We try to promote kindness in our school. I heard recently that children cannot just be told to be kind, and I agree. We, the teachers (and parents if you are one), need to not only model it for them, but also give them specific ideas on how to do it. Ryan provided an excellent opportunity for us at school this past year. Ryan had several seizures when he was a baby, and as a result is mostly non-verbal. His amazing mother works with him at home from 8:30 until 12:30, and then they both join us at school for choir, social studies, and recess. They have been a blessing and it has been interesting to see how the students have responded to Ryan.
First of all we explained to them that Ryan would be coming and what they could expect. Ryan sits in choir with us and enjoys hearing the music. Sometimes he sings a little. He comes to our social studies class and listens to the stories we read. He also enjoys listening to whatever geography song we are currently memorizing. Then he goes outside for recess with the other elementary students. His mother had the idea that maybe two students a day could “play” with Ryan and interact with him during the recess time. We assigned two students a day and gave them ideas of what they could do with him. He enjoys being read to, he can walk around the playground equipment and take short walks, and he loves to be pushed in the big white roller chair, especially if he is pushed under the curtains they use to separate the Sunday school classes.
Of course, some students were better at it than others, but it was so good for all them to have time to not just be with Ryan, but to hopefully understand him and his world a little better.
No one should ever sit alone at lunch. (By the way, several girls did come and sit down with this young lady :-) How can we teach our students to avoid cliques, or even being “cliquish”? If you know the answer please share it with me, for I haven’t figured it out yet, but I do have a few suggestions.
1. Tell stories.
Here is one of my personal stories I share with my students.
I had just moved to a new house and a new school back in the 70’s in San Antonio, Texas. My mom had taken me school shopping, for clothes and supplies, and it was the first week of school. I knew no one but the girl who lived across the street, and she was no where to be found. I walked out to the playground staring at the painted lines on the asphalt, when all of a sudden Miss Priss and her entourage walked up to me.
“WHERE did you get THOSE socks?” cried Miss Priss.
“My socks?....what?....who even cares about socks?” I thought. (Evidently Miss Priss did care about socks and they must be extremely important.) I don’t think I said anything. I was too shocked that when someone had finally spoken to me, all they cared about was socks.
“Those are ugly and stupid socks,” she added.
I hung my head and walked off. Then I looked at the girls from afar. They had short socks, like bobby socks as we called them back then. I was wearing knee socks. Oh dear, how could nine inches of knitting have ruined my elementary school career?
I went home and asked my mother politely (I had been taught some manners) if I could please have some new socks. I told her what had happened and that my socks were completely unacceptable in this new school. She told me she would buy me some, but she never did.
The next morning I simply folded my big ‘ol ugly knee socks down to bobby sock height so that I would not suffer any further humiliation. To quote from one of my favorite short stories “The Horse”, “Youth can be cruel”.
Telling stories like this can help students to empathize with others who are different from them, especially as they know you and will feel empathy for you, their beloved teacher, even if the incident happened years ago. They can relate, and we can help them transfer those feelings and that knowledge to befriend the two new 5th graders who just moved into our church this year. One, of course, has family and friends in the area already, the other doesn’t and isn’t even from a Mennonite background. What will happen? Ask the mothers and see how it is going. Try to encourage the other students more if you need to do so.
How do we know if this is working? Just like we do with English and math-- evaluation. Watch them at lunch and at recess. Do they all have friends? Is anyone wandering around the playground alone looking at her knee socks?
Look on the floor.
Look on the floor.
I found two very funny, but revealing notes this year. The first one I found on a student’s desk. In case you can’t read the pencil writing it reads: “Sorry for hitting you in the eye please forgive me.” I know, they misspelled hitting “hetting” and left out a period and a capital, but they did find their own spelling mistake and corrected it. On the back was the response. It read, “I forgive you.”
The other note I found just last week when cleaning out a desk getting my room ready for the next school year.
And here is one more example. After the mid-year program we had a sort of open house for the parents and families of the students. I was very pleasantly surprised when I walked into the 1st and 2nd grade room and saw a 9th grader helping a 7th grader, sitting in the tiny desks studying for their test the next day.
Model, encourage, tell stories, evaluate, praise privately, and look for ways they are being kind. Expect to see it :-).
Here is one more true story from my childhood I share with my students to try to help them see things from another person's perspective.
In the same school where I experienced the sock humiliation, there was a very quiet, nice, hard-working janitor named Anthony. The adults called him Tony. I will never forget him.
His arm was deformed around the elbow. His elbow was huge and permanently bent at a ninety-degree angle. I remember seeing Tony having to sprinkle the cherry-smelling disinfectant stuff onto a child’s vomit in the lunch room, or scrubbing it off the carpet in the school rooms. I remember seeing him with mops, brooms, and plungers, unclogging toilets, cleaning up messes I couldn’t stand to look at, or smell, much less touch.
I remember that no one ever talked to Tony, or told him thank you, or even said hello to him. The staff would give him his orders and he would cheerfully obey. I think I would try and smile at him, but he was so used to students treating him badly that he never really looked at all of us spoiled, white, middle-class kids.
The last day of school was a joyous event. We were free for the summer. Free to run barefoot in the grass, swim, ride our bikes with our friends, and sleep until ten in the morning. We were so excited.
I remember walking out the door at the end of the building that last day of school. As I watched, not comprehending what was going on at first, hundreds of school children took all their papers out of their notebooks and folders and threw them up in the air. Thousands of them.
The wind was blowing pretty hard that day. And there was a six-foot cyclone fence all around the school property. And there were all of those papers.......flying through the air, across the grass . . . stopped by that huge, long, cyclone fence. They piled several feet up the fence. Many, many more of them were being pushed by the wind towards that fence. And still more students were throwing more papers into the air. I stopped, frozen in that moment, thinking how wasteful and ridiculous the whole thing was. I stood there for quite awhile as other students passed by me, throwing the last of their papers into the air. Then I saw Tony.
He was at the far end of the schoolyard, by the fence, with a large black trash bag in his hand. As he seemingly fruitlessly picked up a few papers and put them into the bag, more and more and more of them kept blowing in the wind. I refused to throw my papers away like that. And I will never forget what I saw that day.