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“Education must focus not on the child considered in isolation from others, but instead on the child seen as interconnected with particular others in nested communities: home, classroom, school, neighborhood, city, region, nation, and eventually extending out to include the whole world.” — Carolyn Pope Edwards, “Democratic Participation in a Community of Learners: Loris Malaguzzi’s Philosophy of Education as Relationship”

“I don’t think joy is like air. I think joy is from a person to another person.” — Zoey, 4 years, Meadow Room Dialogue, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 2015

On our first “Umbrella Day,” back in September, the Lower School students made a trip into the city to explore “Our Richmond.” They investigated the James River, Brown’s Island, the Kanawha Canal, Oregon Hill, Belle Isle, and Floyd Avenue. The children came back with their heads full of streets, buildings, cell phone towers, waterways, houses, buses, and bridges. Almost all the photographs from that day, and almost all the children’s representations of what they remembered – representations done in paint, words, 3-D sculpture and clay – depict the cityscape, landscape and waterscape of Richmond.

On our second “Umbrella Day,” which took place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lower School students went again into the city. The children visited a fire station, walked down Franklin Avenue telling jokes to passers-by, cleaned up Abner Clay Park, and cleared brush in Evergreen Cemetery. And then we all gathered, along with many of the Preschool families, in Monroe Park. There the children gave the gifts they had decided to bring for the people and animals in the park: paper crowns and paper airplanes, hot cider, origami hearts, garlands of food and decorated bird houses for the birds, and, of course, lots more jokes. The photos and the memories of that day are wildly different from those of the first Umbrella Day – they are full of people, not just ourselves (Sabot students, parents, and teachers), but also dozens and dozens of other people – once strangers, now at least acquaintances – with whom we share the city of Richmond, and with whom (or at least with some of whom) we connected.

I believe that it is by making those human connections – and only by making those human connections, that Sabot children will come to truly inhabit and participate in their community, to become part of “Our Richmond.” Of course, it isn’t always easy to connect with people. Sometimes our intentions are misunderstood, mistimed, or misplaced; sometimes, we put a foot wrong. But in the effort to connect, both in the successes and in learning to understand the failures, bonds are tentatively formed and empathy is slowly developed.

Here are a few of the connections made – or nearly made – on Martin Luther King Day:

Bennett, a preschooler, reaches a tentative hand out toward the man sitting on the park bench, handing him the paper crown he had carefully made at Sabot a few days earlier. The man takes the colorful crown in his hands. As he begins to read its message, Bennett’s sister stretches her arm toward the second man on the bench, offering her crown from as great a distance as she can manage. The first man read the message written on the inside of Bennett’s crown. “Have a nice day,” he reads aloud. He looks at Bennett and smiles, “I will have a nice day. You just made it a nice day, man.” And then he and his friend put on the crowns, crowns they are still wearing an hour later when they leave the park.

Taking part in the Evergreen Cemetery Clean-Up, the second graders remove leaves, vines, and weeds, and uncover long-buried gravestones. They work with other community members, those who are committed to restoring Richmond’s historic African American cemetery.

And in a surprising way, the second graders also connect to people from the past, to those whose graves they helped to uncover. Matilda later explains why this uncovering was important, “It was good that we found the stones so the people could be remembered. If you can’t see their names, it is hard to remember them.”

The third graders had decided they would bring jokes to the people they encountered in Richmond on Martin Luther King Day. It takes a while to get up the nerve to approach a stranger with a joke, but as they walk down Franklin Street, they finally feel ready. “What kind of man shaves thirty times a day?” shouts Emerson to the men working on the roof of the downtown library. “What?” calls out one of the men, leaning over and looking at the group of children five storeys below. “What kind of man shaves thirty times a day?” shouts Emerson again, and then he pauses before delivering the punch line: “A barber!” A big guffaw echoes from the rooftop and down the street. The children burst into joyous laughter. They had done it, they had told a joke to a stranger and he had laughed.

A third-grader's joke gets a belly laugh.

This joke falls flat.

Of course, not all the jokes got laughs. And sometimes people said they didn’t want to hear a joke. These moments of dis-connection were troubling to the children. But the next day, the third grade teachers seized on these moments as an opportunity for another way of connecting — through empathy. Why, they asked the third graders, might a person not want to hear a joke, or not laugh at a joke that is told anyway? And in trying to imagine how those people might have felt (Maybe they were tired? Maybe they didn’t speak English? Maybe they were annoyed?), the children may have formed a more powerful connection than they did through laughter. (For more insight into the third grader’s experience, see Mauren Campbell’s blog.)

It isn’t easy to make connections, perhaps especially not in a city as economically, socially, and racially diverse as Richmond. But we cannot pretend to exist in a bubble, we must reach out – and we must allow our children to reach out – to one another. As Dr. King recognized, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” On the anniversary of Dr. King’s birth, our students took a step towards recognizing and celebrating that mutuality, and in so doing, I think they honored his memory.

Preschool children in Monroe Park share their Origami hearts.

About the Author: 

Susan Barstow is the Director of Sabot at Stony Point's Lower School. Sabot's Reggio-inspired program takes a rigorous, collaborative approach to learning. Above all, we seek to cultivate a child's spirit of inquiry and develop a life-long love of learning.