A lesson of advent: How one school assignment sparked a holiday tradition

Published 9:15 am Saturday, December 22, 2018

What started off as a school assignment, turned into a life lesson of giving and compassion for IJ Holton Intermediate School students and staff.

Five years ago, IJ Holton language arts teachers were teaching their students about the writing process to learn proper essay formatting and structure. To coincide with this lesson, sixth grade teachers Laurie Herman, Chelsea Brolsma, Nick Berthiaume and Cori McRae would have their students perform an act of kindness and that would become the topic they would write about.

“When you read some of them, they are absolutely amazing and it brings tears to your eyes,” McRae said. “They have a lot of compassion and it’s bottled inside. This was the right assignment to let it out.”

Gold Cross paramedics Ben Dolan, from left, Alex Emerson and Jake Logen accept treats from Carter, Callie and Collin McRae Thursday night.
Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

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Acts of kindness from the sixth graders ranged from bellringing, to bringing hot chocolate to bellringers and shoveling driveways for others in the community. McRae shared that the students learned lessons about empathy and compassion through their assignment, and became more cognizant of those in need of extra love.

“One group of boys who were baseball players, one of the coach’s wife had breast cancer, and they made freezer meals for the family,” McRae said. “It was amazing to hear their story and they reflected on it. Hearing their story made me cry. They didn’t realize until after talking to the family that ‘holy cow, their mom had breast cancer, a full-time job … how on earth does she have time to cook?’ It’s really awesome, they’re building empathy and compassion and seeing the lives of others. It’s a hard thing to teach and understand. They’re definitely seeing it.”

A season of advent

For McRae, she took the project one step further and implemented it with her family for the holidays. Each day after Black Friday in November, McRae would flip a stocking hanging in her home that would reveal the type of “act of kindness” she and her family would do for that evening. The family would continue doing this until Christmas Eve. During the past two years, the McRaes’ version of an advent calendar evolved into a time of reflection and service for even her twin six-year-old sons Collin and Carter and eight-year-old daughter Callie.

“It’s scheduled around my family’s personal schedule so that we can do different things that works with where we’re going and we do this together as a family for the entire month,” McRae said. “They really looked forward to this. My husband (Josh)  was extremely involved with planning.”

The McRae family’s version of the Advent Calendar track the random acts of kindness the family embarks on each season. Photo provided

For those looking for inspiration, McRae would post on her Instagram or other social media platforms so that students and families could follow along with the advent calendar. Some would even be inspired to start doing their own acts of kindness.

“It’s inspiring others to constantly give back and remind you that someone’s battle is much bigger than we know, and you can make someone’s day,” McRae said. “Slowly but surely, this makes this a better holiday season for everyone.”

These acts of kindness have made a lifelong impression for McRae’s children. More than looking forward to getting presents on Christmas, her children were anticipating their advent calendar where they would be prompted to perform acts of kindness for others.

“Our eight year old, she’s already told us, ‘I’m gonna do this someday when I have kids,’” McRae said. “We want to keep doing this every year, whether we post on social media or not. We want to show kindness not just during Christmas, but every day.”

One of the many examples of acts that the advent calendar showed was when Josh and Callie raised money through playing video games all day for a charity of their choice. At first, their goal was set for $250, but after live streaming for 12 hours, the two raised more than $1,400 for the Children’s Miracle Network. There was also the moment where McRae went on a date with Josh and went to Walmart. The two decided to pay off someone’s layaway for the holidays as an “act of kindness.”

“We got the receipt, and on the top, it said ‘good Samaritan,’ the amount we paid, and their balance said ‘zero,’” McRae said. “We just smiled. We thought ‘we just did that for a family’ We just did that, and we had never done that before. We were holding that piece of paper. We just made someone’s Christmas. We have no idea of their story, and don’t know how they reacted. We just did it.”

This type of living became “addicting” for the McRaes, and would often try to complete acts of kindness together as a family. Even if one family member was away, they would try to complete some acts of kindness on their own. Although this wasn’t about receiving recognition, McRae felt that by showing others acts of kindness, it may inspire others to show love to others in the community, and even from other states like Maryland, where someone reached out to McRae about borrowing the advent calendar of kindness idea.

With the end of their holiday tradition for this Christmas, McRae hopes that others would take inspiration to do something for someone else. It all started from a school assignment, but McRae believes that it has a lifelong lesson that students and families can carry with them forever.

“This assignment is my favorite one. It’s ‘the assignment,’” she said. “It’s inspiring others to constantly give back and someone’s battle is bigger than our own. We hope to make someone’s day, and slowly but surely, make this a better holiday season for everyone.”