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Apology of Action and Literacy:
Skills that Grow Together

Making amends is more than giving a verbal apology. When feelings have been hurt, truly making amends requires taking steps to restore trust and a sense of harmony. It requires taking responsibility and deciding what can be done to repair the relationship. This is true in real life and is reflected in the best fiction. Good stories offer interesting characters in relationships that twist and turn with events and choices about how to interact.

From the
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Recognizing this link between life and literature, we have combined the teaching of apology of action with explorations of fiction in our elementary classrooms in Needham, Massachusetts. The result has been that students gain more insights about both. Students learn how to take responsibility when they hurt someone, how to manage themselves and their relationships, how to understand conflict and reconciliation in fiction, and how fiction connects to their own lives. This is so important because the goal of classroom management isn't just having a calm and constructive environment, crucial as that is; it's also teaching children to self-manage. In this article we offer our stories of using literature to teach and practice apology of action.


As a first step, we worked with our students to create classroom rules and introduce logical consequences (see "Apology of Action: When 'Sorry' Isn't Enough" below). This is a critical foundation that must be in place for apology of action to work at its best. Once students had lived with their classroom rules for a while, we used several ways to connect apology of action with literacy. We read a piece of literature and then introduced and applied the concept of apology of action, or vice versa: introduced apology of action and then applied it to a story. We explored the connection as a whole class and within guided reading groups, and we used brainstorming, journal writing, cooperative group writing, art activities, role-plays, and reflective discussions to further understand and practice apology of action. We know that students need modeling, practice, and coaching to learn a new interpersonal skill, and we've integrated literacy into each step.


Apology of Action:
When "Sorry" Isn't Enough

Managing hurt feelings is a skill taught explicitly in the Responsive Classroom approach. "Apology," children learn, means letting someone know you're sorry, and "action" means to do something. Through apology of action, children learn what to do to make amends when saying "sorry" isn't enough.

Laying the groundwork. First, children articulate their hopes and dreams for what they will learn during the school year. Then teachers help them devise rules that will make the classroom a safe environment where everyone can learn. Next, teachers discuss with children what will happen when they forget or choose not to live by the rules -- the concept of logical consequences.

Fixing physical messes. One of the three broad types of logical consequences typically used in the Responsive Classroom approach is "you break it, you fix it." Children first learn to apply "you break it, you fix it" to physical messes: If you knock someone's block tower down, you help rebuild it. If you spill milk, you clean it up.

Fixing emotional messes. Teachers next introduce apology of action, an extension of the "you break it, you fix it" concept, to help children mend emotional and relationship messes. Teachers help the children learn how to ask for and make an apology of action that is realistic, respectful, and relevant to the hurtful situation. For example, if a child hurts someone by refusing to include her in a game, the child could promise to sit with her on the bus going home. If a child makes fun of someone, the teased child could ask for an apology of action, and the teaser might write a note telling what he or she likes about the child.

A better way to manage behavior. Instead of making children feel bad about their actions and themselves, apology of action helps children learn to solve problems while giving them a dignified way to rejoin the community. It helps children see themselves as part of a community whose members need their respect and kindness -- and from whom they deserve respect and kindness in return.


Example 1: Fourth graders brainstorm apology of action options.
In one fourth-grade class, students learned about apology of action one day, listing many ways feelings can be broken and ways to "fix" broken feelings, friendships, and trust. The next day, they listened to A Day's Work, in which Francisco's lying gets himself and his grandfather into a mess in a gardening job. Students gasped, eyes wide, as Ben discovered Francisco's and his grandfather's gardening mistake. Before reading the rest of the story, the teacher posed the question, "What could Francisco do to show he is sorry? What could be his apology of action?" Students went back to their seats to think alone and write.

Gathering as a whole class a little later, the children discussed their ideas for Francisco's options: He could buy new flowers, take only half pay, work to earn money and put the plants back, or invite Ben for dinner.

The class then read the rest of the story to discover how Francisco and his grandfather fixed the problem. A discussion followed in which the children talked not only about how the characters' actions allowed them to make amends, but how people's actions reflect and communicate to others the type of person they are and want to be known as.

Example 2: First graders identify apologies of action in a read-aloud.
Late in the year in a first grade readers' workshop, the teacher read aloud The Honest-to-Goodness Truth about a girl who inadvertently hurts friends and neighbors. Students found apologies of action in the story even when the teacher hadn't: As the class got to the end of the story and discussed some character traits, one student said, "This book is about an apology of action. She said sorry and then helped people by doing something nice that made sense."

Since that unexpected but insightful observation, the teacher has used this book to introduce apology of action in a two-day sequence. On the first day, she reads the book aloud and introduces the concept of apology of action without pressing the connection. On the second day, the teacher reads it aloud again with the students stopping the story when they hear and see an apology of action, which they do very successfully.

Example 3: Third grade class evaluates brainstormed ideas, adopts apology of action.
One third grade class demonstrated what might happen if a brainstorm of apology of action options leads to some suggestions that might be inappropriate. After reading the first half of The Summer My Father Was Ten, students brainstormed what the main character could do to make amends after destroying Mr. Bellavista's garden. Quickly, all of the students could see that saying sorry would not be enough. After the class generated more than ten options for further steps, one student, using language the class had been practicing for respectful class discussions, quietly said, "I respectfully challenge the fourth suggestion. I think carving vegetables into the shape of a baseball would remind Mr. Bellavista of what was done to his garden." After some discussion, the students agreed that option would not restore trust. Their conversation showed that children, given opportunity and guidance, can handle the complex business of evaluating what actions would repair relationships and what actions would not.

This class didn't stop there. After deepening their understanding of apology of action with the literature discussion, the students began implementing apology of action in their classroom. They created scenarios about mean comments, destroying someone's property, or hurting someone physically. They role played the scenarios, then made two posters giving step-by-step guidelines for what to do if such scenarios happened in their classroom life. One poster was for the person who "crumpled" someone's feelings. It listed steps such as being a good listener, apologizing, and choosing and doing an appropriate apology of action, along with suggestions for possible actions. The other poster told the person with the "crumpled" feelings the steps he or she could take, including asking for an apology of action, waiting for it, accepting it, or maybe even taking more time to contemplate and heal.

Example 4: Third graders create new book endings.
Another third grade class initially learned about apology of action with the help of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. A student made a notable connection to The Summer My Father Was Ten, which they had read much earlier in the year, realizing that the main character in both stories had made amends with actions. The class continued the connection making by discussing their own recess problems, after which they made an apology of action poster, called "Garden of Actions," that listed things they could do to repair hurt relationships.

In a guided reading group in this same class, students responded to a question about Molly's Pilgrim, "What are some of Elizabeth's character traits?" The seven children quickly generated a list: unkind, mean, not thoughtful, a bragger, not inclusive. "What were some of Elizabeth's actions or words that can support your claims?" the teacher asked. The students listed many ways that Elizabeth was hurtful to Molly. The class had already learned about apology of action, so the group discussed whether this strategy could be applied to the story. The children readily came up with creative and appropriate ways for Elizabeth to "fix" the problems caused by her actions. Following the discussion, each student wrote an additional chapter to the book that included an apology of action, which they shared during subsequent group times.


The combination of literature and apology of action has allowed our students to learn more effectively why and how to offer an apology of action and to gain deeper insights about the plots and characters of the stories they've read. The skills they've learned through this process can be reinforced outside their classrooms, too. In one of our schools, an assistant principal has in her office some of the same books that students read in their classrooms. Children who are in her office upset about an incident involving hurt feelings can often calm themselves by re-reading these books and remembering how some of their favorite characters took responsibility. In another school, a school-wide read-aloud offered the chance to introduce the concept of apology of action to all students and to reinforce the building and restoring of trusting relationships as a community value. We have seen the difference it makes in our classrooms and across our schools when children learn to take responsibility for harm they have caused, and learn to assert themselves when they've been harmed.

Books Referred to in this Article

A Day's Work
By Eve Bunting
Francisco finds work for his grandfather and himself but lies about their skills. He later learns about taking responsibility for his mistakes.

The Honest-to-Goodness Truth
By Patricia C. McKissack
A girl's over-the-top honesty hurts neighbors and friends. She then retraces her steps to make amends.

Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse
By Kevin Henkes
Lilly disrupts her class and suffers the consequences.

Molly's Pilgrim
By Barbara Cohen
Molly's Pilgrim doll doesn't look like those made by her classmates. It's another difference that leads them to treat her badly.

The Summer My Father Was Ten
By Pat Brisson
A father tells a story about destroying an elderly neighbor's garden when he was young and how he made amends.


Angel Child, Dragon Child
By Michele Maria Surat
Ut's family has moved from Vietnam to the United States, where her new school includes challenges and friendships.

Oliver Button Is a Sissy
By Tomie de Paola
Oliver Button's classmates taunt him about what he loves to do best.

This article first appeared in the Responsive Classroom Newsletter, November, 2005, published by Northeast Foundation for Children. Click here for a free subscription.

Copyright© 2006 Northeast Foundation for Children

About the Authors

Sarah, Lisa, Jane, and Kristen are elementary school teachers at three different schools in the Needham, Massachusetts, school district. Rachel, a specialist in social and emotional learning, began consulting with their district in 2001. Working collaboratively, these educators came up with an effective strategy for linking apology of action and literacy.

Article by Sarah Fillion, Lisa Garsh, Rachel Poliner, Jane Shilalie, and Kristen Vincent
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World