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People and Places Summer 2016

Nine ways to introduce students to random acts of kindness, how to start your own RAOK, and a story of educators take to the water for their students for the Missouri 340.
Published: 07/16/2016

A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way

Nine ways to introduce students to random acts of kindness.

By Cindy Long

Santa Barbara, Calif., may be on its way to becoming one of the kindest cities in the nation—thanks to Leon Lewandowski and his third-grade students at Franklin Elementary School. Every April, Lewandowski’s students practice daily random acts of kindness (RAOK). They track their progress online, write their acts of kindness in journals, and develop self-confidence along the way.

Research consistently shows that volunteerism and helping others encourages civic responsibility among students, and 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. The ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development), for example, has long promoted the benefits of linking volunteerism with school curriculum to help enhance character development and academic skills, and prepare students to become engaged citizens, by expanding their understanding of social problems and the role of civic action in solutions to these problems.

“Soft skills,” like respect, responsibility, perseverance, compassion, and kindness, also impact a child’s future—sometimes more than hard skills like reading, math, and science. A Duke University study offers proof. From first through tenth grade, researchers followed a group of students identified as being high risk for developing aggressive behavioral problems. They found that soft skills, more than academic skills, created a positive effect on crime and delinquency rates.

“[RAOK] is 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 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.)

All 519 Franklin students receive free and reduced meals. Seventy-six percent of the students are English language learners. Their parents’ average education level is second grade, and many of them come from families that survive on less than $20,000 a year. 

Participation in the project helps to boost students’ character and confidence—even in the midst of such high odds. “These kids,” says Lewandowski, “can share RAOK. This is an experience that starts to redefine their mindsets. They start to realize they can make a positive difference.... It strengthens the soft skills of confidence, compassion, and kindness,” adds the educator, who hopes to spread RAOK Month throughout the nation’s schools.

Several engaging, meaningful, and inspiring online videos feature young people doing acts of kindness. To easily access the videos and get RAOK ideas, join the class’ Facebook group, “April Random Acts of Kindness.” “The possibilities are endless,” Lewandowski says.

To educators interested in starting their own Random Acts of Kindness effort next April, or anytime during the school year, Leon Lewandowski offers the following tips below.

Start Your Own RAOK

Lewandowski’s Tips

RAOK Journal If your students already journal, encourage them to use the month of April to 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.

Kindness Board 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.

Empowered Through Cards There are many places online where educators can download a Kindness Card (For example: These are a great way for students to pass along something tangible with their RAOK. The cards tell the recipient that they are on the receiving end of kindness, and 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.

Ripil 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. 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 his or her RAOK daily. The more RAOK, the more medals they earned. The app also displayed our class’ progress on the worldwide kindness leaderboard. My third graders looked at the top of that leaderboard, saw a group from the University of California, Los Angeles, sitting atop, and decided they wanted to be there by the end of April. 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 asked them to write about what they think it will be like, what acts might they do, and 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, which helps display students’ level of kindness through bar graphs and pie charts. Students also share bulleted points of what they learned.

Flash Mob 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.


40 Hours on the Mississippi River

Educators take to the water for their students

By Brenda Álvarez

Forty hours on the Mississippi River may sound like a scene from the reality series Survivor, but for three teachers from Missouri’s Jefferson City Public Schools, it was a test to display grit to their students.

Every July, hundreds of canoes fill the Mississippi River for the Missouri 340 (MR340), an endurance race that stretches 340 miles across the state, starting in Kansas City and ending in St. Charles. Last year’s race coincided with the Jefferson City High School wrestling team’s 50th anniversary.

To commemorate the anniversary, Nathan Redcay, a business teacher at Nichols Career Center and coach for Jefferson’s football and wrestling teams, organized a three-person team of teachers to compete in the MR340. They called themselves the Jaygernauts.

“I wanted to do the MR340 mostly because of the physical and mental challenge it presents,” says Redcay, who, with fellow educators David Ganey and Todd Wilson, decided to turn the event into a fundraiser for the school’s wrestling program.

Jefferson City schools are in a rural part of the state and have limited tax dollars to support extra curricular academic and athletic programs. To help, the trio raised extra money to improve the wrestling experience for their students. 

The money, says Redcay, provided resources in addition to what the district could offer, and spanned competition gear and food, to visiting far-away competitions and summer training camps at universities nationwide.

The competition also was a chance to show student athletes how to realize a difficult goal. “We wanted to show athletes how to push [themselves] to do more than what they think they can do,” says Ganey, an AP biology and astronomy teacher and wrestling coach at Jefferson. 

The challenges were immense, including the level of training it took to compete. “We had a long way to go when we first started,” Ganey says. “Our first time in the canoe, we tipped over three times in less than 30 minutes.”

The Jaygernauts trained all summer. Since their goal was to paddle throughout the entire race, they usually practiced paddling for several hours throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning.

On race day, participants had 88 hours to complete the course. The trio paddled nonstop for the entire race. They passed huge waves from a nearby barge and encountered a lightning storm. At the end, their efforts paid off. They finished the race in 40 hours and 25 minutes, and clinched first place in the team competition.

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