Vineland School Program Helps Students to Be the Best Versions of Themselves

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By: Ahmad Graves-El

Some local students and their teacher are setting an example that we all might do well to follow.

You’re about to walk into a store and notice someone is walking behind you about to enter the same store. Instead of rushing to get inside, you open the door and allow the person who is behind you to walk in first. 

You’re walking down Landis Avenue in Vineland, and someone is walking toward you headed in the opposite direction. Instead of looking away or down at the sidewalk you look that person in the eyes and say “Hello, hope you have an awesome day.”

You sense that one of your co-workers is having a crummy day, so you go up to them and tell them the corniest joke in the world in an attempt to turn their frown upside down.

These small and seemingly insignificant acts can have a profound and uplifting effect on an individual and help raise their energy level. 

One Vineland teacher has chosen to share this knowledge with her students and others in hopes of inspiring them to be the best versions of themselves, which in turn can make everyone else around them better as well. 

The teacher is Brooke Smith and the class is called Kindness Matters. 

 Smith is a first-year teacher at the Applied Math Science Academy (AMSA), located at the Johnstone School building in Vineland.

 “We go from fifth grade through high school,” says Kristina Craig, vice principal, AMSA.

The goal of AMSA is: “Empowering all students to become leaders by building a pathway to strong character through perseverance while viewing the world through a scientific lens focused on math, science, and engineering.” 

Along with taking classes through an accelerated curriculum, AMSA students also participate in service learning groups. 

One of the service learning groups incorporated in the AMSA program is called Project Linus, which is available to students in grades 5-11, where they … “[Learn] different blanket making techniques …” then donate the “handmade blankets to babies, children, teenagers, and the elderly who are in need.” 

Another service learning group was implemented to help the Food Bank of South Jersey. In this group, “activities … include organizing [food] drives, reaching out for donations from the local community … distributing items, reading to children,” and more. 

Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, Smith taught at Sabater Elementary School in Vineland, where the genesis of her Kindness Matters program began. 

 “I started a Kindness Rocks initiative in my elementary classroom last year with my 4th graders,” says Smith. “I live in Vineland and take many trips to the park or the store with my children, [she has two sons, Gavin, 10, and Zach, 6], where they would stumble upon a kindness rock.”

Kindness rocks are rocks that people, mostly children, write messages or paint pictures on and leave them at certain places for other people to find. Kindness rocks have become a global phenomenon and have often delivered a bit of happiness to those who find them.

“I saw how much joy that brought my boys when finding a hidden rock with a message on it. I wanted to bring that same joy to my classroom,” Smith says. “I wanted to expand it to a school-wide thing where everyone would make a rock and [there] would be a rock garden with all these messages. It just never blossomed or flourished.

“So, when I came to this position [at AMSA] I was asked to do a service learning group and I [was contemplating], ‘What am I going to do?’ ‘What am I passionate about?’ I was leaning [towards] the kindness rocks and then from there it evolved into Kindness Matters.”

Smith decided her message should be, “Let’s sprinkle kindness like confetti.”

The objective for Smith’s Kindness Matters service learning group, which is open to students from 5th through 11th grade, is for the students to “create kindness projects to help make [the] school a kinder place to be. Activities … include creating kindness rocks, kindness posters, and leaving messages on lockers or notes for teachers.” Smith also gives students opportunities to propose and promote their own suggestions on how to spread kindness throughout the school.

“We have so many talented kids here and they have some amazing ideas,” says Smith. “I kind of come up with the idea and then I let them take it to where it needs to go—with some guidance.”

One of those ideas has caught on like wildfire and has helped to spread a much-welcomed positive vibe throughout the school. 

“We have been working on third-party compliments where they can compliment any staff member in our building—from our secretary to our janitors, teachers, [and] classmates,” Smith explains. 

These third-party compliments are written on slivers of paper and put in a blue box accentuated with the word kindness and several colorful hearts, which are then checked by Smith and her students at least once a month. The papers are then handed to the AMSA student or staff member who is intended to receive them. That person reads their compliment on camera, which is then shared on video throughout the school. 

Julianna Jones, an 8th grader who participates in the Shane Burcaw Foundation Laughing at My Nightmare service learning group, is one of the students who has learned the value of receiving a third-party compliment. 

“It helped me a lot because we were … preparing something for … our service learning and I was really stressed because it wasn’t really working out,” says Jones. “So that just helped me calm down and relax, and realize that what I’m doing is going to help in the long run.”

Angel Marrero, an 8th grader who participates in the Reading/Writing Workshop at Sabater service learning group, has also received one of those complimentary pieces of paper.

“When I got it, I was really surprised by it because they pulled me aside while I was in lunch and they told me about the compliment,” says Marrero. “That actually made me pretty happy.”

A unique aspect of the third-party compliment is that it is intentionally set up so the person receiving the compliment doesn’t actually know who wrote those kind words about them.

“It’s sometimes uncomfortable for someone to go up to you and say … ‘I liked the way you helped me today in class’ or ‘thank you for picking up my pencil when it fell,’” says Eileen Love, math teacher, who was recently selected as teacher of the year at the school. “They do it anonymously and you don’t know that’s what people think of you.”

Many of the students in Smith’s group have opened their hearts and minds, and have embraced the sentiment that kindness does matter. 

“It makes people smile and feel warm and feel happy,” says Victor Fernandez, a 7th grade student in the service learning group. “I just see it as a chain reaction that constantly makes everyone happy.” 

“I think it’s more than me just giving something to someone. I think it’s about expressing your gratitude for them,” says Moesharlynn Torto, an 8th grader in the group, when asked what Kindness Matters means to her. “When you say kind words to someone, something as simple as that can brighten their day.”

While participating in this service learning group, Smith’s students began to recognize there’s an element of reciprocity when spreading kindness to others. 

“We were … able to write cards for people that have cancer [who were] in the hospital, which is important to us and them,” explains Lena Luciano, an 8th grader in the group. “It feels good to give something to people that feel like they are … in a tough spot right now. That really made us all feel like we were helping someone out. It was a good feeling.”

Smith’s intention of spreading the axiom that kindness does matter is not only helping the students, but it’s also having a positive impact on staff members.

“We put sticky notes around the school, kind messages on sticky notes,” says Sienna Nash, a 6th grader in the group. “Ms. Craig came in earlier and said how she enjoyed them.”

“I came into my office and on my door [there was a sticky note] that said ‘you’re the best,’” says Craig. “I [thought] that was a great way to start my morning. I definitely think that [Kindness Matters] has brought more awareness to being kind and being nice, and to acknowledging when people are doing it.”

“I spend most of my time with Brooke. We co-teach STEM,” says Tara Piccione, who’s in her 20th year in the field of education. “And in getting to know her, it’s kind of opened my eyes to kindness outside of my circle. She’s helped me to see beyond myself. I’ve recently done things—I’m going to get choked up—that I wouldn’t have done [without] her influence, honestly and truly.

“I handed somebody money who was sitting outside homeless with a sign and I think I did that because of your influence on me,” she says to Smith, as her voice quivers. “I’ve seen bigger and wider because of your group.”

Since this is the first year of Smith’s Kindness Matters service learning group, it’s still a work in progress. However, the seeds are being sown and it appears the harvests that are reaped will be even more fruitful as time passes by.

“The things we have done in our group, we’re progressing each time we meet,” says Smith. “We’re adding more to what we can do. We were just doing things within our small group and then we thought of ways that we can expand it into the school community. I feel little by little we’re [succeeding in sending] out that message that we’re here to help others and give hope when people need it. And I want it to be better next year.”

For more information about AMSA visit vineland.org.



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