By Kristy Houle, Educational Opportunities Coordinator

The world of education moves by quickly, so how do we inspire a culture of kindness before it passes us by? Studies have shown that students in kind, positive learning environments do better on tests, learn more (at a faster rate), and are just generally much, much happier. But is kindness teachable? Yes! Kindness is a skill – and like any skill, it can be developed with practice and repetition. Teachers across the nation are taking on kindness projects to build and sustain warm, compassionate communities.  I recently had an opportunity to talk with Sarah Jennings, a teacher in the Ferguson-Florissant School District about a kindness project she did with her 5th and 6th grade students.

Q. What was the name of the project you did with the students?
A. “We Are Different, Yet We Are the Same”

Q. How did you come up with the idea of the kindness project?
A. I was made aware of random acts of kindness occurring in the community, such as someone paying for a person behind them in a drive thru, and I thought, “My class could easily do something like this around our school, which would then hopefully spread across the whole school and then to our local community.” We start with 100 Random Acts of Kindness on the first day of school. We welcome new staff members, we send get well cards, we write to veterans, and we send special treats to teachers.

I wanted my scholars to be recognized as individuals in my classroom for the great things they were doing. Each week my scholars vote for a peer who deserves to be STAR student. They write at least one kind statement or about this peer as to why they deserve to be STAR student.

Q. How did the kids respond to the project idea once you discussed it with them?
A. This project was student led from the beginning. I spoke with them about the importance of spreading love and kindness during times of community struggle. I then read aloud “Painting for Peace in Ferguson”, by Carol Swartout Klein, and my room was filled with silence. I had a scholar tell me that even though there was destruction in Ferguson, it made her happy that people chose to beautify the city. We also talked about other things we could do to help a community in turmoil. This is where the Random Acts of Kindness came back into play and they suggested things like, “hold doors open for people”, “leave change on a soda machine for someone”, “paint a picture for someone”. A scholar then suggested that we make a poster that reads, “We are different…yet, we are the same”. Another scholar agreed and offered the idea of signing it as a remembrance pledge. Another scholar added, “Let’s put all our hands in and take a picture”. I then suggested that we put our hands in the shape of a heart.

Q. Was this something new to your class or have you always taught about kindness?
A. I have always taught about kindness. Kindness should be a natural expression of humanity, yet it’s not always natural for our children. It’s important that kindness is taught and practiced within the classroom. My hope is that kindness spreads beyond my classroom into my scholars’ everyday lives in the home and community, and it does become natural for them.

Q. What do you feel are some of the benefits of being kind?
A. People who are kind tend to be more empathetic, and therefore have overall better relationships with others in general. Being kind is good for your self-esteem, and makes you feel better about yourself. Being kind makes it easier to be positive overall in your everyday thinking and decision-making. Honestly, being kind is a way to make the world a better place. Take a second and think about a world filled with kindness and what that would look like. There would be more acceptance, gratitude, and overall happiness.

Q. Were there any interesting thoughts or questions brought up by the students as you did the project?
A. One student asked if we could do more than 100 and another scholar was happy that they couldn’t vote for themselves which forces them to say nice things about others in the class. After hearing a scholar say that they are all the same and all bleed red, my eyes were opened and my heart filled.

Q. What were the conversations in the classroom like before and after the project?  Did they change as the project progressed?
A. Kindness is a daily focus in my classroom. It starts on day one each school year. Of course, there are always a few scholars that struggle a bit with kindness being a natural part of their everyday lives. It amazes me to see how quickly I can see positive change in these children. At times, they end up being the scholars who suggest more ideas for random acts of kindness, or get the most votes from their peers for star student. They are the children that I see smile more, and make more friendships.

Q. What is the most important thing you want your students to remember about the project?
A. I want them to remember the smiles on the faces of the recipients. I want them to remember their peers jumping up and down, laughing and smiling when they read their STAR student votes. I want them to remember the photograph we took of our hands together as one heart with our statement, “We are Different…yet, we are the Same.”

I want them to remember that kindness goes beyond the classroom and that kindness should be a part of their everyday lives no matter where they are and what they are doing.

Q. What other things do you think were most important about this project and the message you wanted to share?
A. Kindness must be taught in all classrooms. We may think it should be a natural human quality for all, but it’s not. As adults, and as teachers we must be the number one role model of kindness for our children. A simple act of kindness can go a very long way. Think about how far a school year worth of kindness can go!

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Date: April 18, 2015 Time: 10:00am