Every morning, long before the sun is rising in Southern California, my first Tweet of the day comes in from @PaulONeill1972 and #pln365. Just as the hashtag implies, this Professional Learning Network checks in every day as Paul poses a question. This morning’s question is “What are the benefits of service-based learning?” And as happens often, I thought to myself, “You’re kidding me right? 140 characters? No way.”
Here’s the thing: we want to build relationships, have a positive culture, model and inspire empathy. There is no better way than service-based learning. I didn’t know that until I didn’t do some form of it this past year and then scratched my head for months trying to figure out why there was a missing peice in my classroom culture. My students were not learning in a cold, heartless space by any means, but something was different.
I am not going to say that I have inspired my students to rally to change the world through innovating a tool that will heal a village. I have yet to be that awesome. I am going to say that my fourth grade students in the 2015-2016 school year were different because they cared about someone they never met and developed a passion for a cause they didn’t know existed because of a poster that was hanging in the front of the room. It was the second year I had it up. (The first year was in my TK/K classroom.) It was risky. I had talked to my principal about it before I hung it, and there were days I wish I never had. But in retrospect, it was the best teaching I have ever done and possibly ever will. This is the billboard version of the poster:
The poster is about my friend, Madison “Peach” Steiner, but for my students it was about Delaney. When they first encountered the poster on the first day of school, they were taken aback by this bald girl. My littles the year before were also. I wanted them to be. Then I could give her a name and tell her story, make her human – and anyone other child in they come across whose appearance takes them aback. That was my first goal. My second goal was to let kindness and the powerful effects of it be illustrated through Peach. My worry was that childhood cancer is horrifying, Delaney’s journey would be always be uncertain, and was it okay to talk about these things? (Not a single parent objected, no matter what happened.)
Delaney was in remission when my students heard her story. They were hungry for every tidbit they could learn about her. We watched videos about Peach’s Neet Feet and of Delaney dancing in her attempt to attract the attention of Taylor Swift, which she did.
Unfortunately, Delaney’s cancer came back. My students cried. I cried with them. But they didn’t shy away. They marched forward. They wrote to her, especially excited about the Christmas Card campaign, and they sent her a video. Along with that, they participated in Make a Wish Foundation’s Believe campaign. They all wrote letters to Santa Claus, many of them knowing that Santa, for some reason, doesn’t visit their house on Christmas Eve. It didn’t matter. Their letter were filled with wishes for a cure for cancer, for children celebrating Christmas in the hospital to have fun, and one girl asked for Santa (who must be very close friends with Jesus) to plead for Delaney’s life on her behalf.
Our wishes were not granted for Delaney, and she passed from this life on March 21, 2016. We were on Spring Break. I was wreck knowing one of the first questions on the Monday of our return would be about Delaney. “Have you heard from Madison, Mrs. G.? How is Delaney?” They always asked me that. It would be no different that Monday. However, because of how much Delaney meant to them and how much a part of their daily lives she had become, many of my students had already heard about Delaney’s passing before we returned to school. They came to class that morning, having spread the word amongst themselves, in mourning.
I did hear from a couple parents who wanted to let me know their child was sad and needed some extra love and care. No one was upset that I subjected their child to this “needless” sorrow. I think it is because they could see their child experience empathy and compassion for another person and feel driven to reach out beyond their own lives to make a difference in someone else’s. How students saw themselves and the visions they were creating for their future were changed.
None of this was my intention. I NEVER would have chose this path for my students, but we found ourselves on it together. We bonded so tightly and understood the value of kindness more profoundly than I could ever have imagined. I came across this folder left on a desktop one afternoon. It affirmed that our painful journey left a positive mark instead of a negative one.
In no way am I suggesting that teachers should find some painful journey to teach their students about kindness, compassion and empathy. Any service project will do – IF IT IS STUDENT DRIVEN, like this truly was. It was “just a kindness poster featuring my friend”, until it wasn’t.
I didn’t seek out a way for my students to serve this past year. I should have. I should have gleaned their passions from their Genius Hour projects and launched a 20% Time project. They deserved to be difference-makers. They had it in them, which was displayed many times, such as this. Your students deserve it too, and so does the world they will change a corner of.