In my last blog, I spoke about the power of anchors as a tool for keeping our students connected to us and to one another. These consistent connection activities help to keep systems from falling apart. And embedding them as rituals gives us a break from having to remember to bring togetherness and enjoyment into our classrooms in times of stress, when we may least feel like initiating something. 

It is our warmth, caring leadership, and invitation into relationship that creates the foundation for emotional safety in our classrooms. And anchors feed that relationship and help keep us close.

In this closeness and sense of safety, our guard can come down and we may feel our emotions. And if we are looking to create more inclusive spaces, feeling our emotion matters – a lot. 

Truly inclusive classrooms can only exist when our emotions are alive. Alive to ourselves and alive to one another. 

For just over 25 years now, I have been passionately exploring this link and seeing the fruits of it in learning communities. I develop relationship-based programs that support children and youth to express their ideas, share their voices, and build community. I have worked in and alongside many schools and community organizations to support them in creating more inclusive cultures. And many years ago, I received the Inclusive Education award for the City of Ottawa. Considering this, people often ask me what method I use for creating change … is there a formula or steps they could emulate? 

Inclusivity simply doesn’t work that way.  Why? Because you cannot teach people to be inclusive. 

Inclusivity is born in us sensing our humanness with one another. And what changes us is the process of being human together. Again and again and again. For just as individual children need the right conditions in which to develop, so do healthy communities. 

But more often than not, albeit with the best of intentions, we go directly to try to teach kids to become more inclusive. However, that doesn’t work without our students’ buy-in – without them wanting to change, grow, and being open to what we are saying. If we have students who are shut-down, not interested in our values and have no investment in the classroom culture, then trying to teach them through their heads to be more inclusive simply doesn’t work, because they don’t care. The answer then lies in finding ways to help them care, and this will come from softening their hearts, not trying to convince their thinking brains.

A global paradigm shift


There is a new awareness dawning in understanding the profound effect that the arts can have on the emotional health and well-being of our communities. A global paradigm shift is emerging from seeing the arts as “extra” to beginning to understand the extraordinary power that the arts have to connect us. It might be surprising to us, as we are now having to consciously examine what is needed to bring back emotional health to our communities. But if we stop and look at what culture has provided for us for thousands of years, we might begin to see that the rituals and practices that were woven into our lives were not coincidental.

Cultures are created over time, holding the wisdom of what is needed to sustain the emotional health of individuals and communities. This is probably why every traditional culture had rituals of singing, sharing stories, and dancing together. They all had expressive outlets that brought people together to release what needed to be released and to share in the collective reflection of what it means to be human.

This is the powerful thing about a culture when it is intact. One then doesn’t have to think about ritual and release, as the culture takes care of us. It is not on our individual shoulders. Only when our culture starts to unravel may we start to realize, “Oh, that’s why we had a day of rest . . .” or “Oh that’s why people have always traditionally eaten together . . .” or “Oh, that’s why people throughout history have gathered together to witness great drama through theatre as well as collectively dance, tell stories, and sing.”

We may see remnants of this in our mainstream culture in times of celebration and grieving, as these most marked times in our lives still call forth within us this need for expressive connection and a safe place to feel. But, in general, our Western culture has lost the rituals that were embedded to take care of us individually and socially. And now that this cultural wisdom is no longer holding us up and holding us together in the same way, we find ourselves needing to be more intentional, as we are not coping. We have students who are more disconnected, anxious, and shut down than ever. We have more cliques than communities.

People are beginning to look back to this old wisdom and understand the benefits of bringing these expressive, connecting outlets to our students. I have seen incredible shifts in empathy that have arisen from students engaging in these expressive outlets together. This happens when they have regular, consistent times in which they get to experience their humanity together and do so in the safety of our warm leadership. This is how it was meant to be; these experiences weren’t meant for children to engage in alone. It never was this way. It was the adults who led these expressive experiences and drew the children alongside them so they could mentor them and provide them with a safe place to grow. They engaged in the experiences together, not simply taught them as things for children to learn. There is a big difference between collectively experiencing something and being taught how to do something.

Generally, society isn’t looking to the past in order to create forward movement within systems. It somehow feels more official or progressive to develop manuals and new systems, rather than look at the often unarticulated cultural wisdom of yesterday. We are currently more drawn to setting up programs and teaching steps towards change; in essence, we want quick fixes that are less messy, less nuanced, and more prescriptive in nature. But this is not how healthy communities have evolved over time. 

If we can permit ourselves to let go of previous notions of how change occurs, we might find it actually reassuring to think about—exhilarating even—as we imagine the possibilities in the return of the oldest wisdom to our classroom culture, holding us together and helping us out. How might these experiences support us as teachers and help us build more inclusive learning communities?

Some of the themes from this blog are explored in more depth in Chapter 20 of Reclaiming Our Students.

The arts, as they are experienced in exploration mode, have the ability to connect us to our feelings: they can take us out of our heads and into our hearts. They have the ability to move us, soften us, and help us to fall out of the space of right and wrong and into the space of wonder. And in doing so, these experiences can transform us. This is an important part of building inclusive classrooms. In order to have children more attuned to each other and to see the humanity in each other, their hearts need to be awake.

The arts can make our classrooms the opposite of cool. They can help our classrooms to become full of warmth and feeling. When we participate in the arts through exploration mode, our senses are heightened, our minds are opened, our hearts are softer, and we can feel what it is to be fully alive. The arts can wake us up. And when we experience them together, they can wake us up to each other.

In the warmth of a safe classroom, we can use great literature, storytelling, rap, visual art, dance, drama, music, and singing to help our students get a glimpse of what being human means from a place of feeling. When we can bring our students to a place where they can feel this, they are more apt to shift internally.

Traditional culture reveals that change does not come from knowing but from feeling. For example, we can know people are starving in our world, but that doesn’t mean we do anything about it. We must feel something about it. We must be moved. And art—in all its forms—has the capacity to transport us to a place of feeling and, if experienced together, to move us towards one another.

Finding anchors for our students that will help grow inclusivity

So, as you explore what anchors you wish to bring into your classrooms to help to keep your learning community close, I encourage you to consider what might help your students to feel. Are there experiences you can engage in together that don’t feel stressful or product-oriented, but rather more like fun activities in which everyone can be more authentic and express themselves together? If you are looking for ideas, you can check out our Inside-Out Guide which comes free with our book, Reclaiming Our Students. There is an entire section dedicated to activities that support connection and community building. And next month, I will be sending out a simple drama/movement activity and lesson plan that you can use for National Child’s day on November 20. It is an activity that helps children and youth to use the arts to share and express themselves in the context of community.

I thought that it might be nice to end this by sharing the voices of some of my past students, reflecting on and celebrating inclusion. This piece was created by a former student, Jessie Huggett, and her friends. It shares Jessie’s personal reflections on having Down syndrome and the importance of not being seen by others as a one-dimensional person. It is a moving and courageous piece, completely written and directed by Jessie.

What I personally love about watching these students (in addition to remembering the joy of working with them!) is seeing how authentic and real they are. It fills me with hope for what is possible when we offer kids a safe space to feel, share their ideas and thoughts, and come together to create. It reminds me of the value of emotion and its presence in our classrooms.

It might be helpful for you to know that before these students came together to create this piece on inclusion, that they enjoyed many, many, MANY times of creating together in very simple ways. All of us, myself included, would come together to write, draw, share stories, dance, move, and create. And over time, there was a palpable sense of community and the safety to dive deeper. Inclusion being grown from the inside-out.

Hope you enjoy.

I Am: By Jessie Huggett


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