Thursday, January 5, 2017

It's kindness month, and there's an app for that

I’ve been trying to process this for a few days.
“Promoting kindness is an important part of the daily curriculum in a classroom environment. Many would suggest that this is as important as teaching the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, yet 57 percent of teachers polled in a recent Kid Kindness survey agreed that the American school system doesn’t place enough emphasis on teaching kindness.”

The Kid Kindness survey link tells me there is a Kid Kindness month. In fact, it’s this month: January. I’m abashed we have to have a month to promote kindness. I’m not sure what I feel about teachers thinking we don’t place enough emphasis on teaching kindness.

I’m sorry. I never knew that had to be part of a curriculum. I remember learning how to be kind and what wasn’t kind from interactions with other human beings. And now I learn there are at least 10 apps for that.

Yes, I absolutely poo-poohed the idea. I think I still might but I also find I’m giving a lot of thought to why there is such an emphasis on kindness.

We have only to look back a few short months to grand finale of the election never mind the months leading up to it. We have only to look at the way people talk to each other in social media. We have only to look at almost any media channel to see and hear stories of the current outrage, though our outrage is much more muted these days.

I understand that we have a need to be more kind. I’ve been talking about that for weeks if not months. But I’m a little terrified for us if we think we have to teach kindness in school. Is that because adults are too busy being unkind to model and practice kindness?

Of those 10 apps for teaching kindness to kids, the first app listed is Toca Pet Doctor (Android). I have to confess that it’s time like these it’s really inconvenient not to have children, so I have to bother other peoples’ kids, or their names. Anyway, students take care of suffering animals. Not real animals mind you, but virtual ones. So for those kids who have actual animals for which they might care—empty the litter box, take for a walk, feed, brush, etc.—they can learn about kindness by taking care of electronic animals? I can see learning responsibility. I suppose kindness is part of being responsible but I think the message is confusing. And for those kids who don’t have real animals, how exactly will they make the necessary social emotional connections with the digital ones and then transfer those social emotional connections to real animals or even people?

The questions I’m asking inside my head are these: is virtual kindness better than actual kindness? Wouldn’t it be kind—as in gracious and considerate—to do a few chores around the house? To clean your room before your mom asks for the umpteenth time? To put your bike or shoes or whatever away so someone else won’t trip? To offer to wash or dry or put away the dishes periodically? Yes, kind stuff is often responsible stuff.

So another app listed The Great Kindness Challenge: School Edition. The description reads “The School Edition of this app is perfect for the classroom. The “acts of kindness,” such as “Smile at 25 people” or “Pick up 10 pieces of trash,” are appropriate for students of all ages and teach them simple but important acts of kindness they can do every single day. Set a goal with your classroom, and the countdown timer will remind everyone how long they have to reach their goal along with the number of acts of kindness left to complete.”

Sigh. So now kindness is a competition or a checklist and has to be measured, like a standardized test? So if I smile at only 23 people I’m not kind? But what if I smile at 23 people and sit with someone who is sad and just hold their hand and listen? Is that not a legitimate act of kindness because maybe it’s not on the list of “acts of kindness”? I guess my real question is how children begin to make the connections between their thoughts and actions, and the choices they have in the ways they think and act?

I know I’m being slightly ridiculous but I’m just having a hard time understanding why we would think an app might be a better model or teacher of kindness than a human being. Are adults that terrible at being kind? Is that what a rise in kindness apps is telling us? If so, we have to take some serious note of that.

I have to say, though, that the last one intrigues me but that’s because it was created by a student. The app is Sit With Us and the description reads “This app was developed by a teenager to fight bullying and is designed to help teens feel more welcome in the school cafeteria. It designates ambassadors at schools that will invite those looking for a friend or a friendly place to sit and have lunch. Students can create their profile, see nearby lunch options and even start a lunch and invite people to join.”

The app designates ambassadors at schools who will invite those looking for a friend or a friendly place to sit and have lunch. Huh. That suggests the school at which this developer was a student didn’t do such a great job of encouraging students to be kind. While I get the value of kids creating profiles to start to talk to folks with like interests, that means the app is just taking the place of kids learning how to have conversations with each other.

There are pros and cons to the profile of a kid. That could invite its own form of bullying via the app or kids dropping by to have lunch but mostly to make fun of a kid. It could ensure that only kids with similar interests opt-in to have lunch. Or it could mean that everyone thinks that kid is a complete loser so the kid sits alone anyway because he or she doesn’t know how to create a profile that reflects who he or she really is. But, again, kids don’t learn how to talk to each other. Really talk. Without emojis and text shortcuts.

I’ve no doubt there is need for more kindness. I’m dismayed we might think apps might be a better solution than human beings just being kinder to one another. On the other hand, maybe we all need the apps to reconnect with what it means—and feels like—to be kind. And to pay kindness forward. And to do it without posting on Facebook what a good thing you just did so people can applaud your generosity and kindness.

My hope is that in 2017 we will be kinder to one another in the classroom and out of it, and mostly because I think we’ll need to be.

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