Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gift of Kind Words

Used With Permission from
A Lesson from my Classroom Years

When I was a newish 6th Grade language arts teacher, I learned about a Christmas time activity from a veteran teacher down the hall, and I incorporated it into my classroom every December after that. We would take a break from the normal class routine one day and bust out the markers and white construction paper. Each student would decorate the construction paper with a "bow" drawn in green marker, as if it were the top of a present. They also drew a "tag" on the "present" which said "To: Their Name". They could be as creative as they wanted as long as they left at least 3/4 of the paper blank.

After the "presents" were decorated, I took them up, and then I described to the students that we were all going to give each other a gift this Christmas season - a gift of kind words. We were going to pass the presents around the room, and in red marker on each present, each of us was going to write something kind about the person to whom the present belonged. And sign it. In our discussion of this activity, I acknowledged that not everyone in our class was best friends, that in fact in some cases there might be someone who rubs you the wrong way most of the time. In spite of that, it is still possible to say something nice about anyone, even if the kind thing you say is there is a particular shirt that person wears that you think is really cool.

Then, I put on Christmas music, and we passed the "presents" around. There was a "present" in the mix with my name on it, too, and I participated in writing on everyone else's papers.

Was I nervous each time I did this? Yes, especially the first year. I worried for those odd personalities in my class - the ones who, let's face it, are difficult for peers (and sometimes teachers) to like. What kind things would their classmates find to say to them? Would they be able to rise to the occasion and find something kind to say about each of their classmates, the vast majority of whom they didn't get along with much of the time?

When the "presents" traveled all the way around the room, I took them up. Their owners would not see them until our Christmas party at the end of the semester. The bell would ring, the room would empty, and I would sit down to read every comment on every "present". And every year, I would need a tissue box beside me. There was always a Christmas miracle - from somewhere deep inside my students pulled out the most insightful things about each other. I learned wonderful things about my students I didn't know even after  a semester with them. I learned great lessons in kindness from those 11 and 12 year old children every year.

But the best part was yet to come. The day that the students got to see their own presents. In the early years we were in an elementary school, so I would get their papers laminated and set them out as place mats for the party. When we moved to middle school, parties were gone, but I still waited until the last day before break before giving them their presents. Then, I gave them time to read.

The looks on their faces as they took in all of the good things their classmates said about them were priceless! I was reminded once again that we can never give people enough encouragement. All too often we only receive feedback when improvement is needed. We don't get to spontaneously hear about the good things we do or say or are. (I wonder how many of those kids kept those "presents" through the years?)

A Lesson from Today

I came to love the yearly Gift of Kind Words activity in my classroom, and it's one of the things I miss most in the years since I've become an instructional technologist with no classroom assignment. But I was recently reminded of the continued importance I need to place on giving kind words and encouragement to others, and not just at the time of year when gift-giving is on everyone's mind.

I was visiting one of our high school campuses a couple of weeks ago to install desktop video conferencing software and teach a couple of folks how to use it. As I was leaving, I decided to stop by the library and let the librarian know that I was really enjoying the Facebook page she had created to get students connected to what was going on the the library as well as literacy related activities like lunch time book discussion groups and the Austin Teen Book Festival.

This educator is in her first year as a librarian, having just come out of the classroom, and during our conversation, she thanked me for taking the time to chat with her. She alluded to the fact that she's trying to do the right things. It got me to thinking that being a librarian is a lot like being an instructional technologist, in that you are often one of the few in your position in a district, and almost always the only one on your campus. Sometimes it's hard to find folks to bounce ideas off of, and it's sadly rare that someone seeks you out to give you unsolicited positive feedback on something you are doing. In five minutes of my time as I was making my way out of the building, I was able to give this new librarian's professional confidence a little boost. Seeing that was a gift to me as well.

Ongoing Efforts

When our campus technologists copy me on emails which give me insight into what they are doing on their campus, I try to email them back to thank them for what they are doing and give them encouragement. Depending on what other projects are going on, I don't get back to them as often as I wish. I am reminded, though, as I reflect on my classroom activity of years ago, my recent encounter with a new-to-her-position librarian, and my own experience in receiving some face-to-face compliments this summer (which I wrote about in a previous post), that receiving in-person, personal feedback for the things we are doing well or the qualities people admire in us is nourishment for the soul.

In an age where technology increasingly connects us while often decreasing the "need" for in-person interactions, I'm going to increase my efforts to make in-person connections for the purpose of positive feedback and encouragement. The magic of giving kind words to others is that it winds up providing a gift to both the receiver and the giver. A personal experience like that is worth the effort for all parties involved.

How about you? Who in your sphere of professional or personal influence needs to hear some great things about themselves today? Make an effort to share with them, face-to-face if at all possible. You'll be glad you did!