If curiosity gets the better of the passersby, and they pause to read the card attached to the brightly colored ceramic hearts or hands, they’ll find that the chimes, called Ben’s Bells, are part of a nationwide grassroots movement for spreading kindness. The bells are gifts for whomever happens upon them, but they come with strings attached: Those who pluck the bells from their perches and take them home are volunteering to spread kindness wherever they go.
The Ben’s Bells tickling the ears in Central Illinois have another purpose – promoting inclusive educational experiences for high school students with disabilities, their peers and preservice teachers from the U. of I.’s College of Education.
Michelle Bonati, a doctoral student in special education, coordinates the Ben’s Bells project in Champaign. At the U. of I., the project is the focus of a course called High School Service Learning that Bonati co-teaches with Stacy Dymond, a faculty member in the department.
“I was involved with the project in Tucson,” said Bonati, who was a high school special education teacher in Arizona for eight years before coming to Illinois. “I saw Ben’s Bells as a great way for my students to be involved with their peers and to learn new skills.”
Bonati is a friend of the program’s founder, Jeanette Maré. Ben’s Bells are named in memory of Maré’s son, who died suddenly in 2002 just shy of his third birthday. After Ben’s death, Maré and her friends began making the bells and distributing them around Tucson, to commemorate Ben and to express appreciation for the kindness people had shown after his death.
People found the project so inspiring that it has since blossomed into a nonprofit organization with two art studios, several affiliated groups and thousands of volunteers across the U.S.
The Ben’s Bells project is a natural fit with Dymond’s research: She is the principal investigator on Project Access, a federally funded study that is exploring service learning as a potential pathway to general curricula for students with significant disabilities.
Bonati and Dymond started the High School Service Learning course during the spring 2012 semester with a seed grant from Action Research Illinois, a unit in the College of Fine and Applied Arts that supports research projects and educational initiatives based on public engagement. When the course proved successful, they obtained a second grant, which funds monthly community-outreach events called Be Kind Illinois.
Service learning, the preservice teachers find out in the course, is much more than volunteer work for students with disabilities – it engages students in helping their communities while they’re also addressing curricula related to their personal growth.
“People with disabilities are often viewed as needing help – as the recipients of service learning projects,” Dymond said. “We want to educate people that individuals with disabilities can help others. And we do that not only by teaching our preservice teachers how to work with children with very diverse abilities – from children who are in gifted programs to children with severe disabilities – but also by having high school students work with peers who have different abilities.”
For Amanda Mergenthaler, a senior in special education from Tinley Park, Ill., the course “was one of many opportunities I’ve had working with students with disabilities but one of my first times working in this type of inclusive classroom.”
Antonia Keithahn, a graduate student from Seattle, was interested in the course because it provided opportunities for working with students who had significant physical disabilities, an experience that isn’t as readily available to preservice teachers of social studies such as herself.
“I knew the therapeutic benefits of art and of being able to express yourself in that kind of medium, and the connections that you can make with others when you’re working on something,” she said. “If you’re working alongside somebody, you can have a conversation, or even if you’re just being quiet, you’re experiencing the same things, and that can be really powerful.”
After the first three sessions spent discussing service learning and inclusiveness and learning about the Ben’s Bells mission and how to construct the bells, the U. of I. students led inclusive art classes at three participating area high schools for six weeks.
“Not all of the students were comfortable helping the students with disabilities, but those who did really wanted to help,” said Pamela Hochwert, a senior in special education from Highland Park, Ill. “That was the most inspiring thing to see.”
Eight students in the Functional Life Skills-Special Education program at Centennial High School in Champaign participated and looked forward to working with their peers on the Ben’s Bells project every week, according to teacher Jeron Blood.
“My students love any interaction they can have with a group of general education students, and this was a really well set up opportunity for them to do that,” Blood said.
“The students with disabilities are with their teachers and their aides all day, but they should be with their peers hanging out, and that’s what they were doing during this project,” Hochwert said.
At the beginning of each class at the high schools, a quote about kindness was read, and students reflected on the prior week and shared examples of how they had demonstrated kindness.
“They discussed the importance of being kind and how small gestures can make the biggest difference in someone’s day,” Mergenthaler said. “I think it offered the high school students and myself a lot of time for self-reflection.”
Making the bells requires teamwork. At least 10 people work on each bell – from the students who roll out and cut the clay to make the decorative ceramic pieces, to the artists who paint and glaze them, and those who fire them. And then there are the students who thread the ceramic pieces, the bells and the cards on the cotton strings, and the volunteers who hang the bells.
“The students from the FLS classroom learned how they could be part of a team,” Blood said. “In many situations like this, their higher-functioning friends may do a lot of the work for them, but in Ben’s Bells, my students were able to contribute to the overall goal that everyone was working toward. I think they felt like they could be valued members of a team, and the general education students learned that the students with disabilities could contribute greatly to such a big project. I think that it was eye-opening for everyone.”
By the end of the project, the high school artists produced 300 bells. The cards attached to the bells invited finders to post messages about the experience on the Ben’s Bells website or on the Be Kind Illinois page on Facebook.
After a few days, messages began to trickle in, and more than 100 recipients eventually responded. The messages were a poignant mixture of gratitude, surprise, jubilation – and sometimes pleas from not-so-lucky bystanders who wanted help to snag bells of their own.
“People are just pleasantly surprised to find them,” Hochwert said. “It just makes some people’s day that somebody they don’t know is doing something so thoughtful for them.”
“We were going for a walk around Hessel Park (in Champaign), as we often do,” wrote Chris and Elizabeth in a post dated May 7. “We unexpectedly lost our little boy during pregnancy in August 2011 and planted a tree in memory of him at this particular park; we enjoy watching it grow since we are unable to see our little boy age. We noticed something hanging from one of the branches, and as we got closer we saw the chime! We read the tag and looked it up on the Internet. This gesture touched us so deeply, and we’re thankful for the kindness.”
Many of the preservice teachers finished the course thinking a little differently about how they teach, Dymond said.
“They also realized how hard it is to pick a good service learning project that links to what you want kids to learn,” Dymond said. “You can’t choose just any project – you have to choose one that’s geared toward that particular student’s goals.”
“It gave us a much fuller picture of doing a service learning project,” Keithahn said. “It is something that we give a lot of lip service to in education but don’t often get the opportunity to enact.”