Call it serendipity or synergy of just plain good luck, but the CritterKin Kindness Mural got its start in a chat on Twitter. It was there, some six and a half months ago that I met Angela Moses and Daisy Marino, two forward thinking and proactive teachers based in Warren, Texas. At the time I had no idea where Warren was (or that it had no stop light, one bank and a total population of around 600), but it was clear from the moment we introduced ourselves that we shared a love of stories and an avid interest in how new technologies can be used to expand and enhance learning.
Angela and Daisy were not only curious about new technology, but were actively looking for ways to bring new experiences into their classrooms using it. Enter CritterKin and our newly released “Be Kind” program. The “Be Kind” program uses stories and hands on creative projects to teach kids that animals (critters) are family (kin). We want them to not only experience empathy for living creatures but understand that they can have a positive impact in the world as well.
From the moment the Skype call went through – connecting with some 300 parents, teachers and kids in the Warren School library – it was love at first sight. The kids listened to the story of Ricky Bobby (based on the story of a real dog who was rescued from a puppy mill), cheerfully chimed in with sound effects when asked, and had lots of good questions to ask. I, in turn, was charmed by their enthusiasm, excitement and clear understanding of the message I was there to share. They not only “got it,” but were eager for more. “When will we see you again?” they asked time and time again as the evening came to a close.
My one regret was that I couldn’t sample the amazing cake that had been made to commemorate the event. See the final slide in the series chronicling our first meeting and you will see what I mean.
Making Kindness Real
Step two in the CritterKin “Be Kind” program is to make kindness real for kids by introducing them to real dogs from their local shelter that are waiting for homes. We do this by copying images of three dogs and any information provided about them, then having the kids vote on which of them they’d like to draw.
Drawing is a terrific way to help kids really “see” the animals they are drawing. We talk about the various parts of the dog – nose, muzzle, whiskers, mouth, eyebrows, ears, etc. – and learn how to use drawing techniques to express the dog’s feelings. Next, we ask the kids to close their eyes and imagine what it would feel like to be a homeless pet, alone in a new environment with strange sights, smells and sounds. Finally, we ask the kids to collaborate on a story told from the dog’s perspective that will help it get adopted. Not only do the the kids clearly understand and empathize with the dog’s situation, but the stories they write are full of nuance and details they believe will help their dog find a home.
NOTE: Whenever possible, we work with the local Humane Society, SPCA or animal rescue organization to arrange to have a dog visit the school and/or have the students’ work featured at the shelter itself. In this case, we worked with the Humane Society of Southwest Texas, which was happy to share the students’ work.
The images below are a distillation of the many reading and drawing activities we did with students from PreK through 5th grade.
Expanding Our Horizons
Two very interesting and wonderful things happened as Angela and Daisy began sharing their CritterKin experiences. First, more and more teachers at the school starting to ask if they could have readings as well, and second the original group of kids said they didn’t want to stop. “Can we read more stories in the book or do more kindness drawings?” they asked. Good question.
After giving it some thought, I proposed we do two things : write a Kindness Pledge as a way to get all the students committed to being kind to one another, and create a Kindness Mural as a place to showcase the kids’ work.
Angela and Daisy not only liked the idea, they took it and ran! We held another large meeting of the minds with about 300 students to make Kindness Hearts and write the pledge. Then we took that pledge, added it to CritterKin art and posted it for all to see and sign! Watching the students, teachers, administrators and even visitors from other schools sign this commitment to being caring, respectful and above all kind to one another and other living creatures was very powerful. Below is a chronicle of that portion of the project:
Filling a Wall with Kindness
Once the pledge was written, posted and signed, it was time to think about the mural. We knew the theme would be kindness, but what would it look like, and how could all 400 students participate without it getting too big and out of hand? I have to give the teachers credit. After some head scratching and discussion they decided that the mural should reflect kindness in their part of Texas. Each class would choose a particular topic to focus on (for example animals, plants, weather, etc.) and use that as the basis for artwork for the mural but also as a way to practice core skills like math, science, writing and history. In the meantime, Ms. Jenaia and the CritterKin mutts continued to do readings and drawing exercises with classes that had not had the chance yet.
Ms. Jenaia Can’t Resist
Ever since I first Skyped in and met Angela, Daisy and the kids I’d wanted to visit, so when the local newspaper and television station expressed interest in interviewing us, I jumped at the chance to book a flight. The interviews were short, sweet and pretty much what you’d expect, but the visit itself was stellar. Not only did I get a chance to meet and hug all the kids, but I was able to shake the hands and brainstorm with the other teachers, principal, vice principal and superintendent whose willingness to support this experiment in expanded learning made it all possible. We even had some visitors from other schools who were curious about the project.
Words can’t really express how magical it was to have 400 students hug me, ask for my autograph and tell me about the characters in my books they liked most. The gift of a child’s admiration is very special and I left the school feeling a little overwhelmed but very grateful for all the kindness and love. Below are images and a video created by Angela Moses, the amazing photographer and filmmaker who chronicled the entire project:
Our Kindness Stories
At long last the Kindness Mural and the wonderful learning process that had produced it were complete. I had just one last favor to ask of the teachers and kids. I wanted them to write their names on a heart and have their pictures taken beside the mural. So without further ado here are all the smiling faces one last time. Thank you kiddos! You’re the best.