Ms Jenaia Hugs2 Framed 1000x746

Daisy Marino and I arrived at Warren Elementary School at a little after 10:00 a.m. Daisy and her good friend Angela Moses have been CritterKin champions since the three of us met in a Twitter chat session back in December. In typical adult fashion the three of us had created a schedule for me, blocking off sections of time to visit with each grade and making sure I had time for lunch and potty breaks.

I was introduced to the principal, vice principal, superintendent and several teachers, all of whom have been incredibly supportive and open to the idea of allowing their students to meet and spend time working with me. We shook hands, smiled and let a little bit of our own child-like exuberance show. This “CritterKin thing,” as we’d started calling the excitement being generated by our creative collaboration was turning out to be extraordinary. Not only were students getting a chance to flex their creative and emotional muscles, but they were using the more traditional intellectual skills touted by common core to execute their projects. In short, we all agreed, it was a win-win for everyone. We couldn’t wait to see where this collaborative adventure would lead us next.

Then the first group of students on their way to recess marched past us in the hall and a little earthquake shifted the center of my day. “Ms. Jenaia!” a third grader with a corn yellow buzz cut exclaimed, bursting out of line and flinging his arms around my waist. “You’re here!” All around me the adults scolded, apologized and urged my little friend to remember his manners. We ignored them of course. I hugged him back, marveling at how a body so small could generate so much heat. “This is Trotter,” said one of the teachers. “I’m sorry he tackled you like that. We’re all just so excited to meet you in person.”

“Please don’t apologize,” I said, looking over Trotter’s head at the smiling faces of another two dozen kids. “I love hugs!”

That was the moment I began to realize what the real agenda of my trip would be. I’d thought it was about putting faces to names, seeing and celebrating the CritterKin Kindness Mural the kids were working on, and doing my own little song and dance routine as the author of the CritterKin books. Instead, I was experiencing in a very visceral, heartfelt way what Daisy Marino means when she says, “It’s all about the kids.”

For the next five hours I plunged headfirst into the emotional, touchy feely soup of childhood. Setting my adult self aside as I stepped into each class, I let myself be present, open and responsive to the kids. Together we read stories, watched videos, asked questions and danced the CritterKin Wiggle Waggle. And, though I was clearly the person in charge of orchestrating events and guiding the discussions, the usual teacher-student hierarchy was suspended. I can honestly say that I learned as much as I taught; that the kids and their questions, their willingness to throw self-consciousness to the wind and dance with the goofy lady in overalls tore down the walls between adults and kids and made us co-travelers in this game of learning.  I left Warren Elementary School physically exhausted but emotionally, intellectually and spiritually inspired.

Skeptics will point out that my visit was anything but ordinary – that I was there for a single day and the kids were on their best behavior. All of that is true, and yet I submit that the kids’ ability and willingness to engage with me, their honesty and direct curiosity, speak volumes about the environment at their school. The 400 children at Warren Elementary are known and loved. Their teachers understand the value of emotional as well as intellectual learning. They have gone out of their way to find and build relationships with other educators, such as myself, who can help their students experience different ways of seeing and being in the world. But most important of all, they work very hard to make learning entertaining, engaging and relevant.

The roughly 500+ hugs I received at Warren are the first in my journey towards 10,000 that I hope will include interactions with students and teachers around the globe. As an author, I believe that stories are a marvelous way to help children evolve into compassionate caring adults, and an ideal way to help adults think outside the rigid mindsets we’ve developed around education. Take a look at the celebratory video produced by Angela Moses of my day at Warren and let yourself feel the palpable joy.  Then ask yourself if that isn’t the best and most effective way for kids to learn, and what you can do to help make it a reality at your school.