Godwin Heights students discovered how a shooting tragedy 15 years ago in a Colorado school can kindle compassion and kindness in theirs.
Recently, district administrators, teachers and students collectively agreed to link arms with an initiative known as Rachel’s Challenge, a national non-profit program based in Littleton, Colorado dedicated to creating safe school environments. Godwin Heights Middle School Principal Jeff Johnson said he believes the ethics of Rachel’s Challenge are key to raising student achievement because kids are better able to focus on learning when they are not bullied or harassed.
“The bottom line is we can teach until we’re blue in the face, but we’ll only reach optimal achievement when character is all part of that,” said Johnson. “We’re working hard in providing good teaching and interventions but without character, we’re never going to maximize the potential of that student.”
Rachel’s Challenge is inspired by Rachel Joy Scott, an aspiring writer and actress, who was the first of 12 students and a teacher who were killed during the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999.
Before her death, the 17 year old filled diaries and a number of school essays with insights and her belief that people who went out their way to show compassion would start a chain reaction.
Rachel was known as an encourager to fellow classmates in her school, particularly those who had special needs, were new to the school or picked on by others, Rachel’s Challenge presenter Keyona Williams told 800 Godwin 5th-9th graders during assemblies.
Launching FOR Clubs
Rachel’s example is worth imitating, added Williams, who laid out the plan for creating Friends of Rachel (FOR) clubs in Godwin’s elementary and middle schools during a workshop to 100 students who have demonstrated these types of skills and behaviors with others.
She explained how important it is to build a sustainable culture of compassion, citing a daily, nationwide average of 160,000 students who miss school because they fear they’ll be attacked or humiliated.
Williams asked students in the workshop what they believed needed to change in their school. Among the replies was an end for verbal, cyber and physical bullying, more honesty among themselves, less gossip and respecting one another’s differences.
The students at the workshop said bullies pick on others because they’re afraid of not being accepted, or are insecure and act that insecurity out in an off-putting way. It may also be because they themselves are going through a rough time, and nobody has reached out to them.
“Often times, they’re the ones who need the most compassion,” said Williams.
Strategies that work
Appoint students who will make it their mission to welcome new students and sitting with them at lunch time so they’re not aloneFostering a culture of kindness and compassion requires a plan, she said. Ideas that could go into a plan might include:
- Invite classmates to a FOR meeting
- Launch a target letter project: once a month, write a letter to a teacher or community leader expressing appreciation for them
- Send encouraging, positive posts to friends via social media
- Create an intentional atmosphere of kindness and compassion
- Start a chain link project where every paper contains a written expression of kindness, which is made into a paper “link” that eventually becomes a “chain” of kindness
Johnson said Rachel’s Challenge needs to be more than a step in the right direction for Godwin students. “We want to make productive citizens and in order to do that, we need character building,” said Johnson. “We don’t do it by saying ‘stop the bullying’ but by raising character — a love for everyone. “