well-being must come first.
When COVID-19 first hit our shores, we touted hand-washing. Then masks and social distancing. When our classrooms open to kids, we have been promised there will be strict routines to keep the spaces sanitized throughout the day. Last school year taught us to be nimble, ready for any changes to keep bodies physically safe, whether teaching classes fully online or providing the best enrichment possible at a moment’s notice. But we are more aware than ever that we adults and our kids require social-emotional routines to keep safe and well. As one of the teaching fellows pointed out, we are experiencing “collective despair and inquiry,” which also merits a deliberate response. What is in this particular disaster preparedness kit? Relationship-building, well-articulated plans for self-care, and community building.
Build in regular times to write and talk. A daily or weekly poetry prompt could be just the thing. When lockdown began in March, our family began making time for nightly poetry writing and now can’t part with this fun and nourishing opportunity to reflect and connect. Engaging in structured discussions, as are used in the local p4c (Philosophy for Children) program, is another way to make this happen. Open-ended, creative outlets that allow us to express ourselves and engage in meaningful dialogue are timeless remedies for suffering and anxiety.
Well-being depends on stillness and reflection, which can be simple daily exercises and breaks like those mentioned in this Life Kit podcast episode. These resilience-building skills can and should be shared with children. In stillness, we return to breath and the senses and the present moment. We observe. We calm the compulsion to do multiple things at once and choose one focus… walking, making art, meditating, cooking, planting. When I asked my own kids and their friends which practices at school made them feel at peace, they immediately pointed to yoga, time to work independently, and quiet breaks during lessons. Opportunities to recharge in stillness regulate moods and provide a counterbalance to stresses and screens.
2. Nature and place are teachers.
Amplified screen time and virtual life call for an equal and opposite dose of unplugged time outside. Necessary for mind, body, spirit, it may also be the thing we come to value most later in life. In fact, this past week, my 7-year-old interviewed both of her 90-year-old great-grandmas. The talks revolved around their childhoods, one in the seaside lumber company town of Samoa, California, and the other in rural Illinois. Violet asked what they spent time doing, what they played with, and what they remembered. Despite the many obvious differences in childhoods separated by nine decades, they were both clear that their most vivid and joyful memories are all related to spending hours outside, exploring alone at the beach or in the woods, but also jumping rope and playing baseball and hopscotch. They had few books and toys of their own; the world outside was their playground and classroom.
While we may not all be able to provide the same kinds of time outdoors, even our small and shared spaces are adequate. Many of us face a school year without field trips, but the truth is that our school campuses–not to mention yards, nearby parks and beaches–are enough. In fact, this pandemic ought to remind us that we’ve been severely underusing the outdoor spaces available to us. In a recent article about outdoor education, author Teo Grossman writes, “there’s plenty of research proving that kids learn more and learning is accelerated outdoors. Even limited opportunities matter: when kids come back into a classroom from an hour outdoors, they’re focused, calmer and more able to absorb content.” Of course nature’s benefits to students’ social-emotional health are just as positive.
The pandemic has likewise kept many of us in place. We must rely on and connect to what and who is near. If ever there was a time to get to know and teach about the history of our places, now is it. Place-based learning, an educational practice in which academic pursuits and inquiries are based on the local culture and land, is a powerful way to engage our students, keep them talking to their families, and find solutions to community-based problems. A resource we use regularly at my school helps students build a deeper connection to our island and lists all the moku and ahupuaʻa along with associated plants, animals, moʻolelo, and aliʻi. If itʻs true that we grow to love what we care for and vice versa, let us begin in the places we are right now.
3. Uncertainty is not a disaster.
Uncertainty requires us to tap into all our reserves – creativity, courage, sacrifice. But this stretch will pay dividends later as we now discover new possibilities and transform old systems that weren’t serving us anyway. Down the road, we may hardly remember that this transition was so taxing.
Violet’s great-grandmas’ memories of adolescence during World War II are a wonder to me, but seem just a matter of unremarkable fact to them. Violet can’t stop talking about the fact that GG Elaine took a boat to junior high school across the bay in Eureka because gas for buses was being rationed. She can’t believe that GG June, at her same age of 7, earned $2.00 per month to be a school janitor who went to school early to fill the furnace and scaled poles on Friday afternoons to remove the swings. At the height of the war, Elaine spent hours in a watchtower checking the horizon for ships or planes, a patriotic duty for willing volunteers that seems rather frightening to me but that she remembers fondly.
Many of our fellows remarked that the pandemic is finally pushing teachers and schools to focus on equity, dismantle ineffective practices, and redefine learning. One teacher shared that she and her colleagues are finally implementing a transdisciplinary approach, often marked by bringing together individuals and goals from different disciplines to create and problem-solve collectively. School, and its seemingly defining features like “classroom” and “attendance” and “discipline,” may be getting a much-needed opportunity to evolve.
Preparing for school this year is nothing like before. As one of our fellows kept repeating, this school year calls for us to be nimble, ready to move and shift. And yet, we need stillness and calm to remember, or discover for the first time, what we each believe and value about these systems–school, work, routine–that feel so threatened by the present uncertainty and change. Purposefully, we can prepare to protect the essentials: the safety, well-being, joy, and rich learning we want for our kids and ourselves.
How easy it was to go to work and school before. How easy it was to accept roles, privilege, place, and the systems that made daily life easier than it is now. But right now it’s hard because we are busy planting and growing something new. As this storm swirls, we’re preparing the best we can and remembering “our only hope is to be the daylight.”
ABOUT OUR GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
A 2018-19 Merwin Creative Teaching fellow, Erin Medeiros is a high school teacher at Kanuikapono, a Hawaiian-focused Public Charter School in Anahola, on the island of Kaua‘i. She seeks renewal in literature and hiking, biking, or playing at the beach with her educator husband and their two daughters. Erin views teaching as a deeply creative profession and encourages her students to develop their attention to the past and present, to observe and question life. She does whatever it takes to get her students outside and into the community at least once a week and loves to prepare them each year to perform Poetry Out Loud. She believes that networks and human connections are vital to a healthy teaching career, which is one of the things that attracted her to the fellowship. She has a B.A. in History from Lewis & Clark College, and a Masters in Education from University of Oregon.
To view other entires in our “In Good Company” series of writing by guest bloggers and friends of the Conservancy, click here.