Book penned by Alpena native encourages kinder classrooms through songs and literature

Alpena native Colleen (Stark) Mestdagh didn’t initially intend to write a book. Her plan, instead, was to continue fine tuning her teaching skills.

As a dedicated second grade teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Rochester, several years ago she sought out noted education specialist Barry Lane at a conference. Over time, he became her mentor and friend, a relationship that ultimately led to their jointly creating an instructional book for use in the classroom.

“It’s kind of an odd story how it all came to fruition. Never in a million years did I think I would write a book,” said Mestdagh, who with Lane co-authored “Force Field for Good: Teaching Kindness through Song and Literature.”

The book is a year-long practical approach to creating a classroom community of students who treat each other with kindness and respect.

Mestdagh recently presented at a national conference on the concepts behind the book. They are concepts she’s tested in her own classroom and knows work. They also are concepts that are attracting attention from other teachers and schools around the country, including a school in Avondale, which recently adopted the book and related materials as part of the school’s curriculum for next year. Mestdagh will acting as a consultant to the school as it implements the concepts of teaching children to treat one another kindly and respectfully.

But long before Mestdagh unexpectedly found herself writing, presenting and consulting on top of her regular teaching duties, she merely hoped to increase her teaching know-how from Lane.

“He’s been around for close to 30 years in the educational world and has written many books for teachers on writing and how to better teach writing in the classroom,” she said. “After I met him the first time, we kept in touch through different conferences. He came to my classroom to watch me teach. He was interested in what I was doing.”

Along with authoring books, Lane began writing songs for kids. He asked Mestdagh to test out one of his songs, “Know Your Higher Self,” in her classroom to see how the kids responded to it.

“I’m a type A teacher and planner,” Mestdagh said, “so I created a whole lesson to go with it. It went so well. He asked if he could send another song. It was a very organic process. It wasn’t something I set out to do.”

The seeds of the book also came about from behaviors Mestdagh saw she needed to address in her classroom. She was having a year where her students weren’t being very nice to one another. Most also were from affluent households, and she noticed how little appreciation they had for their material advantages and how they always seemed to want more.

“It was one of those trying, difficult years where the kids didn’t get along,” Mestdagh said. “You can just suffer through the year and get through it. Or you can change the way you teach. There wasn’t a culture of community, so I knew I had to go back to the beginning. I spent the whole year working with Barry.”

She would tell Lane she needed a song about mean girls, and he would write one that she then would develop a lesson around to encourage more positive behavior. She asked for another song to help teach the students to appreciate their blessings. Lane came up with “The Gimme Blues,” and again, she made a lesson based around the song.

“Really what happened was a whole culture of kindness and community development,” she said. “Once that was established, and once we kept revisiting it with all these different songs and lessons, the kids really became kinder and more compassionate, and more learning could take place.”

Over the course of that first year, they came up with all the songs and corresponding lessons, with Mestdagh piloting them in her classroom. The second year she rolled out the entire year-long program with her class. By year three, she and Lane had wrapped it all into a book, which she put it into practice once again with her students.

Since then, Mestdagh has done a presentation for the Michigan Reading Association Conference as well as the national conference she recently attended. In her training, she tells participants how she abandoned all the school rules and replaced them with just one rule: Be Your Higher Self or, in other words, always live with integrity.

She also shows via her training, how it is possible to instill positive behaviors on a regular basis in the classroom while still hitting all the state standards for 21st century learning.

The book contains 10 original songs by Lane, ready to print reproducible lessons that connect the songs with children’s literature, sing along videos of each song, classroom-to-home connection sheets and PowerPoint lessons.

Mestdagh said she realizes teachers could construe her books and lesson plans as one more thing to do in an already tight schedule, but she believes the effort is worth it.

“I know how busy teachers are,” said Mestdagh, the married mom of a 9-month-old daughter named Elise. “I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. It’s something that is very, very doable. I provide everything in a book a teacher could need PowerPoints for every lesson, CDs and songs that are fool proof and plug in. Then they can tweak and see what they need.”

For more information about the book, go to www.forcefieldforgood.com..