By Doris Christelis, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Seventh- and eighth-grade students at Oak Middle School in Shrewsbury are taking part in a yearlong initiative called “Changing the Conversation” aimed at providing all students with tools to create positive changes that will help them become better people.
Kristen Minio is the school's adjustment counselor and one of the proponents of the program at the school.
“The need for this campaign came about last year after we began discussing the new anti-bullying legislation The kids told us that they know what NOT to do. They want us to tell them what TO do,” explained Minio. “It was then that we knew we had to change the conversation.” And so “Changing the Conversation: Oak Middle School's Campaign for Kindness” was born.
The first part of the program was geared to the school's boys. During the “Making a Difference” portion of campaign, boys and male staff viewed clips from “The Blind Side” and “One Small Act,” both thematically linked by the concept of men choosing to act in a way that brings about positive change in society.
Eighth-graders Nathaniel Auzenbergs, Stan Pearson and Doug Fisher worked to organize many aspects of the program. They created and ran the boys” programs, and are consulting regularly with school administration on the entire campaign.
“The reaction to the clips and discussion about them was amazing,” Auzenbergs said. “We talked a lot about the concept of paying it forward. This was really the message students were asked to leave with.”
That evening, the entire student body was invited to attend a motivational speech by Paul Phillips, head men's basketball coach at Clark University who spoke about what it means to “Make a Difference” through your own character, in your school and in the global community.
“Coach Phillips taught us that being a better person is not all about winning,” summarized Pearson. “When he scouts players, he first looks at character, then at education, and only last at skill. He will bench players who don's follow rules, even his own son who turned in a paper 10 minutes late.”
The second portion of Oak Middle School's campaign is geared to the school's girls, who will view the documentary “Finding Kind,” a film about girl-on-girl bullying. Afterwards, break-out groups will be led by school staff and girls from the University of Connecticut's Delta Zeta sorority. The movie's message, Minio said, is that it doesn's have to be drama and nastiness – that girls can be each other's best friends for life.
Even before the girls watch the movie, the kindness campaign's impact is palpable.
“Now that we'se talking about being kind, people are thinking about what they say and do,” said Saharra Shaker, an Oak Middle School eighth-grader.
“Walking down the hall I'se heard someone say something that isn's nice, and someone say to them, “I thought we'se supposed to be finding kindness,”” added Shaker.
Emily McGinley agrees. “The day we girls did breakout sessions about being kind everyone was so nice to each other.”
The students have started changing the conversation in other ways. Many have finished their Faces of Kindness where “each student picks someone to honor that represents either “kindness or making a difference”, making a poster with their face and a six-word caption. We will display these all over the school,” explained Anne Wentzell, vice principal of Oak's eighth grade.
Students are also filling out Making a Difference pledge cards where they pledge a way they will change their behavior to make their community a better place.
“The administration is so proud of the leadership the eighth graders have taken on this campaign. The boys and girls have been deeply involved in the design and implementation of the programs. For example, it was Nate, Stan and Doug that came up with the pledge card idea,” said Wentzell.
Members of the community, particularly mothers and daughters, are invited to watch “Finding Kind” Monday, Jan. 30, from 7 to 9 p.m. Due to the mature content, the film is recommended to those in seventh grade and above. Visit www.oakmiddle.eventbrite.com for tickets.