Changing the World: One Story at a Time


For former teacher and “Chicken Soup for the Classroom” co-author Anna Unkovich, a “nightmare” teaching moment was the key to a more open classroom and sharing stories. This is Anna’s story.

It was a teacher’s nightmare—five minutes left in the class period, with a rowdy group of seventh graders. As a veteran educator, I always over-planned my lessons by 15-20 minutes, but something had gone wrong that morning. It was the first day back to school following a two-week Christmas break, and none of us were back in the classroom “groove” yet.

My personal mission as a teacher was “to change the world, one student at a time.” Ironically, it was in this desperate teaching moment that I found a tool that would have the greatest impact on my students’ lives.

I looked at the clock, looked at my students, looked at the clock, and looked at my desk for anything that might magically fill the minutes. Sitting there was a Christmas present—Chicken Soup for the Soul. I grabbed it, randomly opened it to page 259 and began reading a true story of determination.

I finished the story moments before the dismissal bell, breathed a sigh of relief, and thought nothing more of the matter. The next day, several of my students walked into class requesting more of that “Chicken Soup thing…” By this time, I had read several of the stories, and found them all to have wonderful messages of hope, determination, kindness, laughter, love, and life. Since each story took only two or three minutes to read, I felt it was not significantly taking time away from content. Plus even my most disruptive students settled down for this story routine that ended each class period.

Thus began a classroom journey that had some very surprising side effects. In hindsight, I think it was what Jack Canfield calls “emotional literacy.” Without realizing it, by reading these stories each day, I was creating a classroom environment where it was safe to access and express feelings. And, even more importantly, I was modeling this behavior for my students. If I read a sad story, I cried. At first, my students were mortified to see a teacher crying. Later, they would sometimes request a “cry story.” With other stories, we might laugh so hard we would almost pee our pants!

Without ever talking about it, we were sharing our feelings on a daily basis, much as a family would do. And, slowly, we became a family. Each of my five classes developed its own unique classroom bond.

Weeks passed, and I saw that my students were treating each other more respectfully. Within months, I noticed changes in the hallways throughout the school. Following a story about a potential suicide, I saw students help to pick up dropped books, rather than to kick them down the hallway, laughing. The mother of a learning disabled student almost ran me over in a parking lot. “What have you done to my daughter? She has never read a book in her life, and now she wants me to buy her this Chicken Soup thing… What is it?” Non-readers were becoming readers because they couldn’t wait till the next day for a story.

I came to realize that my students were happiest when experiencing the full range of emotions that these stories brought forth. So, occasionally I would have them write about these feelings as classroom warm-ups. Sometimes I would choose longer stories, or make the story the focus of the lesson plan, rather than ending the class with this thought for the day. I didn’t want this to become work for them, or something to dread. It was important that my students welcome these stories, and, ultimately, the messages they contained. And, the frequency was crucial in creating the behavioral changes.

Understanding the power of this daily story process planted a seed for reaching more students. I approached Jack Canfield at a book signing to suggest that we co-author a book, Chicken Soup for the Soul in the Classroom—a book of stories, lesson plans, and activities for teachers. Exactly four years later, to the day, I had my first book signing in the same store. Together, we are now “changing the world, one student at a time, and one story at a time.”

Five Things You Can Do To Foster Happiness in Your Classrooms

Creating an emotionally honest and safe learning environment may not be easy, but Anna lends you a hand with her insightful guide to fostering happiness in your classroom.

  • Create a climate where students feel safe to experience a wide range of feelings. They cannot express joy without also accessing their sorrow, anger, or frustration. In addition, they must learn how to communicate these feelings in appropriate ways. Ultimately, this empowers them to cope with life.
  • Read to students at every level, every day. My college students enjoy hearing a good story as much as my younger students did. Stories make heart-to-heart connections: student-to-self, student-to-student, and student-to-teacher. Stories provide a quick access to feelings, and follow-up writing is a good way to express these emotions.
  • Research shows that successful people read. You need not be an English teacher to model reading for your students. I know math, Spanish, and science teachers who regularly read to their students. You can read short, motivational stories, or pages from a book that relate to your subject matter—perhaps a book on Nikola Tesla, President Obama, or anyone who captures your passion, for it is your passion that will shine through and connect with your students.
  • Choose stories that present the messages that you desire—stories of hope, determination, overcoming obstacles—true stories of personal empowerment. For me, the daily dose of Chicken Soup significantly and positively changed classroom behavior. Lost time spent reading more than compensated for less time spent disciplining.
  • Practice random acts of kindness, and create classroom projects where students can experience the joyfulness of giving, and where they recognize their connection with, and responsibility toward others on this planet.

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