NJ students write to hospitalized children

Students at two New Jersey primary schools are learning to care for people beyond their networks of friends and family by writing letters to hospitalized children.

Handmade inspirational and holiday cards created by students at John F. Kennedy and and John E. Riley elementary schools in South Plainfield, New Jersey, have been sent to pediatric wards throughout the United States.

As reported in TAPinto South Plainfield, a character education initiative focusing on “caring” and “kindness” was launched at the two schools early in December. Melissa Zurawiecki, guidance counselor for the two schools, said the goal was a caring theme that extended beyond people known to the students.

Although in the past the students have created and sent cards to local New Jersey hospitals, the goal in 2017 was to spread hope beyond the Garden State. To that end, Zurawiecki chose the Cards for Hospitalized Kids organization, an Illinois-based nonprofit, and Ronald McDonald houses throughout the country.

Cards began pouring in almost immediately after students were shown a video about the organization and its founder, Jen Rubino.

“We showed the kids the video in the morning, and by lunchtime we already started to get cards,” said Riley Principal Leo Whalen. “Many of our students also spent their time at home with their families creating beautiful cards to send to hospitalized children,” said Kennedy Principal Kevin Hajduk.

Riley also organized two Student Council spirit days to raise money for South Plainfield families in need, and Kennedy set up two “giving trees” from which staff, parents, and students selected gift tags indicating items to be purchased for local families.

Character grows through becoming part of a story greater than oneself. This program provides one such opportunity.

In his book The Death of Character, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter, wrote: “Implicit in the word ‘character‘ is a story. It is a story about living for a purpose greater than the self. Though this purpose resides deeply within, its origins are outside the self and so it beckons one forward, channeling one’s passions to mostly quiet acts of devotion, heroism, sacrifice, and achievement.”

Through writing letters to other children in the hospital, these elementary school students are growing into a story greater than themselves.

Cards for Hospitalized Kids is an established non-profit that works with individuals, groups, and classes to provide joy to hospitalized children. Resources from the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues can help to encourage the virtue of kindness in students.

Buddy Benches work when students understand compassion

Buddy Benches going in on elementary school playgrounds across the country are one of many ways officials are working to curb bullying and build inclusive school cultures.

And while they’re working well in many places, experts are offering guidance to ensure the benches don’t inadvertently make the problem worse by singling out children who already feel isolated, WGBH reports.

First-grade teacher Amanda Minerva recently led an initiative to put a buddy bench on the playground at Mary Lyon K-8 School in Brighton, Mass. The intent, Minerva said, is to give students a place to go when they’re looking for a friend—a way for students to help each other without involving a teacher.

The bench “lets the kids do a little bit more on their own,” she told WGBH. “It kind of pushes them to independence a little bit more instead of coming up to a teacher.”

Minerva gained approval to install the bench this year, and second grader Sophie said it’s working well.

“You sit on this bench when you have no one to play with and when someone wants to play with you, they would come over and say, ‘Do you want to play?’” Sophie said. “Ms. Minerva picked the perfect time to put the buddy bench down, when the new kids were coming (at the beginning of the year). Because they just started this year, they’re still trying to make friends.”

Other students also told the news site the bench has been a good thing, though a WGBH reporter who sat alongside one student on the bench recently noted that none of the other students were interested in joining.

“While these benches allow students to sit in a designated space to find friends, they could have the opposite effect, if those who sit at the bench are seen as unpopular,” according to the news site.

Richard Weissbourd, psychologist and co-director of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project, believes the key to success with the buddy bench is laying the groundwork with students to encourage them all the use the bench.

“I wouldn’t just plop (a buddy bench) onto a playground and expect magic to happen,” he said, adding that it’s important to ensure those who use the benches aren’t ostracized. “It takes some preparation.”

It’s also an opportunity for some students to step up, Weissbourd said.

“I think it’s also important,” he told WGBH, “for the kids who are popular to recognize the strengths of the kids who are unpopular and to recognize that they have a role to play in building a caring and inclusive community.”

Essentially, the success of the buddy benches rests largely on developing virtues of kindness and caring in students that compel them to want to help their struggling classmates.

University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter described the process in his book The Death of Character.

“(W)e must acquire a moral sensibility—we learn what is right and wrong, good and bad, what is to be taken seriously, ignored, or rejected as abhorrent—and we learn, in moments of uncertainty, how to apply our moral imaginations to different circumstances. Over time, we acquire a sense of obligation and the disciplines to follow them,” he wrote.

Children who practice caring for others, and observe adults doing the same, will slowly build the character to care for their classmates on the buddy bench.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham offers resources for teachers to encourage students to practice caring for others—through offering friendship on the buddy bench to helping out friends, family and the broader community.