April is the cruelest month, says T.S. Eliot, but not in Leon Lewandowski’s third grade classroom at Franklin Elementary School in Santa Barbara, Calif. His students practice random acts of kindness on each day of April, tracking their progress online, writing their acts of kindness in journals, and developing self-confidence along the way.
Research consistently shows that volunteering and helping others not only encourages civic responsibility among students, but also helps them develop social skills, strengthen their communities, and learn about their interests and talents and how they can be applied in the real world. There’s also a new emphasis on “soft skills,” like respect, responsibility, perseverance, compassion and kindness that some experts say are more important to a child’s future success than hard skills like reading, math and science.
“It’s also a great exercise in awareness,” says Lewandowski, who first started practicing kind acts with his friends and family throughout April before introducing Random Acts of Kindness (RAOK) Month to his students in 2012. “It felt good to see what was needed and help fill the void, with everything from adding quarters to empty parking meters, mowing a neighbor's lawn, making cookies for the local firefighters, buying food for the homeless, or just surprising coworkers with an anonymous candy bar.”
At school, the RAOK project crosses the curriculum and offers lessons in social studies and current events, math (the students graph different RAOK types), writing, and speaking (they give class presentations using the Haiku Deck app).
But the benefits the project brings to students’ character and sense of self is the real reward.
The students at Franklin all receive free and reduced meals. Seventy-six percent are English language learners. The average parent education level is second grade, and the average family of four must survive off of less than $20,000 a year.
“Yet, these kids can share RAOK. And this is an experience that after a month, starts to redefine their mindsets,” Lewandowski says. “They start to realize they can make a positive difference in their schools, their communities and their world. It strengthens the soft skills of confidence, compassion and kindness.”
Kindness is contagious, Lewandowski says, and he’s hoping to spread RAOK Month throughout the nation’s classrooms and schools. Here are his nine tips for starting it in your classroom or school:
There are tons of short videos online that show young people doing acts of kindness. During April, as the students enter the classroom in the morning, I like to play one. They’re engaging, meaningful, inspiring and a great way to start a day. You can access many of these videos if you join our Facebook group (“April RAOK”).
If your students already journal, for the month of April consider having them write about the RAOK they did the day before. They can write about what they did, who they did it for, how the recipient reacted, and how it made the student feel. I especially enjoy having students share their entries with one another because it inspires their peers and gives them RAOK ideas they may not have considered.
If you can’t squeeze in journaling, but your students are still taking on the 30-Day Challenge, have a stack of sticky notes for them, a bulletin board or even a blank closet door, and make it your “kindness board.” Kids can write a quick sentence about what RAOK they did and post it. I did this my first year introducing RAOK to my eight-year-olds and it became something like a social media site with students adding posts and reading other posts. It was incredible to see that closet door fill with notes throughout April.
Empowered Through Cards
There are many places online where you as a teacher can download a Kindness Card. These are great because the students have something tangible to pass along with their RAOK. The cards tell the recipient that they are on the receiving end of kindness and that now it’s time for them to be kind to someone else and pass the card along. It’s wonderful to see these cards flashed on campus in the cafeteria, on the playground, and in the halls.
Last year we found this terrific app called Ripil, a “kindness tracker.” It was a great match for my class because all of my students use tablets in the classroom. So, first thing in the morning we’d watch our kindness video, fill out our RAOK journal, then log into Ripil where my class was set up as a group. Each student could post their RAOK daily. The more RAOK, the more medals they earned. The app also displayed our class’ progress on the worldwide kindness leaderboard. My little third graders looked at the top of that leaderboard, saw a group from UCLA sitting atop and decided they wanted to be there by the end of April… and they did it!
Kindness In Math
In my classroom we record the types of RAOK we do on a daily basis (in our journals): give something, do something, say something. Then at the beginning of May, each student creates a pie chart as well as a bar graph that reflects their April kindness acts.
Kindness and Writing
In March I let the students know about the 30-Day RAOK Challenge in April and ask them to write about what they think it will be like, what acts might they do, who they might help. This gets them mentally prepared for April. Come May, they use their RAOK journals to write the second part of their paper which reflects the reality of the month, what they really did, who they really helped, and most important, what they learned.
Tell The World (Or, at Least the Class)
Students can share their RAOK experience while learning technology and honing their speaking skills through kindness presentations. There are many apps and programs available, but one that has worked for my third graders is Haiku Deck. The students create a title page with an image that reflects kindness. Then they display their bar graphs and pie chart, and finally they share bulleted points of what they learned.
Taking RAOK from the classroom and school and into the community is a very powerful experience for students. Last year with the help of our principal, our local McDonalds gave students from our school 250 free ice cream certificates to pass out on a rainy Saturday morning on the main drag of our town. Parents, teachers, our principal and students were there, and the kids spread kindness throughout our community. They were nervous at first, but when they saw the joy they created in adults, these kids felt so empowered.
"On the April RAOK Facebook page there are lists of RAOK if you are not sure what your students should do," Lewandowski says. "The possibilities are endless."