We never know where life's gifts will lead us or in what form they will appear. Part of my relentless optimism is based on my experience that anything from a chance meeting, song, or a party can lead to discovering new people, places, and experiences.
I'm not sure how playing in Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band led me to wearing a broccoli hat in front of a gymnasium full of kindergarteners in Chicago. Thankfully, it did and the common denominator is fun and play. It turns out the theme of enjoying life has benefits other than taking us to the beach ever so often. A few years back, I met Kristin McFadden at Meeting of the Minds in Key West, rocking out with nearly 3,000 other Parrotheads and her husband Bill. Kristin gets it, as all Buffett fans do; Fun works! I have been amazed over the years at Jimmy Buffett's ability to make nearly any challenge fun, simple and easy. Parrotheads have turned this into a nation, partying with a purpose. So inspired by this lighthearted approach, I have made it a mission to use my talents to help young children build safe and healthy communities with fun, music, and play.
It is one thing to talk about a healthy and safe community, but when you experience it firsthand, it’s powerful. When I walked into Pleasantdale Elementary School near Chicago, I knew it was one of these unique places. First sign: I don't have to prove anything. Check. Second sign: Attentive and relaxed people helping me out. Check.
Teachers and parents are the unsung heroes of our global community. They have one of the most important jobs that shapes the future of our world. When I meet educators on my journeys, I thank them for being teachers. They are on the frontline of change every day they go into work.
The classroom of today is evolving so quickly. Not only the home environments that children are coming from but also from an administrative standpoint, classrooms are advancing. Each year, new standards are put in place and the pressure to perform increases.
I am blessed with the advantage of traveling the world, seeing teachers and classrooms transforming. Amongst these many changes, certain things stand out. We all want kids to do better on tests and it is getting harder and harder to find time for play. Even recess can be called into question these days. Understandably so, we all want kids to do well. The paradox is, research consistently shows that play benefits learning. The challenge of finding the time is a real one.
As Uncle Jim, I get to be a friend to students. I get to be a social emotional educator that brings funky music and educational experiences to the classroom!
First assignment: Meet the little ones. It is easy to forget that young children are not just shorter adults. Their brains are literally physically forming as we speak. Their "operating systems" are being built to adapt every moment to new things. This is the beauty and the challenge. I can't help but be reminded when around young children that we are co-creating this moment, and this world together. Wow, what an awesome responsibility. What fun!
On the first day, I played a song about hula hoops and Hawaii and the muse hit me with an instant new song about different color guitars after several students in Ms. Mcfadden’s class proudly tell me of their instruments at home.
The next day was up early and setting up for 3 assemblies with Brant, my project manager, who thankfully was able to come on this trip.
Performing to hundreds of young children at once is like driving some magical massive bus with 100 tires on it, bouncing back and forth! You know where you are going in general, but if you are not willing to take an unforeseen turn or two, you'll end up stuck in a ditch or stalled on the side of the road.
Performing for young children at these assemblies is one of the most wonderful experiences I know. Without any exaggeration, after some of these assemblies I feel that I could not be any happier if I would have sat in with the Beatles that day. It's that good!
We get to celebrate fun, safety, and play together. We get to sing songs, dance, ask questions, and learn. The personal high-point for me was when a room full of 4th grade students were chanting the names of the puppets, Sammy and Martin. I am told over and over again that Uncle Jim music and assemblies may be too "young" for the older grades. Yet, my experience is consistently that when I'm real with them, they are real with me and we get to have real fun together!
The principal Matt has a calm leadership style, the PTA president Amanda was bubbly and supportive, and the teachers were open and encouraging. This is the collaborative effort that makes the Pleasantdale School District a unique place.
We do our best to teach empathy, friendship and what it means to be a friend to ourselves and a friend to others. I believe that joy may be the greatest lesson, because it opens the doorway to fun learning, eager questions, opportunities and solutions that make our community safer and healthier.
Thank you Kristin and Pleasantdale Elementary for bringing me to your school. It was a powerful experience for me. I hope it was for you too!