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New Jersey School Chooses to Be Kind

By Andrew Matteo
 | Jul 06, 2016

John Y. Dater School has immersed itself in the world of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder for four years. Its message has become part of the fabric of our school. We have even taken one of the quotes from the book and adapted it to use as our school motto, which hangs in every classroom and office. Now, every day we begin with the Pledge of Allegiance as well as a Dater fifth-grade student reminding us all to “Work Hard and Be Kinder Than Is Necessary.”

As part of the fifth-grade reading workshop curriculum, every student enjoys Wonder as an interactive read-aloud—I highly recommend it for upper elementary school students. Although its target audience is children ages 8–12, it is a great read for adults as well. Wonder is about a boy named August who was born with a major facial disfigurement. He begins attending school in fifth grade after being homeschooled. Through multiple perspectives, the story tackles important issues such as bullying, kindness, bravery, and friendship. The book’s impact on our school transcended its role as a simple assignment. 

Last summer I discovered the Choose Kind Classroom Challenge and became immediately excited about having Dater participate in this national movement. The challenge is part of the Choose Kind anti-bullying initiative that grew from Wonder, as explained by Palacio. I introduced the challenge to the teachers at our school as an optional classroom activity and provided each classroom with a mason jar and 50 marbles. We introduced the program during the first six weeks of school as we focused on building classroom communities. Almost every teacher welcomed the challenge in their classrooms, and within a month the jars started coming back down to the office filled with kindness marbles!

Although I was hoping that a few of our classrooms would participate and become one of the first 500 schools to become Certified Kind, I was overwhelmed with pride when 25 Dater classrooms received this designation. In fact, one of our Choose Kind classrooms was chosen to receive a special video message from Palacio. The students and teacher in this classroom requested the message be for the entire school rather than their individual classroom. They wanted to recognize the efforts of all of the students and classrooms at Dater School rather than the spotlight being solely on them. What a kind gesture that was!  We were able to surprise the students with the video we received from Random House at April’s schoolwide Spirit Day assembly.

The impact of our participation in this challenge has been tremendous. We now have 25 Choose Kind banners hanging around the school to remind students that we are a Choose Kind school. Kindness is ingrained in our school values and gives us a common language to use when discussing character development and prosocial behaviors with students. I am grateful to Palacio for writing such a powerful book about kindness and to Random House for creating and promoting such an important challenge for our schools. 

What I like about this particular anti-bullying initiative is that it is proactive and focuses on promoting positive behaviors rather than highlighting anti-social behaviors that should be avoided. In today’s schools and society, teaching students to tolerate “others” is not enough. We must hold ourselves and our students to a higher standard of celebrating everyone and always remembering to “choose kind.” 

Andrew Matteo is principal of John Y. Dater School in Ramsey, NJ, which educates all of the fourth and fifth graders in the town's public school system.  Matteo taught elementary school for seven years in Glen Rock and also served as the principal of Central School, Glen Rock, NJ.  He is currently pursuing his PhD in Teacher Education and Teacher Development at Montclair State University.

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