The Kind Classroom Project: Autumn Actions

A MiddleWeb Blog

In my very first article for MiddleWeb, three autumns ago, I wrote about my belief that the classroom climate is the most crucial component of learning.

I shared my guiding principle that every student in my class feels safe, valued, and successful. I remain steadfast in this belief and mission.

In my first post of this school year, I described my vision for establishing a culture of kindness in my classroom. Here, I want to share some specific plans I have for the first few months of school.

I am very lucky to work with a team of educators who are in sync with my core values, so some of the activities I share are ones that we have done for years. Others have yet to be introduced.

One quick Google search for “Creating a Culture of Kindness in Your Classroom” yields over two million hits, so I did not reinvent the wheel when developing my plans. Rather, I gathered ideas from other educators that I felt would add to what I already do in my class.

In addition, I have the advantage of teaching English so we read numerous texts that have empathy as a theme, so these activities are a natural extension of the kindness classroom.

My principal has registered our school with The Middle School Kindness Challenge initiative, which is a joint venture among numerous respected programs including InspireEd, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Harvard’s Making Caring Common program, and many more. The Challenge is also championed by many other education organizations, including AMLE. We will be part of the second cohort which begins after the New Year, so I will share more about that journey this winter.

The Middle School Kindness Challenge program provides “three distinct kindness pathways designed to provide a variety of ways for students to strengthen and deepen their understanding and practice of kindness.” These are Strengthening Peer Relationships, Developing Positive Mindsets, and Fostering Empathy. I am using these three concepts as my organizational structure for the year.

The Year of Choosing Kind Plan: FALL

September: Celebrating Kindness

Our school is a small, independent, all-girls middle school which admits many new girls to sixth grade each fall. Therefore, it’s paramount that we establish that we are all one school and integrate the new students as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

Some orientation activities we already do as a sixth grade team to facilitate this process are Friendship BINGO, a double circle getting-to-know-you speaking activity, a day of outdoor education focusing on team-building, and a trip to the local zoo where students spend the day with their advisory groups.

In my classroom, I shared my vision of a Culture of Kindness on the very first day of school. I gave students the task of finding the three most unique things they have in common with their table mates in five minutes. I did not allow them to use any visible traits, school related traits, or traits common to all humans. Their conversations were wonderful, and they didn’t want to stop.

After this activity, I issued my first weekly kindness challenge: This week, find out two new things about a person who is not already in your friend group. I am pleased to say that all of my students fulfilled that challenge.

None of these challenges nor any other kindness activities we do this year will be associated with rewards. I believe rewards send a contradictory message to the students, and I want their payoff to be the positive feelings they get for doing kind acts.

I then read the picture book, We’re All Wonders by R. J. Palacio. Students wrote a paragraph beginning with “I am a wonder because . . .” to celebrate their unique qualities. They shared this with their groups and with me.

I also give a survey with personal questions such as what will make this a great school year for you and (vice versa) not such a great year. I ensure confidentiality, and the answers I receive are quite illuminating.

I began a class discussion on the power of our words and how crucial it is that we choose them carefully. I read Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely and familiar picture book, Each Kindness. In this story, Chloe has to come to terms with her mean, exclusionary behavior toward another girl who moves away suddenly. Chloe realizes she won’t be able to make amends. This was a powerful lesson which led to a great discussion about the theme.

I also issued the second weekly kindness challenge: Include two new people that you don’t normally hang out with into your friend group. I do not have a list of these challenges developed far in advance because I want them to evolve from what we are discussing (and what I may be observing) or what we are reading in class.

Finally, I am registered with the Wonder Certified Kind challenge so I show the movie clip they provide of the teacher, Mr. Browne, sharing his precepts. (DISCLAIMER: I do not have my students complete all of the challenges, but I do love the accompanying resources.) My students then choose a guiding precept for the year and decorate a face outline for a “Who Do I Aspire to Be?” bulletin board.

October: Strengthening Peer Relationships

October is National Bullying Prevention month, so it seems the perfect time to work on peer relationships.

October 2, 2017 is the Blue Shirt Day World Day of Preventing Bullying sponsored by the organization Stomp Out Bullying, so I am encouraging all of my students to wear blue that day. I am going to wear my blue Wonder tee shirt that includes the Choose Kind message. The site also includes many celebrity video public service announcements about anti-bullying that may be shared with students. They have also dubbed the week of October 23rd the week of Inclusion and #NoOneEatsAlone. I am challenging the girls at our school to undertake this challenge and include everyone.

In memory of Harvey Ball, the artist who invented the smiley face logo, the first Friday in October is designated as World Smile Day, and I want us to participate. On this day, everyone is encouraged to “Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile!”

October is also a great month to encourage students to be Upstanders and stand up for peers when they witness unkind treatment as well as share dangerous, destructive, or disturbing behavior with trusted adults. One caveat to this: I am always careful when a child shares such information with me to ask them, “What would you like me to do to help in this situation?” Often, they just want you to know they had a sad experience and do not want you to march on over and deal with the situation.

November: Developing a Positive Mindset

In November, I want my students to develop an Attitude of Gratitude, which seems appropriate during the month of Thanksgiving. I want them to make a conscious effort to say “Thank You” to others more than they normally would. They will soon see that gratitude goes a long way.

One of my favorite resources of the last several years are the Kid President videos. My students and I love Robby Novak as Kid President, and I show his videos every opportunity I get. One that I especially enjoy is “25 Reasons to be Thankful.” I show it and ask students to create their own list. These are fun to share and when a peer comes up with one they love but hadn’t written, they add it to their thankful list.

 

I have a little deceptive assignment that I give every year during the week before Thanksgiving break. I have students make a list of at least 10 things that annoy them or that they dislike. Then I share this “Things to Be Thankful For” letter shared with Ann Landers in 2001.

In the letter, the author flips the switch on things that could be seen as detrimental and makes them a blessing. For example, she writes, “Be thankful for the clothes that fit too snug, because it means you have enough to eat.” I challenge my students to do the same with their lists. This is always a huge hit and they love to share. It also makes them take a step back and examine their complaining about these things.

A Fall Filled with Kindness

Whew. This is a lot to do in a short amount of time, but none of these activities take all that long and the benefits far outweigh the hit to my instructional time. I firmly believe that we devote time to what we value. Choose kindness!

In my next post, I’ll describe my plans for winter. If you have any ideas to add, please share.

Cheryl Mizerny

Cheryl Mizerny (@cherylteaches) is a veteran educator with 20+ years experience – most at the middle school level. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of Educational Psychology, and currently teaches 6th grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Cheryl writes about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher. Read more of her MiddleWeb articles here.

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