Which Key? The Golden Key… Works Everytime!

Which Key? The Golden Key…It unlocks it every time!
Over the past few weeks, I have learned deeply. My students were paramount teachers. I was privileged to share a part of their interior worlds that they often keep tucked away unless an environment is created in such a way that allows for feelings of safety and an untainted sense of belongingness. When any child or adult enters into a space that accepts, inspires and affirms their “ever changing personhood,” we have finally found the key that unlocks the door to extravagant learning! What is that key? That golden key is connection; nothing more.
Connection or lack thereof drives all relationships, emotion and learning in life. This current semester as a teacher of fifth grade through graduate students, I continue to experience firsthand, the power of this human condition that so often gets unintentionally left out of the education reform equation. We can talk about the top five engaging questions to use in our classrooms, the three best ways to invite literacy and written expression, alongside the top 10 technology applications for common core math instruction; but none of it matters if we cannot connect to one another, the subject matter and our own innate intelligence. What is connection? Is there a formula for connection? I decided to look up the definition from an online children’s dictionary and this is what I found: “The act of bringing two things into contact (especially for communication;) the “joining” of hands or thoughts around a table.
How does connection occur? Can it be taught? How long does it take? What do I do when there are just some students that truly make it feel impossible to even begin to feel a sense of connection or a mutual joining? From my 25 plus years of experience as an educator these aforementioned questions have floated through my mind on numerous occasions and I want to share selected thoughts and experiences addressing the “joining” of minds and hearts in and out of the classroom.
Dr. Dan Seigel, author and psychiatrist speaks of a mindset that is critically important to every human being as we look at engagement, motivation and those social and emotional skills that drive all learning. “Feeling felt” is connection. When we “feel felt” by another, we no longer experience isolation or those lonely emotions of exclusion. “Feeling felt” by peers in the adolescent years overrides almost every behavior or choice and even the riskiest and most harmful actions, choices and experiences. Our brains are social organs and we cannot survive without other people; because relationships are a part of our neurobiology. They matter most!
So if connection is the golden key, how do we unlock the hearts and minds of one another to secure and feel that connection? We do this through stories, questions and the deepest kinds of listening that usually escape most of us. When we share a personal narrative, a story that brings forth our commonalities as humans, we connect on the most intimate level, because we can begin to empathize- feeling what it must be like to walk in the clothing and shoes of another. Last week, in all my classes, I shared an ancient story of a an African tribal tradition that speaks of how the villagers gather around every child and sing their “song,” the very best part, the identity, the song that the mother created even before the conception of this child. As the young individual moves through life, the song is sung and shared in celebration and in times of dire conflict and sadness.
Following the sharing of this ancient story, with fifth grade in the morning, the students expressed some of their words… as one 11 year old boy stated, “Balanced.” The team of fifth grade teachers are going to extend this experience through the holidays asking students to actually create “their song.”
A few hours later when I recited this story to my undergraduate freshmen, sophomores and juniors, I asked them to spend a few minutes pondering and writing their “song,” their identity, the best parts of who they are. I also explained to them that they did not need to write their names on the papers, just the thoughts and feelings that came forth. I collected them at the end of class and stowed them away in my brief case and began to prepare for my graduate class which was just a few hours away. Ten minutes before the evening class began, as I was making a few copies of hand-outs, I noticed the stack of wrinkled half sheets of paper from the afternoon stuffed inside a folder and I began to read. I could barely breathe… let alone speak… their responses were so vulnerable. There was poetry, two or three word descriptors, and slogans as their innermost thoughts and feelings poured onto these half sheets of green construction paper.
Closing our graduate class, I randomly handed out the half sheets of paper that held the songs of my undergraduate students. Reading these responses left these second year teachers speechless. We discussed the power of story, the questions that diffuse rising anger, angst and discomfort. After the students had read each of these responses, I reminded them, “Take this story, take your story, and begin connecting with your students, uncovering their strengths, fears, hearts and genius minds!” We didn’t talk after class… we were all greatly touched, quietly pondering the expressed openness of these 18, 19 and 20 year olds who taught us all on this Thursday evening.
Connection! It begins with the sharing of our human stories; followed by the deep listening that lies beyond words and never requires a verbal response. Questions in times of conflict lessen defense mechanisms and move to the root or source of the battle or ensuing power struggle!
What do you need?
How can I help?
What can we do together to improve this situation?
What is it that I just do not understand?
When we share our stories, taking the time to ask and listen beyond the world of our lexicon…we begin to join hands, hearts and thoughts around the table of extravagant learning. Below is the ancient African story I shared and a few of the anonymous responses from my students.

The Himba, Namibia, & the Birth Song
There is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.

And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.
In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.
And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.
Excerpt from: Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community New World Library
Responses from my undergraduate students…

“My phrase would be “He would give you the shirt off his back.” It may not be a song, but it describes my life, because no matter friend or enemy, I will always help people in need. Five dollar? You got it! Food? You got it! I will never throw someone away. Show people you love, and love itself will return the favor.”

I am a survivor of an unimaginable childhood, but because of that, I am compassionate, understanding and wholeheartedly free to help others; help them through their pain. I was born to help others heal!

“A finished task is a happy task, puzzles please my soul. Music is a changing mask that warms my heart like coal.”

“There is something inside me that no one should see, but there is also something inside me everyone should experience. As I travel down this winding path of life cloaked in love, with a musical aura, I use my drama to make a permanent impression on the hearts and minds of those my lifeline has become intertwined. I dream of being the source of an everlasting strength that spreads like wildfire.”

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