Message of Hope During A Pandemic: Kindness Rocks
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
"Ms Mesk! Can I start a Kindness Rock before my Speech Teacher comes to pick me up?"
"We are going to be the biggest rock painting club in Brooklyn!"
"Ms Mesk, do you have anymore black paint pens? I want to try to paint a rock with a black background too!"
"Ms Mesk, I want to spell violence. Not like the musical instrument. I want to write 'Stop the Violence' on my Kindness Rock."
"How do you spell 'Paz?' That's peace in Spanish. I want to use some Spanish words on my Kindness Rocks."
"Ms Mesk! I found someone's rock on the way home yesterday! It wasn't someone from our class because it didn't say 'P.S.1 Rocks.' It said 'Sunset Park Rocks.' I hid it again just like you told us we should!
~A typical a lunch period in room 307 during the 2020-2021 school year.
The 2020 - 2021 school year has not been an easy one for students, parents and teachers. Many of the challenges we so desperately wanted to leave behind in June have continued to be major factors in our day to day routines and decisions. We were also served up new challenges as school districts around the world tried to find the safest and most equitable way to educate children during a pandemic.
New York City Schools chose to provide many options for parents and families. As a teacher with no comorbidities for COVID-19, I was able to return to my school building as a brick and mortar teacher. Since my class size doesn't typically have more than 12 students, I counted myself lucky that I would be able to teach my students five days per week instead of managing two or three cohorts of students in a hybrid model. I was really excited to return to the classroom. Since I teach a bridge class of students with disabilities, I teach many of my students for two consecutive years. My students did not enjoy remote learning in the spring. I tried to be imaginative and creative as a remote teacher but my students really missed the camaraderie of our classroom space and they struggled without tactile tools to meet their learning goals. They were looking forward to returning to the classroom.
However, as excited as my class was to return to room 307, it was not an easy transition. The desks are in rows and no one can share supplies. We have to wear our masks at all times unless we are eating or drinking. No one can bookshop without wearing disposable gloves and all library books have to be sanitized before going back into their book baskets. Due to the increased amount of homerooms, there are no more art cluster teachers and PE is a weekly, 20 minute, remote session on the smartboard. The students eat their breakfast and lunch in the classroom. There is no recess. I made the choice to throw away Our World Map Rug, Soccer Field Rug, Cozy Corner Mat and comfy red couches because they would not be as easy to sanitize as the hard chairs and desks.
For the first two weeks of brick and mortar instruction, my students were almost silent. They only shared when I asked them direct questions. I started the year with only 5 students but it wasn't quiet because there were so few students. It was quiet because it felt a little scary learning outside of our homes for the first time in seven months and the classroom environment we remembered was gone. Returning to our school was not what we had hoped it would be.
"Ms Mesk, I miss gathering around a piece of chart paper and sharing a marker as we work together on a word problem."
"Ms Mesk, I really want Coronavirus to go away. I want to sit at a table with my friends again."
"Ms Mesk, my ears hurt. I want to know when Coronavirus will go away so I can stop wearing a mask all the time."
Slowly the fear melted away and we found a way to bring laughter and joy back to our learning. Our class size doubled by the end of November and included new students who were suffering from fatigue related to remote learning. The new students were quickly accepted and treated with immense kindness and compassion by their peers. When I gave the students their own bags of science, math and art materials, all of the students were immediately excited and their engagement in all subject areas increased. I could see how motivated they were by building, investigating and creating. I noticed that during lunch, they didn't ask to use their devices like so many of the other classes did on the third floor. They asked the school aide and I, if they could draw, color and create. This made me pause and reflect.
"What do my students need right now? How can I continue to help them heal from this shared trauma? How do I draw on their strengths as artists and natural empaths? How can I help them to feel empowered?"
Four years ago, I had partnered with the art teacher at our school to create Kindness Rocks. I had heard about the Kindness Rocks Movement on a news segment and thought it would be a great community service project for my class. The art teacher taught the students how to paint the rocks and I helped them to research this movement through video and texts. Recreating this project would be great for my current class. They loved anything related to the arts and I thought it would be a great way to introduce one of the Domains of Global Competency: Taking Action. It would be a simple way to draw on student strength and empower children at a time when we all feel so lost.
What are Kindness Rocks? Kindness Rocks are painted rocks with messages and images of hope. There are Rock Painting Groups in communities all over the world. These groups are based on various social media platforms. They include children and adults. Members of these groups paint and "hide" rocks for others to find. They post pictures of their rocks on social media so others can find their rocks. If you find a rock, you can "hide" the rock again or you can keep the rock and paint another one to "hide" in its place. These groups were created independent of each other and are deeply rooted in their communities. There is a rock group here in Sunset Park called "Sunset Park Rocks" and they are very active in the neighborhood.
I wrote a Donors Choose Proposal to purchase the necessary materials and the project was fully funded by amazing donors within 9 days. However, the day after I arranged for our materials to be shipped to the school, my students and I were met with a new challenge. Our school building was temporarily closed due to the positivity rate in the city. I experienced a moment of fear that my students would never be able to participate in this project. I immediately started imagining ways I could deliver the materials to each student's home or arrange for materials to be picked up at the school building. Fortunately, we were able to return to our school building at the beginning of December. We were all so relieved to be back in room 307.
On the day we returned to the classroom, we began our investigation of the Kindness Rocks Movement. We used a video and text to learn about how this movement started and we made inferences about why this movement has spread so rapidly around the world. I didn't tell the students we were going to paint our own kindness rocks when we started our research. They had noticed the box on the back counter of our classroom and made several inquiries about what was in the box but I didn't reveal its contents.
When we finished our discussion and writing around the Kindness Rocks Movement, one of my students said, "Ms Mesk, we should do our own Kindness Rocks! They don't look hard to do and it will make people feel better." Another student chimed in, "Yeah, we could do this. We could make people feel better. Lots of people are sad and angry about the Coronavirus right now." Another student added, "I have seen these rocks before -near 5th Avenue. I didn't know what they were. Now I do."
When I explained to the students that it was my intention for us to make our own Kindness Rocks and I showed them the contents of the box in the back of the room, they were thrilled! They wanted to start painting immediately. But I explained that we had to use one of our 7 Habits to help us begin. We had to make a plan or Begin with the End in Mind. The students used their sketchbooks from our partnership with Groundswell to plan out their rocks and I created a Kindness Rocks Word Wall with audio files to support my students' needs as readers and writers. The students were so deliberate in their artistic and language choices as they painted their rocks. They discussed how they had to change some of their plans as they were painting due to the shape of the rock and created a way to use the white paint pens to "erase" mistakes. All the students were engaged, even my students with fine motor delays. My favorite part of this process was watching the student agency. There was very little management I had to provide. I explained how to use the paint pens and the word walls. I also explained why I pre-painted the rocks white but I didn't show them how to paint a rock. They figured that out on their own. They also started to think of words for their rocks that were not on the word wall. Two of my students were very interested in making sure we had rocks with Spanish words because so many people in Sunset Park speak and read Spanish. The students also said that they wanted the words, "P.S.1 Rocks" on the bottom of their rocks because they were their own rock painting club.
When I did this project 4 years ago, we went on a community walk to "hide" our rocks. Due to the pandemic, this was not going to be possible. I had to release some control and let the students "hide" their rocks on their own this time. We discussed safe places to hide our rocks and used pictures from other rock groups to learn how to "hide" a rock. The students had painted 3 rocks each but several students had fallen in love with their own rocks and others wanted to give their rocks to parents, friends or siblings. We compromised by agreeing to hide a least one rock in the community. For their homework, I asked the students to text me a photograph of their hidden rock so I could share their photograph in the Sunset Park Rocks group. This would help people in the neighborhood to be on the lookout for our rocks. A few of the students did send me photographs but other students were so excited to hide their rocks, they forgot to snap a photo. Two students decided to hide their rocks in their homes so they could cheer up their family members.
I didn't think about longevity when I planned this project for my class. I didn't think I would have student investment passed the month it took us to learn about the Kindness Rocks Movement and paint our own rocks. I didn't expect what happened next.
After we hid our rocks, there were a few extra rocks left over. During the lunch periods after the winter recess, my students started asking if they could paint more rocks! Some of the students started bring in rocks they had found and wanted to paint but I didn't have enough rocks to keep up with student demand. I hated telling the students that we didn't
have anymore rocks to paint so I gave in and purchased another box of rocks on Amazon. Some of my students take rocks and their paint pens home on the weekends. They look for rocks on their way to and from school and send me messages when they find someone else's rock! Rock painting has accidentally become part of our classroom culture.
I don't expect the students to stop painting rocks anytime soon. I imagine that at some point, I might need another box of rocks but that's not a terrible problem to have at this time in history. I started this project with my students as a way to draw on their strengths, provide space for healing and create an opportunity for student empowerment. I would say we have achieved all of those goals and so much more. The student agency that has been born of this project has started to creep into our reading, writing, and math lessons. In our social studies work, we have been learning about the Wind Energy Plant that was proposed for Sunset Park and we have chosen to take action by reaching out to our legislators. I don't think that the students would have been receptive to this idea without first taking action through our Kindness Rocks project. Finally, rock painting is soothing. We have faced the challenge of going remote several times since the end of November for short periods. I have noticed that there is a higher demand for rock painting at lunch after being remote for a period of time. For myself, it was very soothing to watch my students painting their rocks on January 7th. We had discussed the events at the Capital that morning and that was not an easy conversation for me but I think it's important to answer student questions when they are posed. This is part of making your classroom a safe and nurturing space. That conversation helped us but taking time to paint messages of hope was the most healing part of our day. It was a quiet acknowledgement that we can't control the choices other people make but we can be proactive in the words and ideas we put out into the world.