It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
Henry David Thoreau
In early August I invited my students from last year to meet up with me at the local public library to share our summer reading adventures and point each other to new authors and series we had discovered. As readers talked, laughed, and reconnected over favorite books, an urgent topic kept popping up in their conversations. “I am telling you, we are not going to have recess! There’s no playground. How can you have a recess with no playground?”
Olivia’s concern echoed across the library in worried whispers: “We are going to have a playground. We have to, because teachers like recess too!”
“But did you see the mountains of dirt? There’s no way they’re going to let us play in there. Where will we play?”
Construction on our new primary school building began in June, and our former playground and field was fenced and flattened to prepare for the new foundation. Steven approached me on the topic. “Ms. Edwards, I think we are not going to have recess because there’s no playground. But it’s okay, because I can read all kinds of books now, so instead of going to recess outside, I think we’ll have reading recess inside. It’s gonna be great!”
Steven is an intuitive optimist. No matter the size of the problem, he envisions the best possible outcome and believes in his ability to solve it. Unlike Steven, I often worry. I feel uncertain. I can get stuck feeling helpless (recess is going to be very loud on the concrete pad this year throughout construction, and it is right outside my window . . .). I don’t always feel authentic when I model optimism. I have to work at choosing to remain optimistic, and some of my students do too.
In their book A Mindset for Learning, Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz describe optimism as “feeling hopeful that risks are worth taking and that problems will work their way out.” They present several strategies (productive self-talk, storytelling, goal setting, and constructive reflection) to explicitly teach and practice optimism. “When we teach children in our classroom to practice optimism, we teach them to launch themselves into difficult tasks with the belief that even if they fail, they can learn and grow and that any problems they face will work themselves out one way or another. We teach them to hold on to that sense of curiosity and wonder from their earliest years and to continue asking, ‘What if?’ unafraid of what the answer might be” (p. 31).
This year of transition will provide our school with many opportunities to respond to the unexpected. It is powerful to see children and colleagues independently pause, consider their options, and choose to respond to a complication with optimism. Yet sometimes optimism isn’t obvious or intuitive. We can each get stuck feeling frustration, wishing for different realities, or expecting the worst from an unexpected complication. What can I do to empower my students (and myself) with strategies to move past these stuck places? How can I offer tools students can use to independently move out of stuck places into possibility?
To seek answers to these questions, I am collecting mentor texts that can give us openings to conversations, models of the power of optimism, and specific strategies to build positive pathways together this year.
What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada
This story encourages the reader to see the opportunities awaiting us within a problem, and the power we have when we are brave enough to look closely.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Notice a problem and study it closely. (2) Ask yourself, What possibilities does this create? How could I choose to respond? (3) Believe that good things are coming, and focus on your goal.
I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont
A celebration of identity and strength, this classic story also offers opportunities to notice how naming your strengths and using positive self-talk makes you feel happier and stronger.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Name your strengths. (2) Think about what is going well right now. (3) Make a list of at least three things that went well today.
Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer
Sometimes we feel grumpy and can’t shake it off. When that happens, we do everything we can to be gentle and kind to each other, and give ourselves the gift of a little self-care.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Notice when you are stuck. (2) Say it out loud to yourself. “I feel ______ because _________.” (3) Choose to do things that make you feel better and stronger.
ISHI by Akiko Yabuki
This little friend offers lists of positive self-talk, calming strategies, and self-care strategies to inspire readers to choose happiness and pass it along to others.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Notice what you are saying to yourself. (2) If you hear, I can’t . . . or It won’t . . . or She doesn’t . . . , add a yet. (3) Say to yourself, I can’t yet, but I am working at it, and I am growing.
Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins
This grump of a bear receives an unwelcome surprise, and after many attempts and multiple failures to rid himself of the problem, he discovers that he can make the best of an unexpected situation.
Optimism Strategy: (1) When unexpected things happen, stay calm and observant. (2) Think about what you could try. (3) Get creative and make the best of it.
A Unicorn Named Sparkle by Amy Young
When Lucy’s unicorn arrives, she must manage the disappointment she feels when he is not the dream she imagined. Through her struggle to accept what she has, Lucy discovers the positive power of an open mind and a loving heart.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Think about what you have, and choose to feel grateful. (2) Notice what is working, and list the strengths. Be ready to change your mind. (3) Thank someone for what you have.
Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino
When classmates tease him, Morris listens to what feels right and stays true to himself. In time his classmates learn that when we seek to learn from each other, we all grow. This story gives our community an opportunity to understand that toys, colors, and ideas don’t belong to or define a gender; they are for everyone.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Name your worry and tell someone you love about it. (2) Remind yourself that you are strong and you can handle it. (3) Trust that if we keep learning from each other, problems can shrink and opinions can change.
Horrible Bear! by Ame Dyckman
This little girl assumes the worst and in her anger forgets to use her manners. When she calls him names, Bear gets upset and wants revenge. With empathy and an apology, they learn to see each other’s point of view and make amends.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Think about the other person’s perspective. Say what they say, think, or feel. (2) Ask yourself, How could I help make this problem smaller? (3) Smile and offer to help.
The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
This little gardener has a lot of work to do in a very large garden, and he gets to it, working himself to exhaustion. Fortunately he is not alone, and while he recovers, his work inspires others to keep going—bringing the garden back to life, together.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Notice a problem someone else is having and ask yourself, How could I help? (2) Put in an effort to reach the goal together. (3) Believe you can do it.
Happy Like Soccer by Maribeth Boelts
Sierra loves playing soccer but is heartbroken that her auntie who takes care of her in the city can’t take time off from work to come watch her play. With optimism and courage, she asks her coach for help and finds out how good it feels to have a dream come true.
Optimism Strategy: (1) Say the problem aloud. (2) List the people who could help you. (3) Ask for help and believe things will work out for the best.
As our summer library gathering ended, I told my students a little about our plans for the temporary playground and asked what they would be able to do in the new space that they hadn’t been able to do as well in the old space. They were brimming with ideas:
“We can play hide-and-seek.”
“We can climb on the steps.”
“We will have a really short walk back to our classroom.”
The ease with which they embraced this new opportunity together built my own confidence in knowing that it all really will work out. Our optimism is reciprocal. The temporary glitches and complications that this year could bring also offer small daily opportunities to strengthen my own optimism and to see it in others. As she waved goodbye, Olivia smiled and said, “This is going to be the best year ever!” As I waved in return, my heart knew with certainty that she was right.