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Seventh grader Steven was so nervous about his end-of-semester “Presentation of Learning” that he almost didn’t come to school today. Getting up in front of all his middle school peers and his parents put his stomach in knots. Steven can’t imagine speaking in front of all these people. Aargh!

After two hours of watching his fellow students present their POLs and respond to questions and comments from the audience, it was Steven’s turn.

“Can I do mine later?” Steven asks timidly.

David, his science teacher, calmly responds, “You can do this again later if you like, but let’s see where you are now.”

Reluctantly Steven gets up to the podium and after introducing himself – “I’m Steven Williams and this is my first year at Compass” — he promptly freezes. After an awkward pause, Ashley, an 8th grader, asks Steven to talk about the middle school camping trip in September. This gets Steven talking about the campfire and meeting his classmates and skipping rocks on the lake. Mikey, his elementary school buddy, asks Steven to tell about their struggles to keep their canoe going straight. That made Steven smile and he related how they paddled in circles for much of the day. Seeing his classmates laugh about that made Steven a little less tense.

Steven then was able to talk about his trajectory so far this year, tell about how he was doing in each of his classes, and show “his visual” — his cherished Tom Brady Patriots jersey.

Then came time for “Questions and Comments.” Another 8th grader told Steven he did well. A 7th grader said the jersey was cool. A third student asked Steven what was hardest about this first POL. Another shared how nervous he was last year for his POL as a 7th grader and how much easier it has gotten for him.

Finally, Laurie, Steven’s Humanities teacher, raised her hand. Steven called on her and she framed her comments by observing how difficult POLs are for some students, especially 7th graders new to the process. She then complimented Steven for getting up there in the first place, and then sharing what he did when prompted. She asked him what he learned from this process, to which Steven acknowledged that it wasn’t so bad, and that he could, after all, talk to an audience.

After more give and take, the Humanities teacher asked:

“So, Stephen, thinking ahead to next time, which will be in May, what are you going to do differently?”

“Start earlier, ask for help, talk to you if I’m having trouble,” Steven offered.

“And maybe you can look back on this POL and realize you did pretty well and we’re all here to help each other and to make sure you feel successful.”

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“Any other questions or comments,” asked Laurie.

“Good job Steven,” added another student, and with that, the class erupted in the applause that signaled the end of this POL before moving on to the next student for her chance to shine.

At the end of each semester, Compass School middle schoolers are expected to share their “Presentation of Learning” with their peers, with their parents invited as well. They are asked to reflect on their progress, their significant learnings, and to present a visual representing their trajectory over the term. It may not sound all that difficult, but for 12- and 13-year-olds this kind of personal reflection can feel quite daunting.

So, what exactly is kind about this experience?

• Expectations are common to every student: Regardless of a student’s learning style and skill level, each is valued as a full participant in the class and deserves to be heard.

• Wisdom of elders: 8th graders have done this before. They know the challenges, have gained some confidence, and can be mentors to their younger peers.

• Supportive processes: Students get to see examples of POLs from previous years, have chances to practice, and come to believe that everyone will find success, even if it looks a little different for each student.

• Parent learning: Parents get to see how experienced educators respond to student shortcomings with interest, support, questions (and humor:).

• Students see others as imperfect learners too: This is a public display of student learning – you get to see your peers as imperfect like yourself with strengths in some aspects but room for improvement as well.

• And, you get better over time: Doing POLs four times over the course of middle school, you get better, experience growth, and can see how experience and practice helps.

Kindness isn’t saying only nice things or making experiences easy for a student. Kindness can involve believing in every child, being supportive, leaving no one out, letting someone struggle while assuring they know others are there for them, and recognizing accomplishments, large or small. Maybe most importantly, kindness is engendered by helping students feel a sense of belonging – being part of something more than themselves, sharing in experiences, and being valued for being part of a team working together for the success of all.

Rick Gordon, former Director of the Compass School, was an active participant in Compassionate Brattleboro’s School Kindness Initiative, culminating in a report to the Windham Southeast School District School Board and Superintendent. The report, an organized collection of recommendations based on kindness undertakings in the district’s schools, includes stories such as this one. (For a copy of the Report, write to With Brattleboro voting overwhelmingly to become part of the international Charter for Compassion, the Reformer and The Commons have agreed to publish a “Compassion Story of the Month.” This is the 60th. Submissions, from Brattleboro area residents, for future publication, not to exceed 650 words, should be emailed to: or mailed to: Compassion Story of the Month, PO Box 50, Marlboro, VT 05344. Please include your name, address, phone number and email address. Earlier submitted stories will automatically be considered in subsequent months.