Last year, my nine-year-old daughter Ana decided that she did not want gifts at her birthday party. She had heard about other kids who had used their birthday party as a way to give back to a cause they cared about. She knew she wanted to do something, but she wasn’t sure what. I happened upon the organization The Reading Village (www.readingvillage.org) and shared the site and its mission with my daughter. Since Guatemala and literacy are two things that we care deeply about, we knew that this was the right fit.
Ana asked her friends to bring books written in Spanish to the party instead of gifts for her. After the games and crafts, Ana opened the presents (which came wrapped). Kids loved watching as each book was opened. The variety of books we received was amazing. Kids often chose books that they loved when they were younger to share with the children in Guatemala. These books were sent to Linda at The Reading Village, and Ana now plans to do things like this for all of her upcoming birthdays. She also recently attended a party of a friend, and the little girl collected materials for the Humane Society. I love to see kids who find causes they believe in.
Making Service Projects More Authentic for Kids
Service Learning in schools has become a hot topic. I can’t help but be excited about the possibilities for our students and the ways we can support them. But I worry about what service learning will turn into in schools if whole schools or whole classrooms take on projects that do not mean much for each student involved. Collecting coats or cans of food for a local organization is worthwhile, but when the teacher or the school chooses a cause, we take away students’ role in finding and contributing to causes they care about. I think it is so important for kids to find causes that matter to them personally, and to find ways to make a difference.
I have been collecting books over the past several years that can help students envision ways that they can make a difference in the world. Through books and conversations, I want children to know that there are many ways that they can contribute. I want them to find issues they care about and see many possibilities for giving. Here are some books that have started great conversations with students.
I like to start conversations with books like Somewhere Today by Shelley Thomas and A Circle of Friends by Giora Carmi. Both of these books show how in little ways how each of us can make a difference. Both are quick reads, and show many different ways to make someone’s day better.
One of my new favorite books is How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham. The book begins with these lines:”High above the city, no one heard the soft thud of feathers against glass.” The story goes on to tell about Will, the only person in the city who noticed that a bird had fallen and was hurt. This book is the story of Will’s work in helping the bird to heal in the midst of all of the others who were too busy to notice.
I also enjoy books about everyday kindnesses. Another of my favorites is The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neil. In this book, Mean Jean is the Recess Queen as she bullies others, so that no one is having fun. But one girl invites her to play, and discovers that Jean isn’t so mean after all.
In The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson, a baseball game gets out of hand and a group of boys ruin Mr. Bellavista’s garden. One boy regrets the damage done, and works to make it up to his neighbor.
In Willow by Denise Brennan-Nelson, Miss Hawthorn is a rigid and unkind teacher – especially toward Willow. But Willow continues to be her kind and wonderful self, sharing her thoughts with Miss Hawthorn and others. By the end of the book, Miss Hawthorn is changed because of Willow.
Books on Community Service
I also look for fictional stories in which children make a difference in their communities. In Wanda’s Roses by Pat Brisson, Wanda sees a city lot that is a mess and decides to plant a garden. Even though it isn’t a great spot for growing flowers, everyone joins in to support Wanda and her cause. A terrific new book to pair this with is The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, which has a similar theme.
In another book by Pat Brisson, Melissa Parkington’s Beautiful, Beautiful Hair, students can see the difference they can make for people they don’t know. In this story, Melissa decides to donate her gorgeous long hair to kids who need wigs.
The Sea, the Storm, and the Mangrove Tangle by Lynne Cherry is a wonderful book for introducing big environmental issues to children. In this book, Cherry shares information about mangroves and the important role they play in ecosystems.
Jane Goodall teaches us about her cause in Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World And Ours. Readers learn about what drew Goodall to her work, some of her important discoveries, and her worries about chimpanzees today.
Nonfiction Books on Children’s Service
Recently I’ve found many nonfiction stories of children who have made a difference. Alex and the Amazing Lemonade Stand by Liz and Jay Scott tells the story of Alex and her fight with cancer, as well as how she started a lemonade stand to help others. Her mission grew and is now a nationwide movement to support finding a cure for childhood cancer. (www.alexslemonade.org)
Another true story written for older children is Ryan and Jimmy: And the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together by Herb Shoveller. This story begins when Ryan was in first grade and learned that in some places, people did not have clean drinking water. He worked hard to help one town get a well so that they could have clean water. This is another inspiring story about a child’s work that has grown into a national movement. (www.ryanswell.ca)
I love to share picture book biographies of people who have used their passions to make a difference in the world. In Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas, Cheryl Bardoe teaches readers about a scientist whose interests and curiosity helped him to make important scientific discoveries about genetics. In Rosa by Nikki Giovanni, we learn about Rosa Parks, and we also learn more about the issues surrounding her decision not to give up her seat on the bus that day.
I think it is important for our students to know that there are many ways to make a difference in our world. Based on their talents and passions, they can do things big and small. Books can show children many possibilities for giving back to others in need.