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Towson High students learn lesson in kindness

`Twas the day before Christmas break and all was quiet at Towson High School. When Monica Colbert was asked to come to the English classroom, she appeared wearing a curious expression and an elf-inspired holiday hat. Little did Colbert, a member of the custodial staff, know that she was to be the central figure in the final lesson of an unusual assignment that class had undertaken.

Student Denae Douglas was waiting for Colbert in the classroom with a plate of home-made chocolate chip cookies. "I don't know her personally," Douglas said of Colbert, whose official title is assistant building operations supervisor. "I baked the cookies. I thought she'd like them."

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On a warm winter morning last week, two dozen students sat in a circle in Jenna Zava's classroom and discussed the assignment, titled Random Acts of Kindness. Zava, Towson High's English department chair, had given the students a month to do three acts of kindness, which eventually would include the one Douglas did for Colbert.

Zava allowed the students to choose the acts they wanted to perform. But the idea, Zava added, "was to spread kindness and cheer in the school and the Towson community."

About 50 students from Zava's 11th grade Advanced Placement English class and Claire Fluharty's 12th grade AP English class participated in the assignment, which began before the Thanksgiving break.

"They wrote three acts of kindness they would do" for the assignment, said Zava, who kept a chart of the acts and crossed them off when accomplished. "The kids were really excited. They talked about it the whole month. Some found it hard to do because they had to get out of their comfort zone. Others found it easy to do."

Towson High School 11th-grader Denae Douglas, left, 16, of The Quarters, presents cookies she made to Monica Colbert, the assistant building operations supervisor, of Belair-Edison, as part of a random acts of kindness unit in an 11th-grade AP English class, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. Students in the class and another of the school's English classes have been performing random acts of kindness and examining the implications of their actions. (Photo by Steve Ruark)
Towson High School 11th-grader Denae Douglas, left, 16, of The Quarters, presents cookies she made to Monica Colbert, the assistant building operations supervisor, of Belair-Edison, as part of a random acts of kindness unit in an 11th-grade AP English class, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. Students in the class and another of the school's English classes have been performing random acts of kindness and examining the implications of their actions. (Photo by Steve Ruark) (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Zava came up with the idea after hearing about a website called Random Acts of Kindness, which offers suggestions and gives examples of kindnesses. She also called on her own experience as the recipient of such an act. Her six-year-old son has a rare genetic disease. A group of friends held a fundraiser on his behalf.

"We were overwhelmed by the love and support," she said of the benefit. "I thought, 'How can I give back?'"

As one of her acts, Douglas, a junior, wanted to make something for one of the school's service workers. She wasn't sure how Colbert would receive the cookies.

"I was nervous. What if she didn't want to take them?" said Douglas, who need not have worried. Colbert greeted her Random Act of Kindness with surprise, and a hug.

Other students said they received similar reactions to their acts.

When student Dara Thomas made an appointment to see her Spanish teacher, the teacher assumed she had come to complain about her grades. Instead, Dara thanked her and gave her home-made cookies.

"She looked so excited and surprised," said Thomas, a junior.

Junior Christine White decided to compliment five people she encountered in the course of a day. "I couldn't believe how shocked everyone was," White said. "They were like, 'Are you talking to me?'"

Jardon Marty, a junior, gave a stranger her parking receipt in Towson. The person was at first reluctant to take the receipt, but finally did. "It had extra time left on it," Marty said.

Grace Griffin wanted to thank her mailman. When she got home, though, he had already passed her house. "I ran after him up the block," said Griffin, a sophomore. "He probably thought I was a crazy person."

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Quinn Batley's mother, Sarah Batley, works for the Araminta Freedom Initiative, a Baltimore-based program that fights sex-trafficking. "We have been delivering gifts to a woman with three children," Batley said of one of the program's clients.

The gifts are anonymous. "We leave the presents at her front door," said Batley, a junior.

In the grocery store, Tessa Kent helped an elderly woman retrieve items from the top shelf that the woman couldn't reach. Thomas Law helped his mother clean the house, a chore he ordinarily doesn't do. Madison Casey visited a former Towson teacher who is now at Gilchrest Hospice Center.

Because her grandmother was too ill this year, Jillian Shenasky took over preparing latkes for the family's Hanukkah party, "to keep up the family tradition."

Amy Trueschler called a friend who, she realized, had been crying. "I went to her house to talk in person," she said.

Because the Random Acts of Kindness assignment was not part of the Baltimore County Public Schools' curriculum, Zava had to get permission from the Towson administration to use it. She considers the assignment so successful that she is thinking of broadening it next year.

"I wanted to try it out on a small scale this year and see how it went," Zava said. "Perhaps next year we can have more students participate."

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