Making the world a better place by respecting differences –
By Patricia Beech –
Sixth graders at North Adams Elementary School (NAES) on Tuesday, Nov. 28 attended a showing of the new blockbuster film “Wonder”.
The movie, based on the New York Times bestseller, “Wonder”, by R.J. Palacio, tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman, a boy with facial differences caused by Treacher Collins Syndrome, who struggles to fit into a mainstream elementary school for the first time.
According to NAES sixth-grade teacher Emily Young, the book has had a profound impact, not only on the students reading it, but also on the entire school.
“It’s a wonderful story,” Young says. “Many times kids have difficulty relating to a book, but they connected with this one, and they felt moved to start something in the school – that’s where our Kindness Club came from.”
The sixth-grade Kindness Club, which is headed up by Young, is a group of students committed to making the world a better place through acts of kindness.
“There’s been a lot of real world application as far as the development of character education and developing empathy,” said NAES Principal, Deirdre Mills. “We’ve done a lot of motivational things in the building to teach our students that they are worthy of kindness, no matter what, and that is also the message of the book – it doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you live – you are worthy of everything that everyone else is.”
Mills and her staff work to keep that message of self-worth front and center. Multiple posters promoting kindness and character hang in the school’s hallways, and students are expected to treat one another with respect.
“We’re going to continue it throughout the year,” says Young. “We’re hoping that kindness and gratitude will spread like wild fire.”
Their plan appears to be working.
“I’ve seen the difference that doing this novel study and our character education has had,” says Young. “The kids have absolutely loved it.”
The students believe they’re making their school and the world a better place.
“Kindness Club is one of the best things we’ve done,” says sixth-grader Kirsten Campbell. “It’s important because you have to learn that you shouldn’t be mean to others, even if they look different than you – we should learn to be friends with everybody.”
Campbell’s classmate Teagan Lloyd says the Kindness Club students are setting an example.
“You can’t expect to get kindness if you don’t give it,” says Lloyd. “If others see you being kind, they might decide to be kind as well.”
Kindness Club member Gabe Thatcher says he believes acts of kindness can have a positive effect for students in difficult circumstances.
“It’s important because there are kids who are being bullied,” he says. “By showing kindness we can help them to understand that they are important, and they are not alone.”
Students participating in Kindness Club also say they feel empowered to make a difference for others.
“I feel good about being in the Kindness Club because it has made such an impact,” says Caleb Rothwell. “It really can change people’s lives.”
Those aren’t just empty words. Kindness Club members actively work to impact and improve the lives of their fellow students.
Each morning twenty sixth-graders from Safety Patrol and the Kindness Club are assigned to work with younger, struggling students.
“Doing it makes me feel like a better person,” says Thatcher, who along with Rothwell, provides tutoring for second-grade readers, “We’re making sure they get the help they need, and that feels great.”
Lloyd agrees. She says helping one particular Kindergarten student was an especially meaningful experience for her.
“We’d sit every day, just him and me, and we’d write our letters over and over again, and we’d read over and over again,” she says. “It made me feel really good to help him because I knew I was making a difference.”
The book fueling this upsurge of student philanthropy, “Wonder”, tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a fifth-grader with an extremely rare medical facial deformity who is ostracized and bullied by other students at his new school.
Why has the story been so inspirational for NAES students?
“It awakens our compassion,” says Lloyd. “It causes us to feel different emotions about what’s happening – it’s hard to read all that and not feel sympathy.”
“Wonder is one of those books that is really an eye-opener about people who are bullied because they’re different,” says Campbell. “It makes us realize we should choose to be kind at all times, and it shows that even if you look different, you can still make a difference in the world.”
“We are definitely changing things,” says Thatcher. “I just hope there’s a sequel.”
Given the students’ enthusiasm for the novel, Mills and her sixth-grade staff would probably agree.
“The last book that caught on like this was the Harry Potter series,” says Mills. “The kids love Wonder, and it is making a difference in how they view the world and interact with others.”