Ann Scotland, 2nd Grade teacher at Stevens Elementary School, Mount Olive, NJ
When I was a student, I was the average Jane, if not a little bit of a struggling student, and you know, it was rough. When I didn’t excel like the other children, I had to work extra hard. Thankfully, I had a few teachers that helped me out by highlighting what I could offer in the classroom despite some of my lower level skills. So then, later on, when I became a teacher, I made sure that every student in my classroom felt like they belonged in some way. It’s not just being the smartest kid in the class. We shouldn’t be labeling like that. We all have a part in this journey called life and that’s kind of how I want my classrooms to run so that all the boys and girls know they have a place.
I start every day with a kindness pledge. Anytime we learn any type of academics, we correlate the pledge with how we use those academics out in the real world and how we can connect with other people using our skills. And that’s always a part of the conversation. I do what we call ‘Rainbow Connections.’ And it started just right within my immediate classroom, and it grew throughout the school. Rainbow connections are simply using your skills to connect with kindness for another person. The kids that started this endeavor and I wrote a book about it. It was published years ago.
In the past, one of the ways the boys and girls experienced using their skills to spread kindness was when they participated in an annual bus trip with me. The first stop was always to a nursing home. We visited with the residents, sang to them and gave them gifts. We also went to a food pantry and we stocked the shelves using the food we had collected from a school-wide food drive. From there we worked with a group of people that go into the city to feed the homeless. We would make lunch bags with inspirational quotes to house the lunches being distributed. In addition, we wrote to the service men and women letters of gratitude, mailing them at the local post office. Keep in mind, I’m teaching seven year olds. So, I had to highlight to them, ‘Okay, you’re blending goodness with your writing skills,’ or, ‘You’re using your voices to make a difference.’ Or, ‘You’re using your math to calculate how many cans are needed here.’ It’s in its most simplistic form, but that’s where good character and feeling valuable starts: right when they’re little. Giving them the mindset that their skills can contribute out in the world and ‘we all have a place to be useful’ was, and is, powerful. There is no better field trip. The hope is that the experience will grow with time in their little hearts.
So, this year, our annual bus trip couldn’t take place due to COVID. We’re still not allowed on buses and in the nursing home, but we’re going to have a kindness celebration at a nearby park that we can walk to. We’ve invited the senior citizens where it’s going to be all outside and everyone will be safe. Once again, the children will sing their songs and the elderly will listen, brightening their day. Inspirational songs have been chosen and, once again, the children will use their voices to spread good cheer. New friendships will be built over at the park between two generations. Like in the past, we will be writing letters to the troops and decorating our inspirational lunch bags. It will be a little different this year but it will continue to be geared around kindness and our skills. Clarity will be offered as to how we can piece it all together to brighten this world up.
Interview by Gregory Andrus
Portraits of the Jersey Shore