Editor's Note: This is the first in series of articles on furthering compassion and mindfulness through literature that is representative of diverse cultures or racial and ethnic heritage.
I Love My Hair!(Tarpley, 2001) celebrates the thick nappy hair, the love, enthusiasm and beauty of a 6 or 7-year-old girl. She likes to wear her hair in rows of braids with beads at the bottom of each braid. When she dances she likes the music the beads in her hair make - "Tap! Tap! Clicky! Clacky!"
Chicken Sunday (Polacco, 1998) three children pool their efforts and their resources to thank a wonderful grandmother by buying an Easter hat for her. In
Last Stop on Market Street (De la Pena), CJ, a young boy who frequently rides the bus with his grandmother, learns to be thankful and "find the beautiful where he never thought to look" in the city around him.
Happiness. Thankfulness. Two areas of a mindfulness curriculum. Do your teachers use books to reinforce learning about their emotions and important values? How are teachers at your school using books and stories to increase mindfulness and compassion? As teachers help children practice kindness, compassion, and caring for others, are they using children's books whose main characters represent children of different races or from different ethnic or cultural background? We learn to share other peoples' joys and excitement and reach out to comfort them when they are sad or lonely. These are fundamental building blocks of development for children, who learn to master these interpersonal skills in early elementary grades. Children should have opportunities to learn kindness and empathy from a framework that honors and is inclusive of a variety of racial, ethnic and cultural perspectives.
In the spirit of creating rich social and emotional contexts for African American children's learning from the heart (as well as the mind), we reviewed 11 children's books that are written and illustrated with African American children and adults as protagonists and primary characters. Each story touches directly (often deeply) on important parts of building mindful attention to gratitude and kindness towards others. The books we selected complement the Mindfulness Curriculum framework developed in
is an evidenced-based, 15-lesson program that has been shown to develop empathy, mindfulness, and social responsibility.
MindUp curriculum, mindfulness begins with mindful listening, and proceeds with mindful movement and perspective taking, choosing optimism, happy experiences, expressing gratitude and acts of kindness.
- or focused attention on sounds - sounds made by a squeaky back door, a rumbling truck, a leaky faucet or a "Whomp, Whomp, Whomping" tuba in a high school band (Marsalis, 2012). A counterpoint to just listening is to focus on the sounds we make. Through the music-making experiences of Violet (Johnson, 20014) we see her make the "whah woo woo" sounds of a play horn, the "plink plink pluck" of using a tennis racket as a guitar and everyday sounds of stepping up stairs, taking a bath and brushing her teeth. Violet dreamed and thought about music all the time. Until one day she learned to play the guitar. And by the splishing and splashing fountain in the park she met kids who played a beating drum and a smooth saxophone.
Children can imitate the sounds of jazz instruments, children's play, a band and sounds of the city (Dillon, 2007) as you read the books without dialogue - but with focused attention on sounds. You can develop a very similar mindful way of reading a book - by focusing on the expressions on people's faces in the illustrations and describing the emotions they are experiencing.
Mindful Movement and Happiness: We explore this in two ways - first by moving through a city in
Jazz on Saturday Night (Dillon, 2007) and
Last Stop on Market Street (De la Pena, 2015) and exploring the movement you see around you, second by focusing on how your own body makes movements when you dance (Gordon, 2017, Tarpley 2001). Books about yoga are important to explore a retreat from movement to stillness or quiet. Several of the books build on one another. When you explore Happy Experiences and read
I Love My Hair! (Tarpley 2001), you can loop back to mindful movement and understand how your body movements are connected to expressing happiness.
is central to social cognitive awareness and becomes a basis for empathy and understanding the experience of others (McKissack 2003). When Libby Louise in
Precious and Boo Hag
tells her first lie to her mother - she gets caught. Her mother cautions her to learn to "Speak the truth, and shame the devil." But Libby learns that not everyone wants to know or hear the truth and it sometimes hurts people when you tell the truth. This dilemma leads her to self-reflection about when and where to speak the truth or when to temper it with kindness and thoughtfulness.
Precious, when she stays at home alone with a stomach ache, also learns something about how people think (McKissack 2005). She is warned by her brother not to let the strange, green footed and scary Boo Hag into the house. When the Boo Hag appears, she tells big lies in an attempt to get into the house. But Precious learns that she can be strong, courageous and can understand when someone (Boo Hag) is not telling the truth.
In the first four
MindUp lessons children have practiced seeing and listening to sights and sounds in their environment, making movements with their bodies and understand that there are important things happening in the minds, feelings and ideas of other people. Now, teachers can shift attention to celebrating the happy experiences children have, things they like about themselves, and things they are thankful for.
An exploration of happiness can begin with special places children like to visit. Tricia Ann, in
Going Someplace Special the 1950s segregated Nashville, could not sit in the front of the bus, eat at many restaurants or sit on some park benches. Under Jim Crow segregation laws these places were for "white people only" (McKissack 2008). In the midst of enforced racial inequality, her mother reminds her, "You are somebody." And she finds her way to a special public place where everyone is welcome. Her mother calls it a "doorway to freedom."
Thankfulness. Understanding how people think, seeing emotions on their faces and kindness in the actions of those who support and care for you, makes some places, events and people special. In
Chicken Sunday and
Last Stop on Market Street (see the beginning of this article), children recognize people in their lives who care for them.
Acts of Kindness. Finally, we look at the importance of kindness for the people who do acts of kindness and people who receive acts of kindness. The story of
Chicken Sunday is built on the kindness of a grandmother who sings for children, takes them to church and cooks Sunday chicken dinners - as well as the kindness of the children who surprise her with a much-admired Easter hat, and a stranger who helps them earn the money to buy the hat.
Each Kindness (Woodson 2012) reveals the unkindness of children to other children. When Chloe and her friends exclude Maya - and rebuff every attempt she makes to join their friendship group - Chloe grows to regret her behavior. The book invites children to be self-reflexive about their actions toward other children - and emphasizes the importance of empathy.
Tying Literature to a Mindfulness Curriculum
MindUp curriculum progresses full circle from attentive listening and seeing to using focused skills to understand beyond sounds and sights - emotions, thinking and intentions of self and other people. In a social world, we learn to appreciate that people have other minds - with their distinct feelings, ideas, goals, aspirations, intentions and senses of identity. And as we understand each other we grow attached to people - to parents, friends, siblings, peers and grandparents. Ultimately by expressing gratitude and thankfulness to people in our lives - for their attention, support, love and kindness - we participate in building positive social worlds. We learn to replicate empathy and kindness to others and become part of a social and emotional world - where pro-social behavior can trump injustices, hostility and aggression.
It is not a simple task - but it is within the reach of even the youngest of us - to create an emotional and social world where we can all grow and thrive.
De La Pena, M. (2015).
Last stop on Market Street. New York, NY: GP Putnam Books for Young Readers.
Dillion, L. & Dillion, D. (2007).
Jazz on Saturday Night. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Gordon, K. (2917).
I am a dancer every day of the week. Westbury, NY: 5D Media Publishing.
Johnson, A. (2004).
Violet's music. New York, NY: Dial Books
Marsalim W. (2012).
Squeak, rumble, whoop! Whomp! whomp!: A sonic adventure. Somerville, MA: Candlewick
McKissack, P. (2003).
The honest-to-goodness truth. Fullerton, CA: Aladdin.
McKissack, P. (2005).
Precious and the Boo Hag. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
McKissack, P. (2008).
Goin' someplace special. Fullerton, CA: Aladdin.
Polacco, P. (1998).
Chicken Sunday. London: Puffin Books.
Tarpley, N. (2001).
I love my hair! Boston, MA: Little Brown.
Woodson, J. (2012).
Each kindness. London: Nancy Paulsen Books.