My latest column  for the school district’s family newsletter is a bit of a departure.  Instead of describing the latest MMSD initiative or providing an update on our most recent School Board meeting, I pass along a short piece by a parent about what we can all do to help foster a culture of kindness.

The genesis of this column is straightforward.  I came across the piece by Suzanne Buchko and found it very affecting.  I also thought it was a terrific piece of writing.  (I saw the article in the Franklin-Randall PTO newsletter, but Sari Judge had first written about it in her fine Mama Madison blog in Isthmus.)  I spoke at a meeting of the Franklin-Randall PTO a couple of weeks ago and Suzanne and her daughter Julia arrived at the meeting just as I was saying how much I liked what she had written.

I knew I wanted to reprint Suzanne’s piece in my column.  The task then became to build a frame around it that tied what Suzanne had written to the work we’re doing in the schools on social and emotional learning.

As I worked on the column, I came to a better appreciation of the efforts of our teachers and staff in developing the social and emotional skills of our students.   This important work tends to be way undervalued and underreported, in large part because it is difficult to quantify.   I may be aging myself by thinking of it as an example of the McNamara Fallacy

Attending to our students’ “soft skills” generally takes place under the radar of public attention.  Nevertheless, I suspect it may be among the most important work of our schools.

Here’s my column:

Our school district vision is that every school will be a thriving school that prepares every student to graduate from high school college, career and community ready. The concept of our students being community-ready is a little unusual in a vision statement like this, but it is a pillar of our work.

Winter will eventually recede and spring arrive. Come June, a couple thousand graduating seniors will stride across the Kohl Center stage to receive the diplomas they’ve earned. We have the responsibility to send those young men and women on their way equipped with the academic knowledge and skills to flourish in college and career.

But we’ve set a taller task for ourselves. We also expect our graduates to be community-ready, prepared to assume the responsibilities of citizenship. We want them to be responsible, resilient, optimistic, empathetic, culturally competent and open to new people and experiences. Our diverse schools are a wonderful environment for nurturing these traits.

We have established social and emotional learning standards that describe the yearly progress we expect for our students in the areas of emotional development, self-concept, social competence and civic responsibility. Our teachers and staff work tirelessly to help guide our students to grow in these areas. Our results may not show up on DPI’s school report cards, but that hardly diminishes their importance.

This is particularly an area where our teachers, great as they are, can’t do it alone. Parents are the first and primary influence on the social and emotional development of their children. The school district has a set of standards for family and community engagement in the works, and one of these standards will be a commitment to families and MMSD staff to continuously collaborate to support students’ learning and healthy development both at home and at school.

I was struck by the spirit of that collaboration when I came across a short article in the newsletter of the Franklin-Randall PTO. In it, Suzanne Buchko, a Franklin-Randall parent, shares her thoughts on what we can all do to cultivate a sense of kindness. Her simple and powerful message encapsulates what we are working towards. It also offers a way for all of us to join in the effort. Here is what Suzanne wrote:

What Did You Do That Was Kind Today?

What did you do that was kind today?

Imagine that every parent in our Franklin-Randall community asked their child this question at the end of the school day or at the supper table or before they turned out their child’s bedroom light.

What did you do that was kind today?

Our schools do all they can to teach and encourage kindness and to discourage bullying. My daughter’s teachers at Franklin and Randall have gone far beyond their job descriptions to instill the ideals of inclusion and open-heartedness among their students. And I have often pondered what more can parents do? How can I reinforce the character building that she is learning at school?

What did you do that was kind today?

This morning I observed once again that the kids on the school bus went to great lengths to avoid sitting with my daughter.

My daughter is one of those kids who will always be picked on and excluded. Someone will be mean to her perhaps every day for the rest of her life, and she is not the only one. My heart hurts for her, and it also hurts for all the others. I can’t stop other kids from excluding, segregating and being mean. As a parent, I’ve felt powerless in the face of mean girls and cool boys.

But I can teach my daughter about kindness. I can teach her how to create the world that will include, nourish and cherish all people. I want to build on what she is learning at school. I want her to help bring an inclusive, loving community into existence.

And so, I will begin asking her every day when we sit down to talk about her school day, “What did you do that was kind today?” I will ask her if she saw anyone who needed kindness, and I will suggest how she might be kind tomorrow. Further, I will intentionally model kind behavior and I will talk about that behavior with her.

Will you join me?

What did you do that was kind today?

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