Teaching his 7th grade students to be compassionate to one another was already a priority in Justin Parmenter’s classroom – but when a high school freshman in his district shot and killed another student in the hallway over a personal conflict, it hit too close to home. He knew that he had to tackle the challenge with a new sense of urgency; the question was how to do it in a way that students would really respond to.
“Twenty plus years of experience teaching prescribed character education lessons have shown me that an adult simply talking about character or modelling positive behavior does not often lead to the changes we want to see in our children,” Parmenter wrote on his blog.
Citing evidence that compassion can be learned, he created an assignment called “Undercover Agents of Kindness” that would allow his students the opportunity to practice that critical skill.
He had them draw a classmate’s name from a bowl, then gave them a two-week time frame in which to perform a secret, random act of kindness with only two stipulations: it couldn’t cost any money, and had to be big enough for the recipient to notice. Afterward, they were to write a “mission report” about what they did and how it went.
“Soon I began to see encouraging sticky notes on lockers in the hallway,” Parmenter details. “Batches of homemade cupcakes and bags of leftover Halloween candy made their way onto desks in my classroom, as did origami, inspirational quotes, and hand-drawn portraits.”
In their completed mission reports, the kids detailed the heartwarming acts of kindness they chose and why (and how) they put them into action.
The students acknowledged that it felt a little awkward at first, he says, but they all agreed that the feeling of brightening someone’s day was pretty awesome.
The overwhelming success of the project inspired Parmenter to make it a monthly thing. He asked for advice from his students on improvements, and they came through with suggestions — such as providing examples for anyone having a hard time thinking of an act of kindness.
He hopes to build and expand on the assignment as it becomes a regular part of his curriculum, and that other teachers in schools across the country will follow suit, sharing their kids’ unique ideas and providing even more inspiration.
The goal to make acts of kindness less of a novelty and more of a habit is a light we need in a world that sometimes seems anything but. Together with his students, says Parmenter, “We can find ways to break down barriers, build stronger communities, and normalize compassionate behavior.”
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