Be kind. Be present. Act the way you want to be treated.
These are all messages we try to share with our children, our students, ourselves. And yet do the lectures work? How do we help our kids see the impact that their actions have?
Jacqueline Woodson’s picture book Each Kindness struck me the moment I read it, with quiet intensity and searing honesty. Find a quiet moment to read this book and then share it with your class, your children, your friends.
Maya is the new girl, arriving in the middle of winter to a new school. The teacher sits her next to Chloe, but Chloe won’t look at Maya or return her smiles. Every time Maya tries to join Chloe and her gang, they reject her. One of Chloe’s friends calls Maya by the harsh nickname “Never New,” because she always buys her clothes at the secondhand store.
Woodson tells this story from Chloe’s point of view, keeping the reader focused on Chloe’s perspective. We can feel the uncertainty that Chloe has, not feeling a connection to this new girl. But we also see the hurt it causes as Chloe walks away from Maya time and time again.
As Tasha Saker writes at Waking Brain Cells in her review of Each Kindness, ““Woodson does not pull back on her message here. She speaks directly to the sort of bullying that groups of girls are best at, ignoring and dismissing. Readers will immediately feel for Maya, who has done nothing at all to earn the scorn of the girls, except wear the wrong clothes.”
Woodson takes this situation a step farther, not providing the easy resolution of a happy ending, but showing what happens when Chloe realizes the hurt she’s caused and cannot undo it. With a simple, nonjudgemental discussion, the girls’ teacher talks to her class about the way we impact one another.
“The next day, Maya’s seat was empty. In class that morning, we were talking about kindness. Ms. Albert had brought a big bowl into class and filled it with water. We all gathered around her desk and watched her drop a small stone into it. Tiny waves rippled out, away from the stone. ‘This is what kindness does,’ Ms. Albert said.
‘Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.’”
Jacqueline Woodson is at her finest with this picture book for older readers. She says in an interview on The Joy of Children’s Literature, “I was inspired by seeing third- and fourth-grade girls being so mean to each other and not even realizing that’s what they were doing. I remember thinking, ‘They think this moment is always going to be here, that there will always be a chance to go back and undo that.’ And it’s not true. So Each Kindness is about a girl who isn’t kind and what happens with that. It’s about the importance of kindness—something I deeply believe in.”
Each Kindness is an intensely powerful book, one that will send ripples out to your classroom. Ask your students if it seems real to them, if these types of situations really happen. Ask them what they think about the ending. Do they like the way that Woodson leaves it? Why do they think she chose this ending?
As we approach Thanksgiving, I hope each one of us can think about the small actions we can take and how these ripple out across the world. Share a small smile with a student across the room; give an unexpected compliment; set aside a special book and tell a student you were thinking just of them — it’s amazing how far each kindness can travel.