Friday, November 15, 2019

"We Protect People"

There were always kids in Woodland Park's 4-5's classes who spent large portions of their days together playing "super heroes." They might call it something different, like good guys, bad guys, Star Wars, or Ninjas, but the essentials of the game remained the same: they formed a team, negotiated their roles, discussed in detail just how powerful they were, then race about talking tough, making fierce faces, and striking assertive poses.

And just as predictably, there were always some children who came to fear the super heroes.

It's tempting for adults to simply impose restrictions on the super hero play in defense of the children who are afraid, but I think that misses an opportunity for the children to learn about what it means to be members of a community. And it begins with the all-hands-on-deck class meetings that we call circle time.

One year, several children had expressed their fears, both directly to me and through their parents, so when the children assembled for circle time, I wanted to steer the conversation that way. We started off talking about our classroom rules, the agreements the children have made with one another. I was prepared to broach the subject of super heroes myself, but was hoping that it would emerge from the kids. I knew that one girl, H, via her mother, had been attempting to summon up the courage to suggest an outright ban on the super hero play, and this was the day.

I said, "H has something to say," and she replied, "No super hero play."

There was a moment of dead silence as her words sank in. Then the super heroes, their expressions full of shock and outrage, raised a chorus of, "Nooooo," which was followed by a more scattered chorus of, "Yesssss." It was obvious that we were not going to reach consensus on this rule, but that wasn't the point: the point was to have the discussion. Once we'd settled down we took turns making our cases, starting with those who were feeling afraid. Several classmates joined H. As they spoke up I watched the superheroes who were paying attention the way one does when the topic is of utmost importance. As they listened to their classmates say that the super heroes frightened them, their expressions turned from outrage to what I can only describe as dismay.

When it was the super heroes' turn to talk, one of them said, emotion rising in his throat, "But we're good guys." Another said, "We protect people." They were simply astonished that they had been so misunderstood. They were genuinely shocked that anyone to be afraid of them.

The discussion that followed was long and rambling. We knew we couldn't all agree to H's suggested rule, but we talked about things we could do like being more aware of one another's feelings, being more direct with one another about how we were feeling, and figuring out better ways to share the space and resources. We learned in that discussion that most of the children were neutral about the super heroes, sometimes joining them, but not every day. They had concrete suggestions, but perhaps their most important contribution was to let their friends know that they weren't afraid, which I think helped some of the more fearful children see that there was an alternative to either-or. I didn't check the clock, but it was a long, productive discussion in which the kids learned something about one another: about who we were as a community.

This wouldn't be the last time we needed to talk about this, but it was a good starting point and the parents of the anti-super heroes reported that their children came away feeling much better, empowered even. As for the super heroes, they had been sincere in their desire to not frighten their classmates going forward, even if they sometimes forgot as they immerse themselves in their dramatic play. And we adults now had a concrete reference point for supporting the children as they worked this through.

A few days after our classroom discussion, one of super heroes was running full speed near the swings. A boy standing nearby flinched as he passed, which caught our caped crusader's eye. He slowed briefly and said, "I'm sorry I scared you," and his friend replied, "That's okay. I was only scared for a second." Like I said, we're going to be working on this for the rest of the school year, but man that was awesome.

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