This morning I had the privilege of sitting in on the Monday morning ritual of symbol sharing with the Sunroom students. The Sunroom is comprised of students who are in the foundation level (4-5 years old) and level one (6 to 7 years old). Although young, these students have repeatedly impressed me with their socio-emotional articulation skills and I am thoroughly convinced that these young children are more emotionally articulate than many of my peers.
The Sunroom students develop their socio-emotional skills with the help of two main mentors, Hadassah and Jay, who are able to lead without dominating, a skill very few are actually capable of mastering. On Monday mornings this cohort engages in an activity called symbol sharing. After morning meeting, the Sunroom-ers gather around the windowsill to grab small figurines, toys, rocks, and pieces of bric-a-brac from a shadowbox. In this wooden shadowbox there is a smooth black triangular rock next to a small toy penguin missing half an arm next to a small statue of a meditating woman next to a tiny string of pearls next to a light pink seashell. Each student grabs a different piece and heads to the carpet to form a circle.
As the students sit on the carpet, it becomes clear that the students are very aware of where they are in relation to others. Three students initially seated themselves towards the middle of the carpet, blocking other students from being part of the circle. One girl tapped one of these three middle-circlers on the shoulder and said “Can you move back? Not everyone can fit in the circle!” The three middle-circlers scooted back to make a more inclusive circle, checking to ensure that they we no longer blocking anyone else.
Hadassah placed a sand timer in the center of the circle and explained that they allocate 15 minutes to complete the symbol sharing activity. The purpose of the activity is to ‘check-in’ with each other and to see how everyone is doing each Monday morning. This can serve as a insightful experience for both the mentors and for the students. There is neither a speaking order, nor a compulsion to speak, so the symbol sharing activity ebbs and flows as individuals decide when, and if, they would like to share their symbol.
Indie, a perky and confident little redhead, started the activity off right away by holding up the penguin with half an arm and saying “I choose this because I’m feeling kind of sick this morning. So be careful around me today, please.” A minute of silence followed until the activity picked up steam and students began to share in succession. A few times students spoke at the same time, but instead of fighting to speak over each other, they would work out who should speak between the two of them, or another student would share while those two students waited for another gap during which they could describe their symbol decision-making process.
After about 5 minutes of sharing symbols Jessie, a self-assured student in a fuzzy onesie and rain boots, sprawled out on the floor facing away from the group and began to provide a commentary about what she did over the weekend. Hadassah asked Jessie to rejoin the group and reminded everyone to “leave space so that others can share their symbols.” A hush fell back over the group. Finn whispered to Hadassah that he decided to ‘pass’ on this particular Monday, even though he had selected a red rubber lobster. Another student named Jensen held up the shiny black triangular rock and said that he felt like “a black sun” and later added that he also felt like “half a piece of pizza.”
I looked around and realized I was one of the few who had yet to share. A bit nervously I shared that I had chosen a grey elephant because I was feeling loved. I said the elephant represents feeling loved because there are some great stories about how elephants love each other. In truth, I had picked the elephant because I listened to a silly song called the elephant song during a car ride with the family of a student named Hannah on the previous day on our trip to an animal sanctuary. Once I sat in on the activity for a short length of time though, I realized that these kids who are 15 years my junior had selected more meaningful symbols than I had, so I quickly racked my brain for a better explanation.
Why had I chosen this symbol? I saw two paths in my brain. First, I could take the easy way out and use the elephant as the literal representation I had originally intended. The elephant reminded me of the elephant song and all the exciting Australian animals that I had seen at the Healesville Sanctuary on the previous day. At the same time, I knew that other Sunroomers had been more vulnerable, open, and creative in their use of symbols. I knew I was responsible for being a better member of their community and that I should truly take this opportunity to share about my own emotional status. What did I truly want this symbol to show to the group? What did I really want this circle of 20 kids and adults to know about me on a foggy Monday morning?
I decided to share that I was feeling loved. Not only had Fiona welcomed me with open arms into her home, but one of the Koonwarra Village School families had welcomed me, a complete stranger from the tough state of New York, on a day-long excursion to the Healesville Animal Sanctuary. Moreover, I was feeling loved simply because of the school culture, which invites everyone to the circle exactly as they are. In spite of my American accent and my constant scribbling in my notebook the kids and staff at KVS have generously opened their hearts and minds to my presence. And let me tell you, being accepted exactly as you are? That will make anyone feel loved.