Do you remember the 1994 film “Angels in the Outfield  starring Christopher Lloyd as a wise (if occasionally bossy) angel?  Lloyd is out to save the lives of two young boys in need of a home and in the process the reputation of one very bad baseball team. Though bordering on corny, the film is full of silly jokes, improbable miracles and infectious laughter.  It’s key message, embraced and articulated time and again by JP, the youngest orphan in the movie, is hope. “It could happen,” he says time and again as he wishes on a star. In the end “It” does happen – JP is adopted, his favorite baseball team makes a comeback, and children everywhere are reminded that it’s important to dream and believe in yourself. Whatever your dream is, “It could happen.”

For the past several months CritterKin has had its own special kind of angel in the outfield. Her name is Erin Preder. Erin is a librarian, and, like many of her kind, is devoted not only to books and the characters that inhabit them, but to the kids who read them as well. Like Christopher Lloyd in the film, Erin is on a mission. Hers is to find and share experiences with her students that will help them fall in love with learning.  This includes everything from learning about and adopting a wide range of new media (we met Erin on Twitter) to mixing cement and pulling weeds in the garden.  Erin is hands on in the very best way, embracing and helping us share the CritterKin mission to help kids understand and practice kindness with enthusiasm and a healthy dose of humor.

We’ve asked Erin to share her experiences working on the CritterKin Kindness Garden because we believe that kindness – like Erin’s wonderful smile – is contagious.  With her story we hope to plant seeds for future CritterKin projects in the hearts and minds of librarians, teachers and parents everywhere. Kindness, empathy and compassion come naturally to kids. We just need to make them an integral part of their education.

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I’m Erin Preder, a.k.a. Erin the Librarian (@butterfli820 on Twitter).  I’ve been working in the Valley View School District serving Romeoville and Bolingbrook for over 17 years. I have been at John R. Tibbott (JRT) Elementary School for 15 years. JRT is a Bilingual Center for the VVSD and is a Title 1 School (82% Low Income). Over the past 8 years I’ve earned over $50,000 in grants and donations for my school because I keep looking for the newest “new thing” my students need to be exposed to. The ramblings you will read in the next few paragraphs are my own and I tend to get long winded when I’m really excited about something, so “buckle up” you are in for a ride. 😉

I have to admit that I used to be the “countdown queen” at my school. During the last month of school I couldn’t wait for summer break.  Not this year! It was the total opposite. I was dreading the last day of school. In fact, each morning on the way to my classroom I passed the “official countdown bulletin board” and continually said to myself, “that can’t be… I need more time!!”  I’m spending the first day of summer vacation back at school tying up loose ends. What changed? A LOT! I would have to say that becoming a connected educator has changed my whole attitude. What does being a connected educator mean? To me, it means using Social Media to connect to other educators or people interested in education through Pinterest, Google+, and of course… Twitter!  Becoming a connected educator helped fill the void of being “teamless”… as the Librarian, I don’t really have a “team” at JRT. Twitter gave me a 24/7 team that took away my isolation.

About two, maybe even three months ago, I was in my favorite Saturday morning Twitter chat #NT2T.  “NT2T” stands for “New Teachers to Twitter.” The hashtag symbol (#) you see in front of the letters is Twitter’s way of creating a group. So if you type “#NT2T into Twitter search, you will be taken to a discussion where teachers who are new to Twitter are getting help from more seasoned users.  I “met” Jena Ball and Marty Keltz in that chat and was in awe about their tweets. Their tweets were about Project Based Learning (PBL) and creating Authentic Experiences for kiddos through something they called CritterKin. Wow! Sign me up!

Shortly after meeting Jena and Marty, I started following Daisy, a teacher who couldn’t stop tweeting about Jena’s CritterKin. It sounded great, but I admit that I was a little skeptical. I started investigating and was thoroughly impressed by what I was seeing in Daisy’s classroom. I wanted it for my kiddos, and immediately contacted Jena to get the ball rolling.

All the talk about kindness, empathy and a “non-bullying” (key messages in CritterKin) were just what a certain group of first graders at my school NEEDED. Jena and I set the first meeting. We were going to hear Jena’s story of RickyBobby, watch a YouTube video of Ricky Bobby’s rescue, a talk about how to show Kindness to dogs, and even a Wiggle Waggle Dance. Even though our author visit wasn’t IN-PERSON, it was one of the best author visits I EVER HAD! Jena had this very active group of about 70 first graders totally engaged for about 45 minutes. These are kiddos that sometimes can’t be engaged for a 10 minute story in the library. I was amazed! The story she reads is interactive and fun!

I could go on and on about how amazing it was, but if you want to experience it for yourself, head over to the CritterKin Pinterest page for John R. Tibbott and you can watch the magic yourself. After the author visit I was eating lunch with one of the teachers who was in the visit and she was RAVING about the experience. There were a lot of “hurt” feelings in the cafeteria that day. “How come you didn’t pick my class?”  was said A LOT that day. From our first visit, I knew that I wanted to get more of my kiddos and teachers involved, so I went to my principal and told her what I wanted to do. She gave me the green light, so I contacted Jena about doing a “Be Kind” project, like Daisy’s school was doing.   – Erin Preder

Stay tuned for Part II …

If you’d like to know more about how to bring the CritterKin stories, characters and “Be Kind” projects to you school, organization or home contact Jena: