In many ways, Palo Alto and the rest of the South Bay in Central California remind me of October in Chicago.  The fall leaves reach their peak, colors sing from through the veins of fading leaves, and the entire community lights up just as the horizon does during a sunset.  The world feels bright but relaxed, chilled but full of life.  And I noticed this today as my children walked down the street, trotting along in their windbreakers and pea coats, from the steps of our school to the entry way of Bell’s Book Store.

Little did I know that this cozy autumn kindness would come to life within the warm walls of Bell’s, run by a generous woman and her kind husband.  And even less did I know that they’d teach my students a lesson they’ll likely remember forever. A lesson about gratitude, about generosity, and about the unexpected kindness of strangers.

The amazing thing about being part of a community-based school is that these sorts of trips are common place.  Almost every day, whether it’s while the kids are walking to the park or are walking through the community to learn about the place where they live, our students are out in the community, truly being immersed in the world that lives outside of the four walls of our school.

As a part of this vision to create a community-based school, I planned an activity with my students that started just a few weeks ago.  We traveled to the same book store, ready to begin our task of purchasing books for our classroom, my kids wild with excitement, humbled by the fact that they would be the ones choosing the books.  I gave them a budget of $200.00 and asked them to generate lists that not only they found interesting, but also ones others might read and from which they would become better readers.

They generated said list, and afterwards, we began our problem-solving task. Sure, they had picked the books out, but while picking books out, they neglected to determine whether or not the books were actually within our budget.  This catapulted us into 2 weeks of lessons on multi-digit addition, money values, estimation, rounding, and an otherwise real-world understanding of how people use math on a daily basis.

Over the course of these weeks, not only did the children realize just how little they actually knew about money, but I learned just how little they knew about applying math to real-world situations.  The idea of adding the numbers together and calculating the discrepancy from the budget did not occur to most of them, despite many of their skills in addition and subtraction of whole numbers.

bellsThis afternoon, though, when we returned to Bell’s, our charge to actually find our chosen books (No, not all of them made the cut.) came to life as we brought them to the register to pay for them.  And while I thought the lesson was going to end here, I was pleasantly surprised and humbled when it didn’t.  In fact, they learned an even bigger lesson.  And personally, this lesson will stick with me much more than anything else we had learned over the past few weeks.

“Paul,” my co-teacher, David, said to me, “they said we could take three extra books with us. No charge.”

I raised an eyebrow, unsure if he was being serious.  “Really?” I replied.

“Yea!” he said, in front of the kids.  The students’ eyes lit up, thrilled to have not only two full bags of books, but three free selections, too!

I approached the register. “My co-teacher told me you offered to let us take three of the books?” I queried to the man behind the counter.

“Yes, of course,” he smiled kindly at me.

“That’s so generous,” I replied.  “You really don’t have to do that.”

His wife walked up behind him, mirroring his smile, genuine happiness shooting from her eyes into mine.

“You know,” she said, in so many words, “we have a lot of kids come in here, but yours have been so great from the beginning. They were so passionate.  And it was really inspiring.”

My heart filled up just a little bit more with gratitude, my eyes moist with fresh tears.  I shook their hands firmly, gratitude passing from my palms into theirs.

“Thank you so much,” I replied, “and Happy Thanksgiving.”

I walked outside, somewhat in disbelief of their generosity, a quality I was unsure existed in this form anymore.  Sure we’d bought a bunch of books, but in no way did our business necessitate that level of kindness.  My students, waiting with my co-teacher, greeted me right outside the doors along with a burst of crisp autumn air.

“You know, boys and girls,” I said to them. “the man and the woman inside just told me that they have a lot of kids come into their store to buy books.  But they don’t always do what they did for us.  They gave us books because we were kind, we were respectful, and because they knew we loved reading. Doesn’t that make you feel great?”

“It really fills my bucket,” one of my students noted, referring to Carol McCloud’s book, “Have you Filled a Bucket Today?

“Mine, too,” I replied, walking back to school, reveling in gratitude.

Too often in schools, we teach children to fear the community.  We teach them to constantly be wary, to constantly be on the lookout for strangers and dangers. And while these lessons are important to teach, we don’t teach enough about the kindness of those that fill our communities and the greater world around us.  But my kids learned that today.

And I am so grateful.

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