Many decades ago, at the age of five, I arrived in this country with my parents, who came to America to pursue the immigrants’ dream in the promised land-of-opportunity. My first day of kindergarten in Houston, I didn’t speak a word of English, but I still remember the warmth and kindness of my teacher and classmates, how they sometimes literally took me by the hand and made me feel welcome. My family stayed in Texas only for a year, and as we moved to various parts of the United States, I was repeatedly “the new kid.” The degree of warmth and welcome varied vastly, depending on the school. I know firsthand that a child’s attitude toward learning, how they view themselves, how they see their place in the world, is tremendously affected by the kindness, or lack thereof, in a school’s culture.
At PS5 in Jersey City, where I’m the librarian and a literacy support teacher, we have in place a Kindness Initiative, as well as a Kindness team (comprised of teachers, administrators, and parents) who are deeply committed to a climate where students feel accepted. As they progress from pre-K through middle school, students are exposed to social justice literature designed to get them to empathize with others. Having kids connect with characters in a book is just the first step to getting them to care about the way inequality and unfairness plays out in the real world. Ultimately, we want them to feel empowered to try and do something about it; so we’re big into project-based learning (PBL) that encourages students to practice kindness.
For example, in autumn, after read-alouds of Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness (where the narrator Chloe and her classmates repeatedly reject a new classmate), our primary-grade students begin tracking their own daily acts of kindness, written with marker on a big orange vegetable nicknamed the “Pump-Kind,” and our young ones get quite excited! Our 5th-grade students also read the book, but they re-write the story from the viewpoint of Maya, the character in Woodson’s story who was shunned by her peers. Our students later write “anonymous compliments” to send to classmates.
In our middle school, kids are developing a game app, where players search for “Do Gooders” — characters that guide them to perform acts of kindness and charity. Like the popular Pokemon Go!, players experience the excitement of tracking their avatar in its travels. The app will also feature a leader board to recognize the top “Do Gooders.”
For the past decade, 7th-grade students at our school have been reading Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee, whose main character is homeless. Through PBL, middle school teacher Omar Alvarez’s classes studied the impact of homelessness worldwide and in our city. Students created action plans, wrote letters to policymakers, and partnered with local shelters to organize fundraisers. This year, our 7th-graders read To Kill a Mockingbird, raising questions about the penal justice system in America, and explored the Second Amendment and gun control. For this project (begun months before Parkland) students used both primary and secondary sources, interviewed stakeholders, produced editorials, and participated in a town hall meeting where they role-played the varied positions on this heated issue.
Our 8th-graders this year examined the effects of gentrification on the economic, social, and racial landscape of our city. Working in teams, students took on the role of TV reporters tasked with producing a news segment. While these projects are designed to teach students the skills to articulate and participate in “discourse in the real world,” they are also learning that topics like gun control or homelessness and gentrification are as much social justice issues as they are about safety or about real estate.
The history of this great, yet imperfect, nation reveals that opportunities have always been available – more for some, than others. I was fortunate to have arrived here, to my adopted homeland, at a time when the ideal that America is a beacon, a land of opportunity for all, was not forsaken.
I believe it is both a privilege and responsibility that we educators steer our students towards compassion, enable them to understand the beauty of diversity, and empower each to find their voice, and use it, to seek justice for others who still may not yet have a voice, or the opportunities.
Finally, creating a school culture of kindness and social-justice awareness takes a sustained and joint effort. In this case, collaboration with talented teachers like Omar Alvarez, Crisis Intervention specialist Lou DeCarlo, parents such as LCSW Divya Dodhia, and the invaluable support and leadership of Principal John J. Rivero and Assistant Principal Alan LaMonica, led our school community to the Roald Dahl Social Justice Award. Given that our Kindness Initiative involves the ongoing curation and acquisition of a collection of culturally relevant literature, we are thrilled the award includes $5,000 towards books from Penguin Random House!
Author: Keungsuk Sexton
Keungsuk Sexton, Librarian & Literacy Support Teacher at the Dr. Michael Conti School (PS#5) in Jersey City, NJ, spoke during the AASL Awards Ceremony at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans. She and her school’s “Promoting Social Justice Awareness and a Culture of Kindness through Literature & Project Based Learning” project are recipients of the prestigious 2018 Roald Dahl Social Justice Award.