Northbridge Fifth-Graders Create 'Helping Hands'

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Just a few of the Northbridge Middle school students who participated in "Helping Hands'."
Just a few of the Northbridge Middle school students who participated in "Helping Hands'." Photo Credit: Deborah Gauthier

NORTHBRIDGE, Mass. – Fifth-graders at the Northbridge Middle School put their hearts as well as their hands into a special project a few days before Christmas.

Photo Album Helping Hands From Northbridge

The students unanimously voted to participate in “Helping Hands for Newtown’’ through which children around the country will help Newtown children feel loved and safe when they return to school in January.

On Dec. 14, 20 students and six staff members were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“In the next few days and weeks Sandy Hook students and staff will be settling in to a school building in Monroe, Conn.  We're asking you to help restore their sense of security by asking your students to lend a hand,” teachers who grew up in Newtown asked other teachers.

Response was overwhelming. When Newtown children return to school, they’ll be greeted by thousands of handprints, about 250 of them from Northbridge.

The hands have a simple message, said NMS fifth-grade teacher Robert McLaughlin: “We’re in this together. You are not alone. You are loved. You are safe.”

McLaughlin and his wife are teachers and the parents of 5-year-old twin boys, so the massacre hit them particularly hard, he said.

McLaughlin and Mary Stinchfield were among the first teachers at NMS trained to lead “responsive’’ classrooms. Now all fifth-grade teachers are trained, he said. When other fifth-grades saw what McLaughlin and Stinchfield did, they joined in.

“Responsive classrooms connect social skills with academic skills with the major goal of teaching the whole child,’’ McLaughlin. That means also connecting the classroom with the family of each child in that classroom, he continued.

In a responsive classroom, each school days begins with a “circle of respect and power’’ during which students and children are encouraged to bring up whatever is on their minds. “I call it clearing the bubbles,’’ McLaughlin said.

Parents were invited into that circle a few days before Christmas and also participated in the Helping Hands project.

Sandy Hook Elementary School was uppermost in everyone’s mind in the days following the tragedy, McLaughlin said.

“It was a very simple project, but one that shines,’’ McLaughlin said. “It shows empathy and sympathy for the victims in a non-intrusive way.

Newtown teachers are hoping to receive permission to string all the helping hands together and hang them in the halls of the new school.

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