CHOOSE KIND /‘Wonder,’ the popular book and major motion picture, inspires a challenge for HMS students.

Hillsboro Middle School students gather for a group photo outside the Chisholm Trail movie theater in Newton during their Nov. 20 field trip. The HMS site council paid for the movie tickets and snacks to encourage the challenge to choose kindness at school and beyond.<p>
Hillsboro Middle School students gather for a group photo outside the Chisholm Trail movie theater in Newton during their Nov. 20 field trip. The HMS site council paid for the movie tickets and snacks to encourage the challenge to choose kindness at school and beyond.<p>
The book was published in 2012 as a children’s novel written by R.J. Palacio.

It was released in movie form this fall with starring actors Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson; by Christmas day, the movie had grossed $174 million.

That’s the power of “Won­der,” a national phenomenon that is challenging the world to encourage others rather than tear them down.

Now, it’s being embraced at Hillsboro Middle High School as a student grass-roots movement with a simple challenge: “Choose Kind.”

The book and movie tell the story of fifth-grader Auggie Pullman, who has a medical condition, often equated with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare medical facial deformity that has caused him to have many surgeries.

Auggie encounters taunts and insults for his appearance, but he also kindles a friendship with fellow classmates Jack and Summer, both of whom defend him from the taunts and insults.

Real world application

The challenge to choose kindness may be simple in concept, but not always easy for students navigating middle school hallways and feeling less than accepted by the in-crowd.

HMHS faculty Tamara Cassidy, Stephanie Sinclair and Janet Whisen­hunt, all fans of the novel, began to think about ways to challenge students to choose kindness in uncomfortable situations.

“Janet and I both were both excited about the book, ‘Wonder,’” Cassidy said. “What if we did something to challenge the students? We really didn’t have a lot formed at the beginning.”

Whisenhunt, director of the Wiebe Media Center, started by putting “Wonder” posters on the walls with the hope of initiating a typical response: “What are the Wonder posters about?”

“We’d say, it’s a great book, it’s one of our favorites—maybe you should read it,” they would teel students. “It kind of went from there, and let them build the excitement together with their peers.”

Whisenhunt added another challenge, “If they read the book, they could sign the poster in the library.”

Moving ahead

The next step was to consult with Clint Corby, HMHS principal, about a plan to promote the message.

“I brought it up to Clint about the movie coming out, and if he could coordinate with something as a reward, because when they were signing the wall there was no reward attached to it,” Cassidy said.

“He spoke with the site council team, and they decided they wanted to help pay for us to go,” she added. “Then, at the last minute, the week before Thanks­giving, he said they offered to pay 100 percent of the way for the students—with snacks.”

Sixty students, from sixth to eighth grade, went to see the movie at the theater in Newton.

“That’s more than a third of our school,” Sinclair said.

Encouraged by student response, Sinclair and Whisenhunt began work on the idea of creating T-shirts to promote the “Choose Kind” goal.

“We did it for no profit,” Sinclair said. “It was basically the cost of the shirts that everybody could buy if they wanted one.”

The shirts come in different colors and different print fonts to broaden their appeal.

“So, now that we’ve seen the movie, we’re pushing being a student kindness ambassador—so there’s another challenge,” Whisen­hunt said.

Cassidy said, “We made locker signs, like the athletes get a thing on their locker door about being on the basketball team. Well, we have kindness badges for their locker.”

Kindness resources

One way the planning group has enhanced the impact is by developing a worksheet with tangible ways to chow kindness to others.

“There’s a worksheet that lists 16 ways of showing kindness to others at school and at home,” Whisenhunt said. “If they complete that, then they sign another poster.”

The student council is helping to promote the theme, and several parents have told the sponsors that they are reading the book to their children at home.

“It’s just a real neat reminder to talk with our kids in hallway conversations, and when we’re wrapping up class or starting class, talking about ways they can make someone’s day and that it doesn’t have to cost money and it isn’t incredibly difficult to really impact somebody’s life

“It just makes them more aware of who’s around them and how they can show their care,” Cassidy said. “It’s been kind of neat to see they’re connecting ideas from the book to real life here at school.”

A goal for the year

The plan is to continue the “Choose Kind” challenge through the rest of the school year.

“We just need to challenge them with resources,” Cassidy said. “We tell them to be kind, but they’re like, ‘I’m already a nice person.’ So we’re giving them specific things, like smile at three people you wouldn’t normally smile at. And, give someone who is not in your friend group a genuine complement that’s not about physical appearance.

“We’re just trying to get them to think about others, and that it doesn’t take a lot of effort or time, but it could make a huge impact on the culture of our school.”