NEW ULM - On a cold, blustery Wednesday earlier this month (Jan. 7), the gym floor at the New Ulm National Guard Armory was "strewn" with excited fourth-graders.
Forming and re-forming into teams of about six students each; then joining back into a large circle for whole-class discussions and games, the students learned, debated and modeled a variety of behaviors associated with kindness.
The varied activities were part of the first ever Kindness Retreat held by Washington Elementary School.
Washington Elementary School fourth-graders learn more about being kind at first-ever Kindness Retreat at the New
Ulm National Guard Armory. The fourth-graders and their high-school group leaders learned about acts of kindness by competing in a game-show-style contest.
The program was conducted by a non-profit organization called Youth Frontiers. The organization seeks to help build positive school communities, in fun ways, explained John Sandahl, a member of the two-person Youth Frontiers team that "MC-ed" the retreat.
The activities are intended to teach kids ways to treat each other better - and to encourage them to commit to kinder behaviors, Sandahl said. The goal is to build safer school environments that are more conducive to learning.
Youth Frontiers runs several programs of this kind. They are often paid for through local fund raising by school districts. In addition, Youth Frontiers in part subsidizes the programs through its own fund raising activities and grants.
New Ulm public school students are familiar with two other programs run by Youth Frontiers - the Courage Retreat for eighth-graders, and the Respect Retreat for high school students, said Washington Elementary School Counselor Joan Wisniewski.
But until now they had not taken part in the Kindness Retreat for upper elementary students.
The Kindness Retreat was made possible this year by donations from the New Ulm Area Foundation and the New Ulm Optimist Club, said Wisniewski.
The retreat began with "warm-up" activities designed to introduce students to the theme - and build trust between them and the moderators.
Beside the Youth Frontiers team, other program "officials" included New Ulm high school students who participate in the STABLE program. The STABLE students acted as leaders of the small groups.
(Teacher and other staff from Washington School acted mostly as chaperones and silent observers.)
Throughout the day, the fourth-graders switched back and forth between small-group and large-group work, also engaging in role-play, TV-style contests and other "fun and games."
In one example, after working for some time in small groups to identify issues that affect kindness, list forms of bullying and name ways to address it, the students had to recap and demonstrate what they had learned.
To this end, they were divided into two large teams - "the Burkharts" and "the Bartels" - nicknamed after the STABLE leader of each team.
Groups of six "contestants" each from the two competing teams took turns to guess answers to questions, in several rounds of a TV-style quiz show. After a humorous warm-up round, the questions focused on various aspects of the retreat's theme: suggesting an appropriate response to a bully, for example, or naming some ways to be a kinder person.
Each team member's answers were compared to the top ten responses in a national survey asking the same question; the contestant was given credit, and earned a point for their team, if their answer coincided with one of the top ten.
The contestants were able to "use a lifeline" and "phone a friend" - and some did.
During the full (school) day retreat, the fourth-graders identified three types of bullying (verbal, silent, physical).
They talked about where and when bullying happens (anywhere, at any time, especially when there aren't as many adults around).
They reflected on why it happens (peer pressure, being picked on and taking it out on others, thinking it's acting cool or funny, low self-esteem, etc.) - and came up with "good" responses (stand up to a bully, walk away, tell an adult, etc.).
The students identified other things going on in their school, too, that keep it from "being as kind as it can be" (leaving people out, fighting, bad words, etc.)
They mulled ways to change these things - or, as presenters sometimes put it, how "to practice throwing the boomerang of kindness."
Among the tools listed that can help make the school climate "even better" were "three steps to being a hero" - "interrupt," "complement" and "invite away."
At the end of the retreat, students were challenged to meet the following goal - give everyone one day during which to experience "nothing but kindness."
And, of course, not to stop at a single day!
The retreat concluded with an individual activity - everyone filled out a card containing three incomplete statements - "I will be kinder by..."; "I want to thank... for..."; and "I want to say I'm sorry to... for..."
Volunteers shared what they wrote on their cards.
Sandahl, of Youth Frontiers, said his team conducts about 100 retreats a year, following an established curriculum.
The organization, which is based in Minneapolis, sends out eight to nine teams, conducting 670 to 700 retreats yearly, all over the country.
The group is not religiously-affiliated; it does, however, visit both public and private schools, by invitation from the respective school district.
Studies show that the programs are effective - especially in school districts that have long-standing relationships with the group, Sandahl said.
In some cases, he said, the programs have helped cut discipline referrals by half.
Student surveys, he added, also paint an encouraging assessment of the retreats. Students who were re-visited and surveyed by the teams, reported a year later that they feel their school is "a safer place."
Ninety percent of the school districts visited invite Youth Frontiers back the following year, Sandahl said.
Fourth-graders, in particular, he said, are "excitable and excited" - "they like to be involved."