For the students of School Lane Charter School in Bensalem, September 2021 marked the first time in a year and a half that they were all together in the classroom.
According to sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher Rachel Smith, School Lane staff underestimated the impacts that virtual learning – and exponentially increased time on social media – would have on their pupils.
For example, when little things like magnets started missing, she realized students were participating in the TikTok trend “Devious Licks,” which tasks users with stealing a random item from school, bringing it home and sharing an unveiling video on the platform.
“At the beginning of the school year, I don’t think we were foreseeing the effects of social media. But they’ve been home for so long, we realize now more than ever the impact they’re having on each others’ lives through social media. We’re seeing it in social circles and it’s coming into school all the time,” said Smith. “We came back expecting everyone to have the same attitude of generosity toward fellow man. It turns out we needed to reteach a lot of those social skills.”
In an effort to re-establish a caring community at School Lane, Smith and sixth-grade Individuals and Societies teacher Dana Tonrey launched a Kindness Committee. Currently, 17 of their students are members. On a regular basis, they voluntarily give up their break time to brainstorm ways to promote positivity among the student body.
The committee’s first initiative took place on Nov. 12. Each member made a colorful poster to promote World Kindness Day (Nov. 13) and proudly held them up for their younger peers to see at School Lane’s car and bus drop-off locations. The group, joined by school mascot PAWS, encouraged their fellow students to do one random act of kindness in celebration of the day.
Their excitement was infectious, and Tonrey and Smith couldn’t be prouder.
“It’s nice to see them wanting to do something for no benefit to them. They just want to be there. They want to do something positive,” said Tonrey. “The better we can spread that message, the bigger the impact it’s going to have on the school community as a whole.”
When asked why they were interested in joining the Kindness Committee, one student replied, “I felt like it would help me be a better person and that it would be fun to surround myself in a kind community.” Another said, “I wanted to help our community, especially because I know COVID-19 made a lot of people upset and I wanted to help uplift their spirits.” A third answered, “It’s important because being kind can make someone’s day. A random act of kindness can help others and teach them to do the same for others.”
At School Lane, Tonrey explained that there’s a “focus on service learning.” Each grade practices this in its own unique way. Fourth-graders put together breakfast bags for Caring for Friends, while fifth-graders made over 250 Thanksgiving meals for Meals on Wheels.
As for the sixth-graders, they’re able to join a slew of committees, from student council and safety, to one that focuses on cultural awareness. The Kindness Committee is the newest addition.
While Tonrey and Smith are on hand as committee advisers, the group is ultimately student run. It’s been less than a month since the committee first convened, but it already has big plans, both short and long term.
These include creating kindness pledges and having all grades commit to being kind throughout the rest of the school year; reading a book about kindness to the kindergarteners and serving as role models; and having a positive impact on the larger community by hosting toy and sock drives, and collecting blankets and towels for local animal shelters. Once the committee is more established, the students also want to plan large-scale clean-ups and more.
“This school is special. They just think differently,” praised Tonrey. “Our curriculum is very driven about respecting others and different cultures. This Kindness Committee is a great connection to the novel they’ve been studying in ELA, Wonder, which is all about kindness, empathy and sympathy. This is a nice thing to start the school year with and it ties into what they’re learning in the classroom.”
With the Kindness Committee seeing much early success, Smith and Tonrey see it influencing the School Lane community in a positive way for many years to come.
“We’re hoping that through these little acts of kindness, these little celebratory days and activities, it will trickle down,” said Smith. “We only have so much control as teachers. But we’re hoping it’s monkey see, monkey do, and it’ll become part of our culture, not just in school, but in the people they become and how they present themselves in the world.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org