Their Teachers Assign Math, Grammar – and Giving Small Gifts to Strangers

The Chilliwack Progress photo by Jenna Hauck
Student Jade Pennock gives a dog a treat.

While writing report cards several years ago, Jennifer Thiessen was troubled by something.

Her third-grade students were being evaluated on subjects such as math and science, but not on life skills – such as social responsibility and kindness.

“That’s the stuff that I feel is really important for them to learn and carry forward in their lives,” Thiessen said.

She wanted to be sure she was encouraging those skills, which she said are at least as critical as understanding how to multiply and divide or distinguish between nouns and pronouns.

“There are so many important life lessons I wanted to teach them outside of the curriculum,” said Thiessen, a teacher at Canada’s Watson Elementary School in Chilliwack, British Columbia.

She mentioned her concerns to Kyla Stradling, then a fellow teacher at the school, and they hatched a plan. They assigned their students a project that had nothing to do with standard school subjects. Instead, it was centered on spreading goodwill. They called it the “Kindness Project.”

“If we could be that spark of kindness, we could inspire others to do acts of kindness,” Thiessen told her third-graders in 2018.

Students from two separate third-grade classes made cupcakes at home and sold them for $1 during a series of bake sales at the school. They raised about $400 and used the proceeds to purchase small gifts – things like bouquets of flowers, dog treats, chocolate bars and coffees – and handed them out to strangers near the school.

“The students felt joy inside of them; that they did something that day that mattered,” Thiessen said.

Many of the gift recipients seemed “caught off guard” at first, she said, though they were all in when the students explained what the project was about. Some were moved to tears.

“This is a lesson we can’t teach in a classroom,” Thiessen said.

She decided to make it a yearly activity for third-graders at the school.

“This project isn’t about who can read the best and who is best at math,” she said. “This is an everybody project. It doesn’t have any limitations when it comes to ability.”

For the past five years, third-grade students at Watson Elementary have embraced the Kindness Project. They host several bake sales to raise money, and each class adds their own spin to the assignment. During the pandemic, for instance, students collected funds to put together care packages for front-line workers.

“Every year, we sit down with them and ask them how they want to spend the money,” Thiessen said. “We want them to be part of the process.”

Occasionally, students can be “a little overzealous,” she said. As she brainstormed with her class this year, one child enthusiastically said: “Let’s buy someone a house!”

“They have wonderful dreams of what they can do,” Thiessen said.

Given the success of the project, the school decided to broaden it this year to involve five classes – including three third-grade classes, and some students in second and fourth grades. They started selling cupcakes each week at the school in February, and over five weeks, they raised more than $1,000 – the highest amount yet.

In addition to raising funds, “we spend time reading books about kindness and doing kindness writing activities,” Thiessen said, explaining that students also write and decorate cards that explain their project.

This year, the 100 students split up into several groups to focus on different initiatives. While one group wrote cards and bought small gifts to hand out to strangers, another put together care packages with essential supplies – including toothbrushes, snacks, gloves, socks and sanitizer – for homeless children and teens. Other students made a “teacher appreciation bin” filled with treats and goodies and dropped it off at a nearby school.

On March 15, the students and chaperones divided and carried out their various kindness missions. Some stayed at coffee shops surrounding the school, offering to buy beverages for strangers, while others waited around a local park, passing out dog treats and fresh flowers. Several students did a forest cleanup.

“It’s my favorite day of the year with them,” Thiessen said. “I’m there to supervise but I really get to sit back and just watch them do their thing.”

Plus, she added, “it’s nice to see people smiling at you.”

Though the goal of the project is to start a chain of kindness within the community (one man offered up $20 toward next year’s fundraising effort, Thiessen said), it’s also intended to show the students what they are capable of.

“I think what I want most for them is to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from or how old you are, you can do something that is good,” Thiessen said.

Artie Foik, 8, said he loved being part of the project.

“It just warmed my heart to help others,” he said. “You start as doing a small kindness, and then it keeps going and going.”

His classmate Harlow Montroy, 9, bought several coffees for strangers.

“It made me happy, because other people enjoyed it,” she said.

The bigger idea of the project, Thiessen said, is the feelings they’ll carry with them as they grow.

“It’s this lasting thing,” Thiessen said. “I think down the line, it will always stick with them.”

The Chilliwack Progress photo by Jenna Hauck
Each year, students distribute flowers, candies, dog treats and other goodies to strangers.