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One Chicago counselor’s grand experiment: teaching kindness to middle schoolers

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Here, in a feature we call How I Help, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Last spring, the principal and staff at Dawes Comprehensive Gifted, a predominantly Latino school on the far Southwest Side, decided to participate in a national kindness challenge. Carla Frangella, an affable former kindergarten teacher who has served as the school’s guidance counselor for 14 years, was picked to lead the charge and handed the title “kindness captain.”

After all, no one exudes kindness like a kindergarten teacher.

Frangella and a few teachers got to work building a middle grades curriculum around the idea that compliments can help set the tone for how students interact with each other. Beyond lessons, they initiated a program that encouraged students to nominate peers who’d demonstrated acts of kindness. “It made students more aware of the power of words and that your words and actions do affect others,” said Frangella, who holds a master’s degree in counseling from DePaul University.

Recognizing, too, that the national challenge had risen out of more widespread attention around bullying, she paid special attention to how to address cyberbullying, in particular.

“It’s really important to identify what bullying actually is and what it looks like instead of addressing it like a one-time conflict,” Frangella said.

In September, the school learned it was one of 10 finalists nationally in the Kindness Challenge, organized by the education advocacy group Stand for Children. Frangella said regardless of whether the school nabs the top honor, the efforts will continue.

“Teachers have shared that the lessons were really easy to implement,” she said, “and they’ve improved interactions between students and staff.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Frangella about the enduring power of kindness, how you teach it, and how what happens in the community finds its way into her school.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a counselor?

I was lucky enough to be offered a kindergarten position at a Chicago public school right after my college graduation in 1995. But I also had an opportunity to make some extra money and work for a high school night program at a Catholic high school in Chicago. The students enrolled in the program attended various schools, both Catholic and public, in the city and neighboring suburbs and were trying to earn extra credits to graduate.

A couple of them had very turbulent home environments and needed someone to listen to them and not pass judgment. That experience was my springboard to pursue my degree in counseling in the fall of 1997.

How do you get to know your students?

I always say something positive and compliment students with a smile as I see them in passing in different areas of the school. Whether I am working with them to complete career readiness tasks in Naviance, which is a tool middle school students use for college and career planning, assisting and answering questions about high schools, teaching lessons on bullying, or conducting peace circles, I learn their names, create an open dialogue, and try to find out something about them. Establishing positive relationships with the students enables them to trust me when issues arise and may require a listening ear.

You’re a kindness captain. What’s that?

Last spring, Dawes decided to participate in the Middle School Kindness Challenge. It was created in response to a nationwide increase in bullying and targeted grades 4 through 8. It required teachers to teach four within 30 days to create a healthier school environment.

Kindness captains are the cheerleaders who lead the challenge at each school. My two wonderful co-captains, Amani Abuhabsah and Alyse Biszewski, and I motivated the staff behind the idea, assisted with the lessons, facilitated the kindness ritual, and spread the word via social media. The kindness ritual was the sharing students’ random acts of kindness over the schoolwide announcements every Friday morning. Ultimately, Dawes School was selected as one of the Top 10 national finalists in the challenge from among 750 schools.

Tell us about a lesson you’ve designed. What results did you see?

I asked the students to write a thank-you note to another student, staff member, or parent. It could be as simple as sharing a crayon or appreciating a compliment on your shoes. We reviewed how to write a thank-you note and then the students composed their notes and handed them out! or staff notes, I accompanied students to present them after class.

Their faces spoke volumes. Students lit up when they were handed the notes. From there, we leapt into closing questions, tackling the reasons they liked writing the notes, and whether it seemed easy or hard, and how they felt to receive a note.

Then one of the students raised his hand: “This is for you!” and gave me a card while smiling ear to ear. When I asked him, “How are you feeling right now?” The student responded, “It was awesome to see how you acted and that made me feel good, too!”

I thought it was the perfect point of the lesson, which was to illustrate the importance of gratitude and the effects gratitude has on not only the receiver, but also the giver.

Thank you @CarlaFrangella1 for the lesson on gratitude. Thank you @fosterkindness for the amazing lessons.

— Amani Abuhabsah (@ms_abuhabsah) April 16, 2018

What is one question that you have yet to answer?

My one main question is: How can I make a lasting impact on my students once they graduate from Dawes School?

Other questions include: Did my students achieve the goals they set for themselves? Did they excel and graduate from high school? Did they receive an acceptance offer to the college of their choice? What did career path did they choose? Are they successful and happy in their life choices?

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your school?

There is a lot of gang activity in the area. That’s in addition to thefts and burglaries that impact our students. As previously mentioned, schools may be the safest place for the students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when a student changed your perspective or approach.

I work with students after school who exhibit challenging behaviors in the classroom. We have restorative conversations (a positive method to correct behaviors versus a punitive approach). We discuss the behaviors of the incident then figure out positive strategies to correct the inappropriate behaviors and discuss how to make better choices.

I have to get to the root of how the students express their dismay when things occur that may or may be their fault. As a result, I start each session with modeling empathy accompanied by a discussion of feelings in order to facilitate appropriate and respectful ways to share their perspectives when they do not agree with a particular staff member.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Listening to students discuss their issues while not reacting — and then not personally internalizing their problems. School may be the only stable area of the lives of some students.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to education?

My biggest misconception when I first started teaching was that the students in my class would possess the basic social skills to interact and work positively with one another despite family dynamics and socioeconomic status.

I learned early on that students need to learn how to treat others and develop the skills necessary to foster empathy, develop friendships, and respect different perspectives in order to work collaboratively with their peers.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who modeled the acts of kindness including empathy, friendliness, generosity, and being considerate of others in all aspects of life while simultaneously instilling a strong work ethic.

This story is part of a series of educator-focused articles called How I Teach, How I Help, and How I Lead. Read about other Chicago educators we’ve featured, including a preschool teacher who conducted her own research into nature play and a special education instructor who spoke poignantly of “compassion fatigue.”

To pitch an educator for our series, write us at

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