Not just children but parents, too, can learn a lot from their kids’ best teachers. And all of us can take inspiration from Mr. Kanamori, the outstanding educator whose 4th grade class is the subject of the documentary Children Full of Life. The first installment of the web version of the film chronicles a tradition in Mr. Kanamori’s class: notebook letters.
Every day, Mr. Kanamori’s students write a letter to their classmates about whatever is on their minds. Daily, a rotating handful of students has the chance to read a letter out loud to the class, openly sharing some of their most private and heartfelt experiences. In episode 1 of Children Full of Life, one student reads his classmates a letter in which he describes learning about his grandmother’s death. It leads another student, with smart prompts from Mr Kanamori, to speak up for the first time about her own father’s death. Soon many students are sharing their experiences with death, talking with greater poise and depth than many adults can about the difficult concept.
It’s something you have to see to believe, so watch the video above and you won’t have to take our word for it.
The exercise is easily adaptable from the classroom to the home. Consider starting a similar tradition with your family. Every night at dinner—or every Friday, for instance, if gathering together as a family every night isn’t part of your routine—one family member will share a letter they wrote to the family about their experiences that day or week, their hopes or frustrations, or anything that’s on their mind. You as a parent should kick off the exercise with your own letter first, setting the tone and intimacy, opening up to your family to model openness. The letter format should make the exercise appealing even to kids who aren’t naturally inclined to writing or journaling. Still, feel free to let your child use any medium she wants to tell her story—drawings, collages, cartoons. Get creative! Notebook letters should be empathy exercises that are both powerful and fun.