Do you recall a time when someone did something for you that was generous and surprising? Paid your bridge toll? Left you flowers on your desk? Treated you to lunch during a tough stretch? This month, the Lower School is launching the 21 Days of Kindness Project. Each day, starting on September 21, teachers will share a prompt with students such as “send a handwritten note” or “beautify your neighborhood” and encourage them to anonymously and actively promote kindness, just because. Lower School Assistant Head, Leslie Powell, who is leading this effort said, “This Friday, September 21st, the entire Lower School community will accept a lofty challenge: 21 Days of Kindness. Through intentional acts of care for others, our communities, or the environment, it is our hope to enact real change. When you multiply the number of acts by the number of community members and the number of days, it's clear to see that our movement of kindness will have a profound impact.”
This past summer, our teachers also read How to Raise Kind Kids by Thomas Lickona, well-respected writer and leader in the character education program. As part of our mission of scholarship, diversity and citizenship, kindness is a central and key aspect of how to navigate this world with empathy and compassion. Lickona’s argument: “American schools, reflecting American culture, often foster competition more than they teach cooperation”—and he offers a compelling reason to change this in our homes and in our schools. He reminds us: “Character education is everything that happens in a school. Every child, every parent, deserves a school where the kids are learning to be smart and good.” We spend many hours teaching our children about academics; it’s just as important to teach them about kindness.
Lickona also shares: “Schools that do character education well ensure that students have regular opportunities for high-quality collaborative learning. More than a hundred studies show that having students work in teams of two, three, or four—when it’s designed correctly to make sure there’s both interdependence of effort (everyone has an essential part to play) and individual accountability for learning (at the end, everybody takes a test or produces some other evidence of learning)—increases academic motivation and learning, promotes respect for the ideas and talents of others, reduces prejudice, and gives students necessary practice in the teamwork skills needed in the twenty-first-century workplace.” A significant part of our Strategic Plan requires extensive collaboration in classes, on school trips, and, of course, in athletics and the arts. By working together, we are all encouraged to give and take.
Kindness is not only a trait to encourage in our youngest children, but extends all the way through high school—and to our faculty and professional staff. George Saunders, author of The Tenth of December and a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient, delivered a now well-quoted convocation speech on this very topic. As he told the story of a Middle School student he had failed by exclusion and avoidance, he noted that he regretted his behavior and actions 42 years later: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” Listen to or watch his speech. His memory about how he failed a young girl due to a lack of kindness will stay with you.
Traditionally, college preparatory schools can be places of competition. I believe that a K-12 school offers us a unique lens to develop kindness across the grade levels. With five-year-olds, eleven-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds all on one campus, we see the wonders of childhood right before our eyes. Lickona tells us that if we, as adults—at school and at home—make kindness our priority and tell our children we value it above achievement, our children will have a greater capacity to be kind and to be successful. He suggests some Conversation Starters for our dinner tables, including:
• What’s something you accomplished this week that you feel good about?
• What are you grateful for today?
• What’s the hardest thing about being your age? The best thing?
• What does “success” mean to you?
• What is something you did during this past year that took courage?
I hope you will take few moments to engage in these conversation starters, to model kindness at home or work, and perhaps to offer a random act of kindness to someone who does not expect it.