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Cultivating Empathy at Twin Oaks Elementary
Changing the world for the better begins with random acts
of kindness. That is the heart of the
message from the movie, Pay It Forward. The quirky hit, released in
2000, stars Kevin Spacey as a middle school social science teacher with a gift
for inspiration and Haley Joel Osment as the acolyte who surpasses his
teacher's wildest expectations. More than just a melodramatic tear-jerker, Pay
It Forward has developed a cult following amongst educators who
recognize the film's core philosophy as a valuable lesson worthy of the
Roberta Laucke, a teacher at Twin Oaks Elementary School in Laval, was so inspired when she watched the film last summer, she immediately began laying the groundwork for a Random Acts of Kindness Club for the students at her school. “I spoke to some other teachers and did some research online and discovered that the Pay It Forward model is being integrated into schools all across North America,” explains Lauke.
Laucke, along with fellow teachers Mirella Simone, Jennifer Goodman and Ellen Dennick, started Random Acts of Kindness last September and the club has been thriving ever since. Those involved meet once a month, during lunch, with the objective of cultivating kindness and compassion.
Laucke said that the club's acts of kindness have included everything from making origami doves for the veterans that visit the school, to baking cookies for police officers, to making bookmarks and sneaking them into the collection of books in the school's new library. Recently, the club made sandwiches for the homeless. “We entrusted the help of a volunteer who took the sandwiches and delivered them to the homeless living on the streets of Montreal,” adds Lauke.
Near the end of the film Pay It Forward, Osment's character, seventh-grader Trevor McKinney, confesses that he believes it's difficult for people who are so used to things the way they are - even if they're bad - to change. "Cause they kind of give up. And when they do, everybody kind of loses." Uncorrupted by adult cynicism, McKinney refuses to remain locked in a world of pessimism and sacrifices everything to prove that spontaneous acts of compassion can change the world.
The opinions of the students at Twin Oaks regarding Random Acts of Kindness echo with the same youthful optimism expressed in the film. Fourth grade student Sabrina confessed that she joined the club because she loves to do kind things for others. “You shouldn't just do nice things for people just because someone tells you to," she says. "You should do nice things without being asked."
Third grade student Allyah spoke from her heart when she described the personal reward she experienced while making sandwiches for the men and women who live on the streets. “It felt good to give food to people who are experiencing misfortune.”
Embracing heartfelt choices has opened many of the club members’ eyes to previously unknown realities. Awareness of the trials and tribulations of others has made the students more appreciative of what they have. Fabrizio, a fourth grade student, says that his newfound understanding about the plight of the homeless has deepened his gratitude, and he insists that he does not want to take his good fortune for granted. “Some unlucky people don't have homes. Knowing that makes you appreciate what you have.”
Third grade student Matteo hit the nail on the head when he articulated what a great gift kindness is. “I don't need people to give me stuff,” he says. “Instead, I want to give to others. It makes my day being in this club.”
Dennick provided an anecdote demonstrating how the cultivation of empathy is affecting the behavior of the students in the club. When the students recently baked Mother’s Day cookies for a woman's shelter, none of the students complained about the activity. “Not only that, not one club member asked if they could take a cookie to snack on,” adds Dennick. “Clearly, the message is getting through."
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