When you walk into Blackman Middle School, you probably wouldn’t notice much difference in it compared to any other middle school in Rutherford County. The kids dress the same, talk the same, learn the same curriculum, and travel through the halls like anywhere else, but if you look and listen closely you will start to notice the effects of a project that started at BMS four years ago. When assistant principal James Festervand came to Blackman Middle in 2013, he brought with him the Random Acts of Kindness Project. He will be the first to tell you that the idea was not his, but it was something that he had heard about from colleagues and social media during his first few years in education. Once Mr. Festervand became an administrator, he saw an opportunity to use that role to not just start the RAK Project, but grow it into something that would have a positive, lasting impact on the students, faculty, and community. The fundamental goal to the RAK Project is simple: Teach Kindness, Show Kindness, and Inspire Kindness. When the RAK Project started at BMS, it kicked off on the first day students returned from Thanksgiving break, ending when students left for Christmas break. “It just seemed like a natural time to teach our students about being kind to each other,” said Festervand, “using the holiday season to motivate and inspire students to participate.”
Teaching kindness was the first step in making the program successful. The teachers were on board and excited, and each morning an email to the faculty is sent with an inspirational quote, a link to a YouTube video or news article on kindness, and a challenge for the students and faculty. After announcements, the teachers read the quote, show the video, encourage students to participate in the challenge, and take a few minutes to teach the students what kindness looks like. “We have great kids with big hearts, but it was really eye opening to hear the students give examples of how they could be kind in school. They would talk about giving someone a pencil or piece of paper all the time! We realized quickly that we needed to teach them other ways to be kind to each other that would have a deeper lasting impact.” The daily challenges like “high five Friday,” “sit with someone new at lunch day,” and “make a new friend day” were sent out to be fun, while encouraging students to get out of their comfort zones. Sophia Patton and Alana Cheeves, both 8th graders at BMS who are members of the Random Acts of Kindness Club, remember taking part in those challenges and the impact it had on them throughout the years. “My favorite challenges were the ones that encouraged us to help someone, because it showed me I could be kind to anyone I met,” said Patton, “Some of the challenges were meant to be done after school, which was cool because I could show my family and friends how to be kind to each other,” added Cheeves.
Showing kindness was phase two. “Every act of kindness creates a ripple with no logical end, but we needed a way to make that ripple reach as many people as possible,” said Festervand. To do this, BMS students are encouraged to come into homeroom every morning and write down an act of kindness on a sheet of paper to display around the school. The first year they were written on Christmas ornaments cut from construction paper and displayed on doors. Now you can find these acts of kindness linked together on chains, draped from hall to hall for everyone to see, at one point getting so long that it extended from one side of the main building to the other. Administrators, faculty members, and students took to social media sharing photos, tweets, quotes, and videos using the hashtag #BMS1000Acts and #letkindnesscatchfire. Pretty quickly news began to spread to parents and relatives in other counties and states who began to share their story, the DNJ printed an article and came out to interview kids, there were a few plugs on the radio, and emails from people in the community began to come to the principal, Mr. Shelton. For the administration, what they really wanted to do was show students that no matter how small the act of kindness is, people will feel its impact and start seeing these 11-13 year olds as not just your typical students, but kids motivated to make this world a better place.
The final phase of this project was to find ways to inspire current, past and future students, their families, businesses, community members, and other schools in the county. They accomplished part of this almost immediately when students began to approach teachers and administrators about continuing the kindness by creating the RAK Club. Today that club is led by teachers like Kim Adcock, who dedicates her early mornings nearly every week by meeting with club members and discussing ways that they can spread kindness throughout the building. “It’s a great way to keep the momentum going,” said Adcock, “they come up with so many unique ways to spread the joy!” On any given day you may find students spread out through the building passing out candy or positive notes to students. The club has been responsible for directing service projects after school, like staying to help clean the building for the custodians, sending handwritten Christmas cards to troops stationed overseas, or bagging rice for Feed America First, and sometimes in more inconspicuous ways, like starting anonymous chains to pay a library fine, or buying a snack in the vending machine for the next person. These acts have spread to schools like Blackman Elementary, whose students spent their time creating a similar chain of kindness along with guidance counselors teaching lessons in the classrooms. “It’s very rewarding to know that this project isn’t contained to just Blackman Middle,” says Festervand, “and we will continue this project every year in hopes that others are inspired to join us!”