The sixth-graders in Leslie Whiteford’s class at Willett Elementary School decided this year that they were going to be the change that they wanted to see in the world.
Too often, they said, kids are acknowledged only for the bad things they do. When they are honored for accomplishments, it’s usually for academics, or athletics.
But what about the kids who are role models for simply doing good deeds day in and day out? they asked. What about the “everyday heroes”? They needed to be acknowledged, too, the students decided.
So they set out to do just that.
“We came up with an idea of how to notice people around campus who do good things,” explained student Ayden Powers. “We would give ‘Give a Hoot’ awards.”
The award — named after Hootie, the school’s mascot — would be given monthly to students who were nominated by their teachers and peers. The awards would be for students “who go above and beyond to make a difference,” explained Chana Ellenberger. “Even when no one is watching.”
Whiteford’s students took the idea to their principal, made presentations to teachers and then to students, and received universal support for their plan.
The nominations started rolling in right away.
Some students were nominated for a specific action, like Sam Blakewell, who was recognized for shaving his head in support of a friend’s mom who has cancer.
Others, like Daniel Chow, were honored for being everyday heroes every day.
“Daniel is always a good role model,” explained Katie Hall. “He’s always kind and smiling and has a good attitude.”
Added classmate Aahwan Koirala: “Daniel has never said anything bad to anyone else ever. So his whole class nominated him.”
Another student, Jenna Karoly, was recognized for her work on behalf of shelter dogs, from fostering for the SPCA to being an activist on their behalf.
A fourth-grader, Kyle Moeller, was honored because he made some benches for the school, “just to make it more beautiful,” said Leah Pinto.
“He’s just a little fourth-grader but he presented his idea to teachers and everything,” Leah noted. “And that’s pretty intimidating.”
A second-grader, Evan Stafford, was nominated for rushing to help a classmate who had fallen.
Each of the honorees was interviewed by a group of four students in Whiteford’s class and the videotaped interviews were then played for the whole school during monthly assemblies.
Pretty soon, said Rebecca Paskowitz, “I started hearing kids say, ‘Are you that kid who won the Give a Hoot award?’ ”
Indeed, said Whiteford, “it spread like wildfire on campus.”
“People were really eager to nominate other students,” Katie said. “It made them more aware of the good things that others do.”
And there are a lot of good kids doing good things at Willett, students learned.
“These are kids that always generally do good things and you can see that they’re not just doing it for a Give a Hoot award,” Leah said.
Added classmate Kennedy Hill: “It was truly out of the goodness of their hearts. They actually want to make a difference.”
But they think it’s encouraged others to be more mindful of the good works they can do, too.
Jin Kim noted that the number of nominations increased month after month, “so I think it did encourage people.”
And it reminded everyone, said Autumn Johansson, “that we have role models right here at Willett.”
With just a few weeks left in the school year, Whiteford’s students are preparing to move on to junior high, but they are hopeful the program they created at Willett will continue.
“We’ve challenged the fifth-graders to carry on the project and make it a legacy,” Autumn said.
Whiteford believes they will, saying she’s already heard from some of this year’s fifth-graders who want to know more the awards.
She’s also very proud of her students this year for getting the ball rolling.
“It’s always remarkable to see students stand up and make a difference of their own accord,” she said. “They want to do it … they just need an opening. And it’s nice to see kids recognize the character traits that you want to see in community members.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy