Caren Stelson: an Introduction
Welcome to the fourth and last article in our series Peace-ology: Finding Higher Ground. Our first three articles discussed the concept of Higher Ground, the infrastructure of peacebuilding in our classrooms and homes, and the importance of finding our own peace within. In this article, we explore community building through Higher Ground, with special emphasis on the power of kindness. Together, how can adults and children create genuine community in our schools and beyond? What foundational ideas, activities, and books, both for children and adults, support this vital effort? Read on.
Joyce Bonafield-Pierce: Building a Foundation of Trust, Identity, and Community
I once had a professor from the Philippines at the Austrian Centre for Peace Studies who would open each class by saying, “Find the peace within yourself, so you can take care of the world!” I began trying out his invitation, taking a moment or two before each group I worked with to find my own sense of peace — a sense of calm and balance — so I could bring a peaceful self to my group. It helped me not only “be the change” I wanted to see in my students, it made me realize the importance of the energy I bring to any group or task. As more of us start our morning together this way, we find ourselves seeing the gifts and strengths in our students, rather than focusing on their deficits. We also begin to see more clearly our own strengths.
Add to this a reaching out in a caring way to recognize and appreciate others in our community — our classroom, school, or larger community — and something new begins to happen. Teachers and students experience excitement, imagination activates, creativity kicks in, trust begins to build, belonging is truly experienced, and motivation is unleashed. Helping first ourselves (as they say on the airplane) and then focusing on the needs of others are primary building blocks to creating a community.
In a school in Belle Plain, Minnesota, students and teachers alike came alive together during “Kindness Week” — an all-school focus on the power of kindness — reaching out to one another in acknowledgement and support. Similarly, a group of students in Finland let their kitchen crew know just how much they had learned about nutrition, growing fresh vegetables in the school garden, and preparing a meal. They cooked a lunch for the staff and all ate together that day.
Seeking peace within ourselves and others and reaching out in service to others help nurture the whole child in the student and the whole adult “on the rug” in the teacher. It helps us find new parts of ourselves by momentarily getting beyond ourselves in creative efforts. It helps us find that Higher Ground we’ve been talking about — that place that brings joy in seeing someone else thrive or be appreciated, that place that uses our imagination and creativity. Let’s find additional ways to give our students room to find their calm space, use their imagination, let loose their creativity, and think of how we can make another’s day. We will discover more of our identity and build a thriving community in doing so.
Renee Dauk-Bleess: The Kindness Challenge
The importance of educating for peace came to me a few years ago during my first year as an art teacher. In January of 2020, our school celebrated the worldwide program “The Great Kindness Challenge. For an entire week, our school community was devoted to the power of being kind.
“The Great Kindness Challenge is proudly presented by Kids for Peace, a global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Kids for Peace was co-founded in 2006 by Danielle Gram, a high school honors student and Jill McManigal, a mother and former elementary school teacher. What started organically as a neighborhood group of kids wanting to make our world a better place, has grown into an interconnected network of young peacebuilders worldwide.
In 2011, the elementary school that Jill’s children attended asked Kids for Peace to help create a more positive, unified and respectful school environment. As a result, The Great Kindness Challenge was designed and piloted with three Carlsbad, California schools. Because of our innovative approach and wildly successful results, word spread, and a kindness movement was born. (www.great kindness challenge.com)
What struck me most about the “Great Kindness Challenge Week” at our school was the inclusion of our local community to celebrate the power of kindness. A kick-off video showcased local community members, various businesses, fire fighters, police officers, district office staff, high schoolers, city council members, and even the town mayor highlighting the importance of kindness and cheering on our students and school to make a difference during the Great Kindness Challenge.
The cornerstone of the challenge was the Great Kindness Challenge Checklist. Students were encouraged to try and complete as many of the 50 kind acts on this checklist, which could be edited and tailored to our student population. It involved kindness to self, kindness to others, kindness in school, kindness in our community, and kindness in our world.
I immediately thought: How could I incorporate kindness in an art project for that week? Knowing the power of a random act of kindness, the idea of a “Kindness Card” was born. Every student, grades 3 – 6, was given a small 4 x 4 black scratch art card. After watching a short video and discussing the ripple effect of one small act of kindness, we went to work on our one-day project.
In this one small project, Higher Ground ideas of compassion, generosity, empathy, kindness, gratefulness, and friendliness were all encompassed. Students were encouraged to give their Kindness Card to anyone in the school that day. We brainstormed a list of possibilities: a classmate who might be struggling or sad; a good friend, a younger (or older) student, someone on the playground, bus, or lunchroom; a former or current teacher or bus driver; a local business owner or worker; a teammate, a custodian or cook or paraprofessional; a neighbor; a family member, the school nurse or secretary, or even our principal. As students left, there was a hushed silence, but also an energy, as they walked out the door with their Kindness Card in hand.
To my surprise, I received several cards on my desk. What an amazing feeling to be the recipient of one of those cards! Even our principal mentioned that out of the several Kindness Cards he received, a poignant one came from a 6th grade student having major challenges that year. On the back of his card, the student wrote “Nobody is perfect …” a small moment of truth and reconciliation, in perhaps the only way he could. The next week, I asked students to whom they gave their Kindness Card, and how they and/or the other person reacted. Many students expressed the happiness, joy, and gratitude they felt in being the giver or the recipient of a Kindness Card.
Everywhere students and staff looked, kindness was celebrated. According to one of the teachers leading the charge, “We want kids to know that kindness doesn’t start and stop at the school doors, but has a ripple effect through our community.”
Three years later, our school continues to celebrate the “Great Kindness Challenge,” an event that is celebrated not just here in the United States, but worldwide.
That one week was a catalyst for me as a teacher. It made me ponder how to authentically teach and model peace, kindness, and compassion EVERY day. It started my journey of peace literacy in the art room. It was the springboard for incorporating Joyce Bonafield’s work to help students reach for Higher Ground, to do the right thing, and to create building blocks for peace in a classroom. It inspired me to be “the adult on the rug” as Ellie Roscher points out, and pursue my own inner peace in order to ask my students to examine theirs. And the questions that Sachiko Yasui proposed at the end of Caren Stelson’s non-fiction book Sachiko, a Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story still speak to me deeply to this day: What is peace? What kind of person should I be? Keep pursuing answers to those questions.
Caren Stelson: Growing Hearts, Growing Communities
Stories help us grow our hearts and by doing so help us grow caring communities. The picture books The Big Umbrella and Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood each share the concept of building community with hearts wide open, with kindness, with welcoming inclusion. Joyce’s concept of Higher Ground is woven throughout the pages in these books.
The book flap from The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates cowritten with Juniper Bates reads: Here is an umbrella. It is big, It is friendly. But it is just one umbrella. Who will fit underneath? As young readers turn the pages, this big, friendly, red umbrella stretches its arms wide, without judgement, without questions, sheltering one community member after another until a whole community is sheltered under it from the rain. How is this umbrella like a classroom or an entire school? Can we create a whole community sheltered by our caring?
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez offers young readers another story about community. Mira lives in a city that feels gray and depressing. But Mira has an idea. She is a young artist who decides to randomly give her happy drawings away, much as Renee’s students gave away their “Kindness Cards.” Soon she meets a muralist, another artist who plans to paint the gray walls of Mira’s neighborhood, not by himself, but by inviting anyone who walks by and picks up a paint brush. Through art, the neighborhood is transformed and so are community members who become artists that day. Based on a true story, Maybe Something Beautiful reminds me of the community Renee creates with art in her classroom, the community we have created among ourselves as peacemaking teachers and writers, and the community that has emerged around Peace-ology. Writing these articles has felt like a big umbrella and a colorful mural of possibilities.
Ellie Roscher: We Never Graduate from Kindness
MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow and bestselling author George Saunders gave a convocation address at Syracuse University in 2013 on kindness. A few weeks later, The New York Times posted the transcript. A few days after that, it had been shared over a million times. Now you can buy it as a book titled, Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. The popularity of his speech points to our desire to lead kinder lives. We understand in our bones that kindness is part of growing peace in our community
Saunders tells the story of a girl he calls Ellen who moved into the neighborhood and went to his grade school. When Ellen was nervous, she’d chew on her hair. Kids mostly ignored Ellen and occasionally teased. He remembers the look on her face while enduring being made fun of. Then she moved, and he never saw her again. He never made fun of her, and even defended her now and then. But years later, he is still bothered by it. “So,” George reflects, “here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Peace work invites us to act boldly in the face of suffering. Simple daily kindness, refusing to be complicit when there is suffering, ushers in peace for us and our communities. It is important to teach kindness to spread peace and to offer our children and students opportunities to practice kindness. It is also important for us, the “adults on the rug,” to opt into kindness daily as our everyday peace work in community. Peace as kindness brings us back to our humanity to respond to suffering and live without regret. Kindness builds community. May it lift us all on to Higher Ground.
For each Peace-ology post, Caren, Ellie, Renee, and Joyce partner to learn and explore the meaning of peace by talking and listening with each other. If you’d like to share your ideas about peace, books, and children, please share your comments here, visit our websites, or connect with Joyce and Renee about their Higher Ground work.