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The power to imagine a kinder school

Annalise is a fourth grader who hates pizza. She hates pizza because her mom, a single parent, was recently out of work and it seemed that all they had to eat was frozen pizza. Mom is working again so, thankfully, no more pizza. Annalise loves gymnastics; and now, because of mom’s re-employment, Annalise can once again take gymnastics classes.
One other thing about Annalise: She just found out that she is a hero.
She moved this year to Bancroft Elementary from a Minneapolis school that had closed. A classmate from her old school walked up to her the other day and thanked Annalise for intervening on her behalf last year when the classmate was being bullied by some older girls.

Michael Mann

The kindness retreat helps build a more caring school community by engaging students in activities that demonstrate the painful effects of bullying and emphasize the value of kindness.

Annalise, like most real heroes, thought she had just done what anyone would do. She had nearly forgotten about it until she and her classmates from Bancroft Elementary participated in a “kindness retreat” sponsored by an organization called Youth Frontiers. That was the day her classmate called her out as a genuine hero.
I was lucky enough to work with Annalise and some other fantastic kids when I was a volunteer small group leader for the retreat. There were 22 other volunteers, most of whom were students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College — young adults helping young people.
The mission of Youth Frontiers is to “Change the way young people treat each other in school.” The Youth Frontiers Kindness Retreat helps build a more caring school community by engaging students in activities that demonstrate the painful effects of bullying and emphasizing the value of kindness. The students get to experience the positive effect of the “kindness boomerang.” If you want to catch kindness you’ve got to learn to throw the kindness boomerang out there, and then kindness can come back to you. The retreat also teaches students to be heroes by treating others with kindness, and challenges them to reduce bullying in their school.

The purpose of life

I also worked with Hector. “I’m small and I’m quick.” We learned he is not just quick with his hands and feet he is also quick with his wits. He will be at Bancroft only until summer when his family is moving back to South America.
Then there was Gabby. She was even smaller in stature than Hector, but not smaller in life. She competes in a youth roller derby league.
Kamal is one of the biggest kids in his class and has the gentlest heart. He is a happy giant who wants to be everyone’s friend.
And then there was Vijay. “I help people with math.” It was amazing to meet a fifth-grader who already knows the purpose of life, which is to figure out what you’re good at and use it to help others.
The facilitators from Youth Frontiers used music, rhythm, movement, rhyme, metaphor, jokes, story, visualization, personal reflection, and games — all of the cognitive tools for learning — and they sprinkled the day with healthy doses of enthusiasm.
The most moving moments came at the end of the day, in a final large-group session, when we were all asked to take a pledge to throw kindness to others. Annalise’s classmate walked across the room, looked into Annalise’s eyes and thanked her for what she had done. That’s when Annalise knew she was a hero.
The Youth Frontiers retreat leader said, “We try to convince kids that they have the power to impact how people are treated in their school.” Annalise knows she has that power, and now her classmates know they do, too. For the sake of privacy, I changed the kids’ names for this column but that doesn’t change what they learned. Imagine that!
Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.story, a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including daughter Laura, with whom he regularly collaborates on “Imagine That!” She is a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. This column was written by Mike.
© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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