“Perhaps Christmas Means A Little Bit More…”

One of the responses among the public in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy was to focus on random acts of kindness. Anne Curry, an anchor at NBC News, even got the idea trending on Twitter. #26Acts became a way for people to show they cared (one act of kindness in honor of each child and school staff member lost) for the Newton community. As social justice educators, it warmed us to see the country take acts of caring to heart and to demonstrate to children everywhere that our nation’s caring spirit is resilient even in times of grief.

But there are some teachers who have been focusing on this type of character education for quite some time. Alicia Robbins, a fourth grade teacher at Gowanda Elementary School, has been teaching a lesson plan on altruism to students for over a decade during the Christmas season, using Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch” as a basis.  The activity unfolds over a 2-3 week period. Here’s how “Miss Alicia” explains the lesson:

Each year, I turn my classroom into Who-ville in an attempt to emphasize the character education trait of caring for others. I read my class the Dr. Seuss’ book, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. We discuss the character education trait of caring, and how kindness can spread. We also discuss what kind acts “look like” for kids. Then I introduce the Grinch bulletin board, upon which I have the Grinch himself, along with three hearts: one inside the other, getting progressively larger. The students look for acts of caring and kindness in their fellow students as well as family and community members, and then record these bits of “Who-ville Spirit” on construction paper hearts. I pin these up on the board. The goal is to make the Grinch’s heart “grow” three sizes, inspired by our altruism.


The acts of kindness range from “Saw Suzie help Johnny pick up his crayons when they spilled out all over the floor” to “Donated 3 cans of food to the food pantry” to  “Brought cookies to an elderly neighbor.” The kids are proud when the Grinch’s heart starts growing.

Thank you Alicia for helping your students grow their hearts. It turns out Alicia isn’t the only teacher in the area doing this lesson. She told us she was surprised to open the local paper this weekend and find a similar bulletin board done by a teacher at the local Catholic school. Go Gowanda!

Are you doing something at school or home to encourage acts of kindness, caring, or social justice? We’d love to hear about it. Email us at info@preventioneducators.com or mention it on Twitter using our handle, @PrevEducators.

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and safe New Year!


Teaching Peace to Preschoolers

This week, I had the opportunity to be “Parent of the Day” at my daughter’s preschool, Eden Cooperative Nursery School, in Eden, New York. We chose this school for her specifically because it was community-based, cooperative (meaning it is co-owned by the families and teachers) and utilized the Montessori method of education. One of the things that first drew my interest several years ago to the Montessori approach to early childhood education was the Peace Table. The Peace Table is a place in the classroom for children to resolve conflicts between themselves. (I can hear you’re thinking : preschoolers resolving conflict by themselves? REALLY?). Really.

On the wall next to the Peace Table

The Montessori approach is to education focuses on teaching children through the practical environment. And while it stresses independence, it also builds interdependence through modeling relationship skills to children. So when children have an escalating conflict in the Montessori classroom, they are invited to the Peace Table where they talk through their problems.

Peace Table

Peace Table at Eden Co-Op

In most classrooms, the  “Peace Talk” begins by ringing a bell, placing a hand on the heart or holding the Peace Rose to signal whose turn it is to talk, and then using “I” statements to describe the feelings they experienced due to each other’s behavior, apologizing and working out the problem. Teachers may help children through this process early on in the year but as time goes on in the classroom, the children will usually start to go to the table themselves when needed.

The Peace Table and Talk are part of an overall approach to peace education that is included in the Montessori method. Watch the great video clip below that describes how children benefit from early education in peace and conflict resolution.

Educating for Peace Video

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Celebrating Success With Our First Community Hero: Diane Vigrass – Part II

Hello again friends. We’re back with our second of three posts with the inspiring Diane Vigrass, our first Western New York Community Hero. In the last post, Diane, who is currently a Special Education Improvement Specialist at Niagara-Orleans BOCES, shared some wisdom about working with parents inside the special education system. In this post, we’re going to focus on her work with educators, particularly related to the difficulty in consistently applying critical thinking in our work and challenging our personal biases.

Jeanette: We were talking before about working with parents within the special education system. What about teachers?

Diane: Teachers must make sure those IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are showing benefit so that one year does not look like the next year. For example, I worked with a district that had a high school student still receiving special transportation on the IEP that was originated in the third grade. They just kept putting it in and putting it in. There was no indication that is was needed, so I asked, “Why does he still need this in the 9th grade?” Luckily, I got the right teacher at the right time. She was as flabbergasted as I was. She went all the way back to Transportation and had them look it up. It turns out this student had problems on the bus in that year, and since he was in special education, they got him his own transportation. And then no one ever reevaluated the need in the next six years!

Our goal in the ninth grade for this student was for more peer interaction, which he wasn’t going to get on the mini-bus. So there needs to be movement to get a child as close to a situation where there is general education or with peers as much as possible. I think it’s easy for teachers and administrators to say in relation to IEPs, “He had it last year, we’ll give it to him again this year.”

Jeanette: We see a lot of the same thing when we come into a school as consultants. Lots of educators “get” the need for critical thinking at an individual, cognitive level, but it seems to break down when the system tries to implement it. It is easier to maintain that homeostasis…. “This is how we do it in our school or our district” instead of pausing to consider,“What does this particular child in this particular family in this particular school need?”

Diane: And that’s why we have to have a plan. To get a child out of the box we’ve put him or her in.

Jeanette: Let’s talk about more of those boxes we put kids in, whether its related to their racial identities, identities around disabilities or differences, or gender. How do we counter that?

Diane: I think it’s the modeling.Teachers have to model in school. Which is difficult because you have to go past your beliefs.You must really know yourself and where your glitches are,and then work through that. It’s not actually a bias in race that I see most often, it’s a bias in class, in background…poverty really. I hear, “This student can’t do this because…,” or “This student can’t come to school because…” That’s when I start the line of questioning to get to the root of what the teacher perceives vs. what the reality is.In the Catholic school system, I used “What Would Jesus Do,” falling back on our faith. In the public system, I rely on a line of questioning that I have gotten better at implementing. Had I had that kind of background, that kind of comfort, back early in my career, I think I could have done more with providing effective professional development around bullying and diversity.

Jeanette: So many people that come into social justice work get burned out after the first few years. But you’ve made compassion your work for 30 years now. What keeps you going?

Diane: Whenever you get the tiniest success, you celebrate it. We’ve been working on writing IEPs for three years in the district and as soon as there was one teacher who began writing meaningful IEPs, I toasted her  because you’ve got to celebrate each small step. And I think that’s true for students with disabilities too. When you see somebody has finally reached a goal, or some other kind of success, you celebrate it. You mention it them so they can celebrate it too.

I think it’s the only way you go forward….from one success to the next success. You have to expect the best. You can’t just wait for it to happen. You have to have an attitude that there will be success. You look for it and you celebrate it.