Friday, September 25, 2009

One Act of Kindness

Yesterday I was talking with a school librarian friend in her office when a third grade teacher came by requesting a picture book about “inclusion.” It’s only the third week of school, and already a group of children were attempting to exclude other children. I kept thinking about how early that impulse starts. And also about how just the right book can get a terrific conversation going among children.

One by Kathryn Otoshi is a great conversation-starter. Not only does Otoshi explore the idea of bullying for very young children, she also reveals how bullies gain power. It’s not by brute force; it’s by subtle acts of cruelty that chip away at a child’s (or adult’s) self-esteem. Red, the bully, continues to insult Blue until he shrinks down to nearly nothing. The bystanders in this book (the other characters—Yellow, Green, Purple, Orange) become complicit in Red’s rise to power because they are silent. They do not stand up for Blue. How many atrocities can we attribute to this turn of events?

But Otoshi gives children a powerful truth: It only takes One. How much sweeping change has come from one person joining with another to take on the people of power? The conductors on the Underground Railroad, women laborers who went on strike after the Triangle Waist Factory fire, the families all over Europe who hid Jews during the Holocaust, the young people who staged sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement. History is full of examples of brave people often acting alone with their own conscience.

Even for young children, one act of kindness can make a difference: sitting next to a child who's alone at the lunch table, inviting someone to join a game at recess, showing the ropes to a new student, opening the door for someone whose hands are full. That third-grade teacher was onto something. What a great way to begin the school year, to think about all the ways we can make each other feel included.


  1. When I was teaching, I loved reading "All Summer in a Day" with my middle schoolers. It is so important for kids to hear that when it comes to bullying, not speaking up is the same as agreeing.

    I had never brought it out for my upper elementary kids until last year. There had been some laughing/confusion about one of my sixth-graders, a brilliant boy who happens to have Asperger's Syndrome. The fourth-grade got stirred up about something he had done, and his fifth-grade sister, seeing their reaction, burst into tears. I had a class discussion about autism, photocopied the story, and sent them off to read.

    Stories are such a powerful way to speak to life's circumstances. Thank you to the third-grade teacher interested in preserving the safety that has to exist in classrooms in order for children to comfortably learn.

  2. This is such a powerful, simple book. I'm so glad you've highlighted it. It's also amazing in the way it can speak to preschoolers and 3rd graders.

    One thing I particularly love about ONE is that it doesn't use labels like "bully" or "excluding". It just shows how those behaviors hurt. And how including others empowers you.

    Great nod in the Amazon blog! Way to go!!

  3. Caroline, thanks for the recommendation of ALL SUMMER IN A DAY -- I'm not familiar with that book but now I want to take a look. I, too, think stories are a great way to approach topics that can be very sensitive for students.
    Mary Ann, I agree that it's more effective to show how the behaviors hurt rather than "labelling" the characters. Thank you both for your thoughtful feedback! (Apologies for my delay in responding--I'm getting over a wicked cold.) Have a great weekend!