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Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book: Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

September 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Ferial Pearson is an award-winning educator  highly regarded for her work with students who can use some extra TLC.  An experiment in kindness she launched in a metro Omaha classroom proved healing and habit-forming.  Pearson challenged her Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School to become Secret Kindness Agents performing anonymous good deeds at therir school.  To her surprise the students ran with the idea, taking it well beyond what she imagined.  The experience is told in a new book, Secret Kiindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.

 

 

 

 

 

Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book:

Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared online at http://www.thereader.com

 

When the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy happened Ferial Pearson searched for answers and hope. Her bullied young son provided both when he revealed being comforted by her felt better than staying mad.

That got Pearson, an award-winning local educator, thinking bullying and violence might be avoided through kindness. On Pinterest she found an envelope labeled “random act of kindness assignment.” That led her in 2013 to propose a Secret Kindness Agents project to her junior class of Avenue Scholars at Ralston High School.

Doing character-building projects is old hat for Pearson, who went by Mama Beast to her students’ Baby Beasts. She didn’t know how the teens, who’ve since graduated, would respond. All came from challenging backgrounds. Several identified as gay or lesbian and were the target of bullies. She’d hand-out weekly assignments for students to anonymously complete at school – from sitting with someone they didn’t know to picking up trash to writing notes of appreciation.

To her delight the students embraced the idea, even expanding on it, though for some it meant overcoming doubt or embarrassment. The project took on a life of its own and helped students heal, develop confidence and become like family.

“When you’re a teacher you’re used to kids saying, ‘Well, how many points is this worth?’ or ‘Why should I do this if I’m not going to get a grade?’ but they didn’t have any of that kind of a response. It was, ‘We want to go further then what you want.’ They’re great kids.”

The story of how the project inspired and impacted participants is told in the new book, Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World.
Pearson was joined by some former students – she now teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha – at an August 31 signing at The Tea Smith, 78th and Dodge.

For the students who took on this let’s-show-a little-kindness role, the experience went well beyond a class project.

“For me, being a Secret Kindness Agent was so much more then doing the assignments each week,” Alyssa Schimbeck says. “I went out of my way to do things for others.

Things as simple as grabbing the door or picking up things people dropped. After everything was over I still found myself being kind to others.”

When Pearson followed up a year later she found the kindness habit ingrained in many Agents, some saying they routinely performed random caring acts, with no expectation of recognition or reciprocation.

“And they’re still doing stuff,” Pearson notes proudly.

Schimbeck describes being at a bowling alley when fellow Agent Lance Otto retrieved a toy bull from a claw machine and gave it to her. Later, she noticed a little girl try but fail to win the same toy, whereupon Schimbeck gave the girl hers.

“It was extremely heartwarming to know the little girl would love that bull more then I would and it brought back all the good feelings from the project. Taking part in it reminded me even the simplest act of kindness can change someone’s life.”

Mackenzie Carlson began as a project detractor.

“I thought it was a terrible idea. My first assignment was to write a letter to an administrator, so I naturally picked the one no one liked, who I just happen to adore. I told her although she is not the most popular…she is doing a great job. I received a letter back saying how much she appreciated the note and how it helped her get through a bad day.

That it meant a lot to hear a student give her positive affirmation.

“At that moment my view on the whole project changed. It made me believe our own pride stops us from helping others. I still have that letter. I read it when I want to believe there is no good left in the world.”

What Pearson calls “the ripple effect” took hold while the project was still in its infancy. The students decided they needed an oath to recite and borrowing from the Green Lantern they crafted one:

I accept wholeheartedly
To fulfill my kindly duties in the most secret way
No good act, no kindness shall escape my sight
Beware our kindness; S.K.A.s’ might!

The class adopted code names to protect anonymity. The students didn’t stop there.

“They found YouTube videos on acts of kindness, they started bringing in social justice songs and stories all tying into kindness. All of it inspired me, too. I was noticing acts of kindness, making sure I was thanking people,” Pearson says.

An entire ritual formed around each week’s assignment.

Then Caslyn Lange asked Pearson’s help to fulfill an act of kindness outside the regular ones. She wanted to give a note of appreciation and $25 to a student who never gets noticed. When Pearson asked staff for nominations, she got several names and donations, resulting in nine students each receiving a note, $25 and Taco Bell coupons.

As Lange wanted her happiness “spread out” by seeing people’s reactions, Pearson enlisted staff to summon the unsuspecting recipients to report to the main office. She and Lange were there to witness the looks of surprise, joy and gratitude on students’ faces.

Other students initiated their own kindness acts as well.

“Even though they were drawing assignments every week they were doing stuff on their own in addition to that,” Pearson says admiringly of her kindness entrepreneurs.

When WriteLife.com publisher Cindy Grady saw Pearson’s posts about the project striking a chord with students she encouraged a book. Grady published an earlier book by Pearson and her then-class at Omaha South High School entitled In My Shoes. Pearson was hesitant but her Ralston students were not. When Pearson suggested proceeds go to a charity, the students elected the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation knowing one of their own, Triston Herring, is diabetic.

“It was really cool to see them vote for JDRF because he was the one who nominated it. They understood what it meant to him. It was a huge show of support.”
Soon after Ralston Public Schools officials found out about the book assistant superintendent Kristi Gibbs authorized 500 copies be purchased.

“We overwhelmingly were impressed with the work of our students and staff,” Gibbs says, “and we wanted to share the project with the entire district to showcase teachers and students from Ralston Public Schools. Our goal is to share wonderful ideas and practices …and the amazing lengths students and staff take to develop a sense of community and belonging.

“The response has been overwhelming.”

After a district event at which Pearson and two Agents spoke they “got hugs, kind words and wonderful notes.”

Gibbs says some Ralston teachers are planning their own SKA projects. Two teachers with close ties to Pearson are planning an SKA project in the Bryan Middle School homeroom they share. Pearson also hears about teachers doing similar programs around the country.

The project lives on in other ways, too.

“It keeps coming back to me,” Pearson says. “I keep thinking about it every time something horrible happens again. That’s what keeps me from spiraling to where I just want to hide and keep my kids with me and never let them go out into the world. It reminds me there are good people out there, there are good things, there is hope.

“My Agents realized it feels better to be kind when you’re in a bad mood than it does to lash out. They are out there now having that ripple effect to make somebody else feel better.”

The book’s available online and at select bookstores.

 

 

 
 

Ferial Pearson, award-winning educator dedicated to inclusion and social justice, helps students publish the stories of their lives

August 25, 2011 2 comments

Ferial Pearson, the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com), is another individual I knew I had to write about as soon as I read about her work as a social justice-oriented high school English teacher, advocate, and adviser. Now she’s helping kids tell their stories in print. This winner of back to back national awards is up for another national honor. Here’s what she announced on Facebook about the latest recognition coming her way:

“I am the Nebraska Nominee and finalist for the NCTE/SLATE National Intellectual Freedom Award, sponsored by the Nebraska English Language Arts Council and National Council of Teachers of English. I will be honored at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival in Seward, Nebraska on September 24th during a luncheon with one of my heroes, Dr. Kylene Beers, and then in Chicago at the NCTE annual convention at the end of November, and finally at the Capitol in Lincoln on May 4th.”

Kudos to an educator making a real difference in the lives of students.  There’s much more to her story, too, and I hope one day to tell more of her journey.

Ferial Pearson, award-winning educator dedicated to inclusion and social justice, helps students publish the stories of their lives

©by Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Ferial (Mohamed) Pearson’s work with GLBT and other high-risk youths at South High Magnet School earned her the 2010 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network‘s National Educator of the Year award and the 2011 National Education Association‘s Creative Leadership in Human Rights honor.

Pearson, now with the Avenue Scholars Foundation, continues her advocacy work among kids struggling with identity and self-esteem. As a persecuted Indian-Muslim minority in her native post-colonial Kenya and as an immigrant of color in America she knows first-hand the discrimination that comes with being The Other.

 

 

 

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Ferial Pearson accepts the NEA Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights Award 2011 during the HCR Award Banquet at NEAs 149th Annual Meeting at the McCormick Place Convention Center, Chicago Illinois. Photo Credit: Calvin Knight RA/Today

 

 

On Saturday, Pearson, 33, will reunite with former students at the Bookworm, 8702 Pacific Street, to sign copies of In My Shoes, a book the teens wrote about their real life challenges and secret hopes.

Published by WriteLife, LLC of Omaha, it features stories by 45 students from two English classes Pearson taught. This collaborative with Allison Rose Lopez and the Omaha Young Writers Project includes a foreword by Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers fame. Omaha artist Watie White did the cover art. Lopez served as editor.

The students attended workshops led by Pearson and were assigned mentors from the community.

“The kids decided they wanted hope to be the theme,” says Pearson, a mother of two. “What gave them hope in their lives, what brought them to senior year when so many of them never thought they would make it. They also wanted to break stereotypes about kids in South Omaha and at South high. They knew they wanted to change people’s perceptions of who they were.”

Guided imagery sessions that asked kids to imagine their perfect day 10 years from now elicited strong emotions.

“It made the kids cry, and some of them refused to write anything down,” Pearson says. “They said they’re scared to hope for anything because it’s not going to come true.”

For a time, it didn’t appear there would be a book. “A lot of them wanted to give up half way,” she says. The kids stuck it out and their published stories pull no punches. “They have a lot of really hard things to share about what’s happened in their lives. Because of those hard things we didn’t put each student’s name with their story.”

The process proved an awakening for many. Some students have gone on to be published in local literary journals. She says Jesse Ortiz is an example. “When we started, he told me poetry is for girls, English is stupid, and I should just kick him out of class because he’s kicked out of every class, and he’s going to drop out anyway. Well, he’s been published several times now. He wrote the poem at the front of the book. He also wrote his own story.” Ortiz graduated and is considering college.

Pearson experienced an awakening of her own when she left Kenya for America to become the first in her family to attend college. At Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.) she met her husband, Dan Pearson, and was exposed for the first time to writers and educators of color like herself. “it kind of blew my mind. I realized when we don’t represent the lives of our students in the curriculum what we’re telling them very explicitly is that nothing you have gone through is valid and has anything of value.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

In My Shoes reflects her own intellectual emancipation and coming-of-age journey in claiming her own identity.

“That’s why I love the fact we wrote this book and why I’m teaching the Freedom Writers diary, because it explicitly tells kids, ‘you’re worthy.’ Otherwise, you’re devaluing an entire culture, race, religion, and what you’re telling students is that those people are not worth mentioning. It leads to ignorance and hate. So I think literature has a power.”

She says systematic, institutional, psychological, emotional, physical discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered individuals “makes this the new civil rights movement and this needs as many people to fight for it as possible.” Her involvement extended to serving as faculty adviser for South’s Gay Straight Alliance Club and integrating GBLT literature in the classroom, which she now does at Ralston High and UNO, where she teaches an anti-bias human relations course.

She admires the courage kids display coming out and the compassion kids exhibit protecting peers from bullies. She’s crushed when harassed teens take their own lives. She says GSA is a haven for those with no where else to turn.

“When everyone around you tells you there’s something wrong with you, that you’re disgusting, that you’re going to hell, that everything you’re feeling is not normal…when you’re in danger of being kicked out of your house or your church or your circle of friends. and then you find out there’s this one room and this one group of people that will love you and accept you for whoever you are, no matter what, that’s hugely powerful.”

As an Avenue Scholars talent adviser she works to keep high-hope and high-risk teens in school and on track for college. Meanwhile, she’s organizing a second book, Breaking the Silence, written by GBLT youths across Nebraska.

The book can be purchased via writelife.com.

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