CHICAGO — Elizabeth Quinn, a first-year teacher at The Frances Xavier Warde School, had been listening to her students arguing all day. She was determined to change that.
Once her fourth-graders filed off to another class, Quinn, 29, brainstormed and eventually came up with a plan: Once or twice a week she would choose a student and have his or her peers write letters that described what they liked about the student. The notes were dubbed "kindness letters."
"That's my favorite thing," she said. "They're really a bright group of kids, and they're a sweet group of kids. They were excited about the project."
The 9- and 10-year-olds put their notes in a box that had been decorated with stickers and phrases — "be nice" and "be friendly" — by one of the students. The letters had to be personal and couldn't contain general statements. Quinn looked through them before handing them out to make sure the letters were kind. They always were, she said.
"They put in just the most surprisingly touching things: 'You taught me to listen to myself.' 'You are the class smile.' 'I love the way you cheer everybody up when they're feeling sad,'" Quinn said. "I could tell the letters weren't written in 30 seconds before the bell."
The first time she assigned the kindness letters, Quinn contacted her students' parents to explain the project. She said they thought the letters were a great idea, and the students felt the same.
"They loved it possibly more than I did," said Quinn, who lives in southwest suburban Orland Park. "Sometimes we'd get really busy, there'd be a week with a lot of assessments ... and I'd put it to the side for a while. Friday would come around and two or three students would say, 'Miss Quinn, we didn't do a kindness letter this week!'"
The kindness letters are only a part of Quinn's focus on social-emotional learning. She said they forced students to recognize the good in people, even if they were not friends.
"A big part of my philosophy of teaching — my main priority apart from, of course, imparting knowledge to the children — is creating that kind of community in the classroom ... . If the kids can't appreciate each other and find a way to work together, that kind of stunts everything in the classroom."
Katie Huston, fourth and fifth grade principal at the school, said Quinn was patient, energetic and "very responsive to the individual needs of her students."
"She's open if anyone needs to stay late ... [she] follows up with parents. If a student is struggling with something she finds ways to support that student," Huston said. "If a student needs extra challenges she asks me or seeks out different resources from colleagues to meet the needs of her kids."
Before working as a teacher, Quinn had a job with a market research company. She went to grad school to pursue her goal of working with elementary-age children. When she started at Frances Xavier Warde's Holy Name Cathedral Campus, her dreams came true.
"It was like night and day," Quinn said. Before, "I was alive and just kind of punching the clock, doing what I had to do, but with teaching it was like, 'This is where I'm supposed to be.'"
Quinn said she would encourage other teachers to implement kindness letters in their classrooms.
"It was such an aid to the students working together in my classroom, but it was also ... such a mutually fun activity," Quinn said. "I really looked forward to reading the letters each time we did it, and the kids really looked forward to writing the letters every time we did it."