Group works to build even stronger culture of kindness at middle school

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Over a dozen student leaders at MFL MarMac Middle School are working to build an even stronger culture of kindness between students through a new group called the Kindness Crew. Members include (front, left to right) Isabella Torkelson, Mackenzie Bachman, Ava Lindner, Ava Goltz, Jerica Wille; (middle) Hailey Bouzek, Devon Meyer, Morgan Jacobson, Amelya Weigand, Mariah Moser; (back) Colton Hallberg, Scott Campbell, Kaylee Nuehring, Mindy Keehner, Evelyn Ruff, Olivia Martins and Ruby Koeller. Not pictured are Amara Buchheit, Hailea Pritchard and Karish Kluth. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Over a dozen student leaders at MFL MarMac Middle School are working to build an even stronger culture of kindness between students through a new group called the Kindness Crew.

“We try to make our school and community better,” said member Mackenzie Bachman.

The idea, added Colton Hallberg, is that “if we can change people’s attitudes now, to more good than bad, it could change for the long term, for the future.”

Kindness Crew stems from a previous group called Peer Helpers, which matched older students at the McGregor Center with fourth and fifth graders for reading, homework help and fun activities. This year, the school offered a new option called PALS, through which selected students go into the fourth and fifth grade classrooms several times a week and work under the supervision of the classroom teachers to help the younger kids with academics and reading.

“There was no longer a need for Peer Helpers, but we still wanted to offer a leadership opportunity for the middle school students,” said counselor Samantha Baumgartner, who advises the Kindness Crew with the district’s guidance support staff member, Stacie Cooper.

Comprised of sixth through eighth grade students who met application requirements for behavior, grades and interest in helping the school and community, Kindness Crew gathers regularly to brainstorm activities and discuss any issues members are seeing at school. Baumgartner said the group plans to have a monthly or quarterly focus.

For example, students spent much of October preparing substance abuse prevention education for Red Ribbon Week for the entire building. They led a lesson with the fourth and fifth grade classes, organized two speakers, decorated with educational posters and planned special dress-up days.

In November, the focus shifted back to kindness, empathy and service.

“The group created a lesson for all advisory classes to use to spark relationship building and kindness in the classrooms,” Baumgartner shared.

Now, group members are helping to sort food at the Clayton County Food Shelf, and they’re determining additional ways to incorporate community service into the program.

“We’re planning to go to the care center with the fourth and fifth graders each month,” said Kaylee Nuehring. “We’ll partner up with the kids and read to the people there.”

Perhaps the Kindness Crew members’ most important duties, though, come in being strong role models and resources for their fellow students.

“Kindness Crew is where we help kids who are having trouble with being bullied,” said Mariah Moser. 

Middle school can often be one of the toughest times for kids, noted Scott Campbell.

“There’s a lot of people and a lot of drama,” he explained.

The Kindness Crew students have unique perspectives into the inner workings of school hallways and classrooms, as well as the ever-changing social media landscape. They catch actions, conversations and trends teachers may not, said Bachman. And if there is a problem, sometimes it’s better resolved peer to peer.

“Students might not have the best connection with a teacher, so they might not listen as well,” than if it comes from a student, she said.

Students struggling at school might also be more comfortable going to a fellow student with concerns.

“They’re more connected to people their own age,” Hallberg stated.

“Especially someone who may have gone through the same thing recently,” Moser added.

Bachman said the Kindness Crew’s presence is especially helpful for kids who have a hard time at home, or may be without a parent. 

“School is the one place where they can get away from that stuff,” she said. “But, sometimes, when they come to school, it doesn’t get any better; it gets worse. So that’s where we need to get out more and help them take care of that stuff and feel safe at school.”

Baumgartner said the Kindness Crew hopes to focus on mental health and create lessons about bullying prevention. A key is helping students differentiate between joking behavior and bullying behavior.

“When you’re younger, you might not realize if you’re being mean or not,” Nuehring remarked.

“Some people tease and joke with others and take it way too far,” Bachman said. 

The students in the Kindness Crew said being involved has helped them feel more empowered. For Moser, it gave her a purpose.

“Before, it felt like I wanted to be a leader, but I didn’t know how to start,” she explained.

The students have enjoyed getting to know members in different grades and feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with one another and developing ideas.

“We have a variety of ages and genders, so we get opinions from everywhere,” Moser said.

“But no one judges anyone,” noted Nuehring. “We all help each other. It’s good to have people you can go to and count on if you need help with anything.”

Baumgartner loves seeing the Kindness Crew’s problem solving skills in action, and appreciates the students’ willingness to make things better for the whole school.

“They have so many ideas it can be overwhelming at times,” she said, “but they really want to change the culture at the school. They’ve been really good leaders and willing to speak up for things other kids might not be able to.”

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