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Cultivating Character and Community in 5th Grade Through Art and Reflection

Cultivating Character and Community in 5th Grade Through Art and Reflection
Abbey Day

We are so lucky to have time as a school to not only reflect on our character in our classrooms (with classroom and specialist teachers), but also through two dedicated times each week. Character education plays a pivotal role in shaping young minds, instilling values, and fostering empathy. As children enter the fifth grade, they embark on a journey of self-discovery. The 5th grade is a special year because combining character education with art can be a powerful tool to help students explore the depths of their emotions, connect with their inner selves, and ultimately build stronger, more compassionate communities.

Mindfulness and Meditation

In each class we begin with a meditation. Some days it’s a simple practice of being aware of the breath, but this group of 5th grade students have especially enjoyed the more elaborate visualizations. For example, how would it feel to imagine they’re on a beach where a wave of ease flows through them? Or more recently we imagined what it would be like to zoom out to the outer reaches of the universe and then come back into ourselves. After meditation the students record their reflections (how they feel with the help of an emotion wheel as well as any other thoughts) in journals they’ve painted. They then have an opportunity to share with the class, if they’d like. After our last meditation, the responses were “I felt so relaxed, like the kind of relaxed that I didn’t want to even do anything.” Someone else jokingly contributed, “Wait, what planet are we on?” Another: “So calm, just so calm.” And lastly, “I was thinking, am I even real?” An existential questioning as a 10-year-old is quite profound and highlights the sense of wonder that we want to keep stoking especially on the precipice of adolescence when it can begin to wane.

Mindfulness gives us the space to first calm and then truly assess our emotions and needs. When practiced regularly we can begin to create some distance between big emotions and wonder why they are popping up and what they might be telling us. Being able to name emotions as they are happening is a skill we all benefit from. Ask your child to lead you in a meditation sometime. You’d be surprised by how much they’ve already learned! The students have also enjoyed playing a version of charades where they try to guess their classmates' emotions. Awareness of our own emotions and others help contribute to our empathy. If we understand we can sometimes be in our feelings it’s easier to understand how others can be, too.

Reflecting on the Self Through Art

In 5th grade, children are at an age where they are becoming more aware of their individuality and emotions. Art can be a medium through which they learn to express themselves and reflect on their inner worlds. Assigning projects that encourage self-expression and mindfulness are wonderful ways to pause and reflect. Each student recently completed a traced hand drawing filled with “Zen Tangle” inspired patterns and abstract expressions through watercolor. The hands are unique to each student and reveal their artistic voice and highlight their personality through the process.

recently completed “Where I am From” poems, inspired by George Ella Lyon. The students took their time to think about the things in their home or lives that make them unique. What sounds shape them? Do they have favorite articles of clothing? What ancestral lands are they from? What foods do they love? When put together these poems create a powerful snapshot of each student. We will be enjoying a “Coffee House” very soon in which each student will be able to read a part of their poem, their whole poem, or have a teacher read on their behalf. While reading, we will project the image of their Zen Tangle hand, helping to even further communicate a part of who they are. As we’ve been writing them it’s been so interesting to hear students say, “Wait, I didn't know that about you!” It helps all of us see the greater context that we might miss. Because of this, we will be doing our sharing as a whole 5th grade, rather than two, individual classes. The students are most excited for the hot chocolate and marshmallows, which of course, adds to the fun.

Here is one poem as an example. All 46 are beautiful and striking, and I hope to display them in a public place along with their painted hands.

I am from the dripping shoes shoe rack, from the brown to pink paintings, from the black gaming computer.
I am from the Halekoa Hill where the freedom and air roam.
I am from the world’s green surface.
I am from the black Luna computer, from the only purple shoes, from the long blue jeans
From Tang and Aldridge
From the big black screen, from the salty popcorn, from the seaweed on the ocean floor.
I am from the blue, ice cold slushy, from the meows and purrs. I am from the glorious Hawaiian beach.
I am from the singing, to the crafting, to the gaming
I am from those moments of the art techniques

Building a Stronger Community

Once students have established a connection with themselves and gained a deeper understanding of their emotions and needs, they are better equipped to engage with their community in a meaningful way.

In the context of character education, community-building activities become even more valuable. Students can use their newfound emotional intelligence to navigate conflicts, show empathy towards their peers, and actively contribute to a harmonious classroom environment.

By practicing empathy and self-reflection, and learning about each other, the fifth graders are more likely to become compassionate, responsible citizens as they mature. These qualities are essential not only within the classroom but also in the broader community and society. With all these structures in place, we are heading towards our next big goal - the start of the Peace Team, a 20+ year tradition where our 5th graders step into leadership roles across campus. They are nearly ready!

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