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Riverside Elementary third-graders pen thankful journals

Riverside Elementary third-grader Kendall Johnson, left, reads from his “thankful journal” on Thursday as Reece Defilippis and Kacy Woodring look on. Two third grade classes at Riverside wrote thankful journals to someone outside their family who made a positive impression on their life. They hope the journals are passed on to hundreds of people. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

Riverside Elementary third-grader Kendall Johnson, left, reads from his “thankful journal” on Thursday as Reece Defilippis and Kacy Woodring look on. Two third grade classes at Riverside wrote thankful journals to someone outside their family who made a positive impression on their life. They hope the journals are passed on to hundreds of people. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

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Riverside Elementary third graders, from left, Kendall Johnson, Kacy Woodring, back middle, Anakin Brown Kierstin Rawls and Reece Defilippis, front middle, show off some of their “thankful journals” they wrote this winter to someone outside of their family who made a positive impression on their life. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)

SUWANEE — They wrote to gymnastics teachers who helped them land a back handspring, tall uncles who could reach things far off of the ground and women active in their church battling health issues.

Two classes of third-grade students at Riverside Elementary all had the same message: Thank you.

In many ways, that person outside of their immediate family made a positive impression in the lives of students in the classes of teachers Ginger Cox and Cindy Duttenhofer. In a kindness journal, each student this winter wrote their message on one page, and encouraged the recipient to follow suit in hopes it would reach as many people as possible.

“When I found out how many people we were going to reach,” third-grader Kloey Wettstein said, “it actually amazed me.”

Cox and Duttenhofer estimated that the journals could reach 5,500 people as some traveled to Canada, Mexico and South America.

The classes on Thursday read the Dr. Seuss book, “Horton Hears a Who!,” which has a message that can be replicated with the students’ journals.

“It doesn’t matter how small you are,” Duttenhofer said, “you can make a difference. That’s what we’ve done, we’re hoping, is make a difference to other people and it’s such a simple thing, I’m hoping other people can read about this and say, ‘I can do something like that.’”

Cox encouraged the students to “zoom in” on a special moment and write about something specific. One of the most difficult parts of the project for the students was to narrow their choices down to one person.

“It gave us a great writing opportunity to really explore the word choice we’re using,” Cox said. “So it connected so much with the writing we do in third grade across the curriculum, but also, I could tell, their hearts came through. It didn’t matter if writing had been a strength, or area of need because they were so connected to the topic.”

Adults, especially mothers, broke down in tears of joy because of the thoughtfulness that their children shared, the teachers said.

One student, Jonah Yi, who wrote to his uncle, said his parents received a return email from the uncle with a cartoon “crying his head off,” Yi said.

Another, Kendall Johnson, wrote to his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Haney.

“You have touched my heart and my sister’s because you pushed us harder and harder, because you knew we could do better,” he wrote. “You helped me improve on all subjects and helped me be a better student. You would always make subjects be fun and educational by allowing us to go online. You’re one of the best teachers ever.”

One neat aspect about the project is the circular nature that journals could return to Riverside in five years or beyond. Several of the students asked the teachers to get in touch with them if that happens.

“Because I know everyone is going to want to read every word,” Cox said.

The teachers also hoped each writer would label a city and state so they could eventually build a map that features all of a journal’s destinations.

“It’s a simple message to let someone know that they made a difference, and then they get to do that same thing,” Duttenhofer said.