By Kate Scriven
School may be out for the summer, but Diane Hall’s students will still be using what she has taught them this year. As the Writing Specialist at Peter G. Schmidt Elementary in Tumwater, Hall’s students will be diving into new books, reading restaurant menus, writing journal entries and more. Reading is all around us.
But more than that, the over 550 students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade she taught this year will be practicing creating a “Culture of Kindness” in their daily lives. Being kind is a concept that Pete G. Schmidt teachers and administrators added to their building wide PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) this year, building on the concepts already in place of being Safe, Respectful and Responsible.
Why add being kind this year? “We added the concept of creating a ‘culture of kindness’ this year to focus on building community in such a large school. I have a unique opportunity to do that because I see all the students,” explains Hall. Teaching the concept of kindness came easily to this creative, inspired teacher and mom of two kids of her own.
Combining a need to support writing instruction along with teaching the students to support one another, Hall created a school-wide letter writing project centered on the annual Math assessments. These assessments were identified by the school counselor as one of the most stressful times for students and Hall’s goal was to ease the stress by creating an atmosphere of kindness and support among the students.
“The classroom teachers have so much work to do,” shares Hall. “To tackle something like our ‘culture of kindness project’ would be overwhelming. But for me, seeing all the students, I can create a community-wide project and I’m grateful to be able to do that.”
Hall introduced the project to all Peter G. Schmidt students, sharing how they would write letters to students in other grade levels giving support and encouragement for their math assessments. Letters were then delivered to students just prior to taking their tests this spring. “The letter writing served several purposes,” explains Hall. “First it builds community. Second, we were focusing on an authentic purpose for writing with a real audience, part of the common core writing standards.”
The older students were a bit grumbly, Hall admits, about writing a letter to a younger student they might not know. Hall reframed the assignment, showing them this was an opportunity for leadership and support. “It’s the first time the third graders take the MSP and the older kids had a chance to support and encourage them at a stressful time. The big kids really liked that,” Hall shares.
The letters were crafted during time in Hall’s reading classroom and were required to include two things: words of encouragement and at least two test-taking strategies. “The encouragement provides community, positive reinforcement, and has the kids simply thinking positively about taking a test,” says Hall. “The strategies allow the letter writer and letter reader a refresher of some of the strategies taught in the classroom prior to taking their own assessment.”
For the younger grades (kindergarten through second grade) the students brainstormed kind words and test strategies and created a poster with their words that was delivered to their buddy classroom prior to testing and displayed proudly. The goal of formal letter writing is not a standard for the primary grades, so Hall adapted the assignment to fit with goals appropriate for their skill building standards – writing creatively and for a specific purpose.
Here are a few of the letters that students shared with their schoolmates in the “Culture of Kindness” letters:
- “To my buddy, I told him to make sure to skip an answer and go back later if he didn’t know it. And just relax.” – Ben, sixth grade
- “I wrote to be confident, not to be stressed, that you can do it and you know these answers.” – Malachi, sixth grade
- “I wanted to encourage other students. Mine said to keep up the good work.” – Lillian, second grade
Students also shared how receiving the letters just prior to their test made them feel.
- “I felt very happy to get the poster and read the kind words. With it in here all the time I just feel happy.” – Violet, second grade
- “Reading my letter before the test felt like it gave me more courage.” Damon, sixth grade
- “I always get so worried at MSP time. Reading my letter sort of felt like someone was helping me get through it and it helped.” – Morgan, sixth grade
What have the students learned through this project? Certainly, they’ve learned they are all in it together when it comes to assessment. But more than that, the students have learned that their kindness can positively impact others. Hall hopes the lessons in kindness extend beyond Peter G. Schmidt’s walls, creating children who view being kind and supportive of each other with the same level of importance as all the other skills they learn at school.
Second grade student, Katie, sums it up. “This is an important thing to do. It makes people feel happy inside and it’s really important to feel happy, not sad. It’s just better.”