Our encouraging words, listening ears, hugs and high fives make a big difference in the lives of the students we serve. The summer of 2020 magnified our society’s tremendous need for collective healing. As elementary school teachers, we knew that it was our time to love on our students because that is what we do. But how to do this from a distance? What we needed was love, sweet love—self love, more specifically—and our hope was that this project would empower our students to do just that: radically love themselves.
Where did the idea for this project come from?
Coming out of the summer, we saw a need for more love and connection.
We were processing the killing of George Floyd, police brutality, racial inequities, all while being isolated in the middle of a pandemic. Listening to different podcasts and articles, we noticed they kept repeating “The first step in social justice work is self love” and so, for me that’s really the origin.
I was really moved by a quote from Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare” (1988).
As teachers, we are social justice warriors. This project is us doing the work. Like everyone, all three of us are on our own self-love and healing journey—that’s at the forefront for a lot of us right now. We are just trying to figure out our own identities still, and the ways that we can learn to love ourselves even more.
The pandemic also definitely had a huge impact on the project. In the fall, we were still in the midst of reinventing how we teach, our kids were stepping into a new class without physically being together. A question that kept coming to mind was “How do we love on kids who are not in our rooms every day?”
What is radical self love and what does it look like for a third grader?
I remember us being stuck on this question. What is self love? What does it look like for us? What does it look like for an eight year old? How do you know when you truly love yourself? Quite frankly, that last question is something I am still trying to answer for myself— our students are getting really good at it.
Our unpacking of self love was driven by the idea that the things that you love are the things that empower you. So if you can learn to love all parts of your identity, all parts of your culture and family, that is being powered by love.
As we got into it a little bit, we were asking ourselves, “Well, do our students really know all the parts of their identities?” It became more of a question of “Who am I?” Discovering who they are and the great parts about themselves. There were steps. We couldn’t just be like “You should love yourself.” Well why? Who? What? What parts of ourselves do we need to still discover?
Going back to the inward-work piece, we really questioned ourselves as adults: Why is it that I am a grown-ass woman still figuring myself out? If we can give these kids tools at eight years old to figure out
who they are and what they love, then they are going to have a better understanding of themselves and the world and they aren’t going to have to struggle with this—as much—when they are adults.
As Candice said, we as adults are still on that journey. How can we get eight year olds to really make sure they are taking care of themselves? If they don’t know themselves they really couldn’t embark on that journey yet. We kind of realized at one point that our project really needed to take a step into unpacking identity.
How did you structure this project?
The idea of how to break up the project came to us during a meeting and we wrote the phases of the project on a little Post-It note. We still have the Post-It! Here are the questions: What is self love? Who am I? Who are others? How can I help me? How can I help others? To that point: I love me.
This was an epiphany moment during one of our planning sessions. We spent the first half of the year thinking deeply about who I am and who are others? Our guiding question for the semester turned into “What parts of myself can I love?” So we were really just learning about the different parts of our identities. Each week, we focused on a different facet of identity: family, family traditions, culture and cultural traditions, language, skin color and race, gender and gender identity. Having all those conversations through the context of “This is something you can love about yourself.”
I think the way we structured our project around some of the facets that make up identity, made the concept really digestible for the kids.
We were actually reflecting on the first semester of the project with the kids just this week. When we came together to chat, we asked them what they remembered about the first half of our project. A student started with talking about all the different parts of his identity. Right away, he jumped into “Oh you know, our project is about our identities, our language, our culture, our skin color, our traditions.” To hear that that was the first thing he would say was really affirming—it’s there for him, he can identify what makes us unique.
How have students’ understandings of self love evolved over the course of the project? Have there been any “A-ha!” moments for your third graders?
They are definitely having aha-moments. For example, they are finding out “Oh, I am Catholic.” They’ve added new words to their vocabularies—having names and titles to put on parts of their identities. “Oh yeah, I go to Tagalog classes, that is empowering to me, that’s part of me.” The way we have structured it has made the self-work many of us do when we’re older much less murky for them.
When we were reflecting on the project, a student actually said, “In the beginning of this project, I used to think that I was all of these good things, but now I know that I am all of these good things.” That quote resonated with me—she’s loving herself.
Another moment that comes up for me is when we learned about skin color. I had students share things like, “Well you know, I have Mexican skin color. I’m Chicana, I have Mexican skin color.” The focus of our work was to help them name their skin color relating to food that they love. It was interesting to hear where that specific student was at first and where she was when she had time to think and revise how she’d describe herself.
To build off of that, so much of this has been rooted in using mentor texts. So for that activity of describing our skin colors, we used the book The Colors of Us. We dove into a lesson on sensory writing. Using all five senses, the kids were able to describe their skin color in comparison to a food and then that color. This is just one example of a tool they now have to describe who they are and what they love about themselves.
I agree: They definitely have learned a lot about self love from the activities we’ve done and the tools are sticking with them. The other day, one of my students said, “Just putting my power outfit on makes me feel good still.”
Oh yes, the power outfit activity was from our project launch! It was all about bringing mind, body, and spirit together: listening to your
body and being able to make choices and knowing what feels good. This is sentipensante pedagogy which is a Spanish word that combines the words for “feel” and “think,” and it gives a place in academia for your intuition. Learning how to use mind, body, and spirit in an academic setting. Ultimately this skill helps one to learn how to trust themselves. We had them go through their closets and pick a “power outfit.” First, they picked out three different combinations of outfits. They played around with ideas, then they got to try on their outfits to see what felt good. The kids focused on what kinds of sensations they were feeling in their body. We did a lot of scaffolding for language in this part. “What felt good in your body when you saw yourself in this outfit?” We helped them recognize the feeling and let them be in that feeling for a moment. “This is the feeling that we want all the time. How can we start to do more things that will give us that feeling?” Then they got to do a power stance: “How would you stand wearing your power outfit?” We did a fashion show as well. The kids all did their “model walks” on Zoom to show off their power outfits.
It felt great to hear my student bring up her power outfit. The launch is something that happened ages ago in a third grader’s mind, so it felt great to know that it was something that stayed with them.
What actually happened? What did students do? What did they learn and make?
Lots of discussion, exploring, questioning, writing and reflecting. We used mentor texts to unpack that week’s focus and guide our own explorations — like The Colors of Us when students learned how to describe their own skin tones, which Candice mentioned earlier.
Each week we made a product for the facet of our identity we were exploring. Our launch was all about choosing our power outfit. We have created empowerment boards to visually represent what we love. When we learned about family structures and traditions, we made family portraits out of found objects. The kids have also recorded quite a few FlipGrids throughout the first semester—one of their videos was about a family tradition they value. There have been so many products along the way: videos, artwork, pieces of writing, which all came together in December.
For our December exhibition, we curated Empowerment Altars. Each student’s altar was decorated to showcase the products they made throughout the semester. The altars really spoke to their identities, the things they love—the things that empower them.
This is all just about the first semester of our project. There’s a whole other part to this. Everything in the first half of our project spoke to questions of “What is self love? Who am I? Who are others?” The second part is all about “How can I help me? How can I help others?”
I think the biggest evolution of the project going into the rest of the year is the business aspect of the project. At the beginning of the project we anticipated our end-of-the-year exhibition being a self-care fair. But as we started to unravel what it was we really wanted them to understand about self love, our conversations were geared around making sure kids knew self love wasn’t just a spa day— self love wasn’t just a massage. The real practice and belief of self love was really what we were striving for. With that sentiment driving us, our idea evolved from the self-care fair to a business.
We have collaborated with a nonprofit called Real-world Scholars that works with teachers and students to set up socially-conscious businesses. The business fits into our guiding question of “How can I help others?”
Our business is a collaboration with a spiritual center in Los Angeles. We’ve gotten the owner of the center to come in as a “feel good practitioner.” Every week, we’ve had a “feel good expert” come in and they teach us a new feel-good technique. He’s going to teach us a form of meditation, we also have a curandera coming in—she’s going to teach us about love languages— we have a woman coming in and doing a sound bath, we’ve done art with mandalas, we’ve done exercise…
What we have been doing is putting all of these feel-good techniques into a a “Feel Good Box.” The boxes incorporate the tools and techniques that we have learned to use when caring for ourselves, including handmade candles, and a rock that you can hold in order to remind yourself to take a moment to calm down.
How have your own understandings of self love evolved?
I actually relied on one of the tools that we taught our students for self love, a feel good tool: Writing positive affirmations. I was having a hard time last night, and I had to sit down and write myself a positive affirmation to cook and clean. “I can do this, I can cook and clean tonight.” And that got me the rest of the way.
I think it’s definitely been a community builder for us as a team just like it has been for our students in our classrooms. The three of us have really gone out of our ways to check in on one another. We talk about how we are going to take care of ourselves this weekend. Checking in with each other to make sure we were showing our selves that self love.
Is there a moment of working with students in this project that sticks out to you?
I remember seeing their videos for the power word activity.
Oh yes, the power word activity. They would pick one part of their identity that really empowers them and try to describe that part using a single word or a short phrase. We made a compilation of the videos.
Just hearing my students say, “I’m Black or I’m Mexican, this is what empowers me.” Hearing them say that was just “Yes—this is exactly what we are striving for.”
In the beginning of this project when we asked students who or what they love; not one student said themselves. We recently did heart maps and so many students included themselves as something they love!
I think every project time has been very uplifting because we know that this is meaningful work. It just reminds me that I need to be focusing on this: This is the heart of social justice work.
Katz, K. (2002). The colors of us. Square Fish.
Lorde, A. (1988). A burst of light and other essays. Ixia Press.