Empathy is a Muscle

I have been thinking a great deal about empathy recently: the ability to step into the shoes of another person, to aspire to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use those understandings to lead our actions. I have been thinking about whether it is innate or learned, and how to design curriculum in my classroom that allows for it to be strengthened, like a muscle, or discovered and pulled out, a seed in a child that hasn’t received enough light.

I recently taught a 3 day unit on Syria, the civil war and refugee crisis, and throughout the lesson, all students were engaged. “This is going on right now?!” one student asked, incredulously. “I need to help!” other students wrote on their final reflection. “How could the world allow this to go on?” other students demanded to know. Paper after paper, 7th grade students remarked on how important they felt it was to learn this material, how astonished that this was happening in their world, what could they do to help in such a situation?

Listening to their questions and comments in our discussions reminded me that empathy is a muscle. It needs a consistent workout, especially now, when we can all become overwhelmed with the many problems in our world and when we are inundated through social media. For me as a teacher, many questions arise, such as:

How much exposure should I give to my students?

How do I choose what to cover?

How do I create a balance between lessons?

How do I create opportunities for students to feel empathy?

In Edutopia’s article, Empathy in Action: How Teachers Prepare Future Citizens, author Marilyn Price- Mitchell rightly states, “Teachers are uniquely positioned to teach empathy, which will help children not only discover personal success, but also contribute to the betterment of society.”

She links to an article, Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People, which states that highly empathetic people:

Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
Gain direct experience of other people’s lives
Listen and open themselves to others
Inspire mass action and social change
Develop an ambitious imagination

What better aspirations for our students and youth?

As teachers and parents, we must create global and local opportunities in our classrooms and homes where youth can work their empathy muscles- both in researching and learning about an issue, critical thinking and sharing their ideas with others, and developing projects that allow for them to connect themselves to the other. Empathy allows us to examine who we are in relationship to others, where we stand, and what we should do with our knowledge.  From teaching empathy through our choices of literature, to connecting our 8-10 year olds to other kids around the world through the use of Empatico, to connecting with organizations that are change makers, to designing local project based lessons, such as an urban community garden, allowing for our youth to practice and feel empathy will make them stronger, more resilient and capable humans.



Australia’s fires: how can we envision 12 million acres?

My students can’t imagine an acre, let alone 12 million acres. And honestly, neither can I. So in thinking about how to share the latest news on the fires in Australia, I tried my best to link it to their own geographic range and experience. Many have not ever left the state, but they have a sense of the size of the state and where their own town sits within its borders. They also have a sense of the region, and neighboring states. I put these slides together to give them a sense of the magnitude of the fires in terms of geography, which can help as we discuss the ramifications on the fires to people, wildlife, and the landscape. I started with the definition of an acre, a measurement they do not use and unless they have an amount of acreage, can’t conceptualize. But most can imagine a football field, 1.32 acres in size.

I added some sources for them to explore:

Follow this link to learn more about where the fires are currently burning, see graphs, satellite imagery and read about why this fire season is worse due to highest temperatures and driest conditions.

Australia’s Hottest Day on Record

Australia’s Rising Temperatures

And some ways to help:

Things to Know and How to Help

How to help wildlife, fire fighters and evacuees

If you want a copy of the slide show, you can download it here. 



We Can’t Accept This: Educators, Please Teach About Anti-Semitism

When most people think about anti-Semitism, their minds automatically go to pre-war Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. But anti-Semitism has strong roots in America, and is currently experiencing a drastic rise. 60 percent of hate crime attacks were targeted against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2018. In 2018, anti-Semitic attacks killed more Jews around the globe than in any year in decades. And anti-Semitism in the US is on the track to reach record high numbers. In NY, LA and Chicago, anti-Semitic attacks are at an 18 year peak

Yet despite the horrifying statistics, only 12 states in the US (CA, CT, FL, IL, IN, KY, MI, NJ, NY, OR in 2020, RI and VA) require any study of the Holocaust at all in secondary schools. As educators, what can we do about this? How can we focus our attention to the current rise  of anti-semitism and its connection to the past? Many educators teach about the Holocaust through YA books, yet do not mention anti-Semitism today. I challenge those teachers to connect the novels to the world their students inhabit now, while also giving homage to Holocaust survivors and the past. 

First, educators will need to define anti-Semitism for their students. What is anti-Semitism and how can it be identified? According to Teaching Tolerance, “Anti-Semitism can take many forms: religiously based discrimination, targeting Jews for their religious beliefs; politically driven hatred or discrimination, targeting Jews regarding political issues; ethnically or culturally based hostility, targeting Jews regarding heritage or culture; and the perpetuation of stereotypes based on economic or other factors, tied to bigoted images of Jews being “greedy,” for example. Anti-Semitism employs venom, power and prejudice similar to racism and other forms of bigotry.” Holocaust denial,  (denying that the Holocaust took place or minimizing its actual impact) is another form of anti-Semitism. 

Some more resources you could use to define anti-Semitism are: the ADL’s What is anti-Semitism?, Anti-Semitism in the Encyclopedia Britannica, or from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum

Start with essential questions about stereotypes and labels. Define stereotypes. Ask students to identify stereotypes they see being used in their schools and communities. Ask how stereotypes are used to divide people. What are the benefits of living in a diverse society? How can we make connections with people who are different than ourselves? Be brave and have hard and honest conversations. 

To address holocaust denial, use primary sources. Many of the Holocaust survivors have now passed away but their stories remain. Others are still living. Read and discuss the stories of survivors:

Behind Every Story A Name: Survivor Reflections and Stories

Teaching Tolerance: One Survivor Remembers

The Museum of Jewish Heritage has 4,000 audio and video testimonies by Holocaust survivors, liberators, rescuers, Jews who served in the Allied Armies during World War II

New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage has a thorough Holocaust curriculum for secondary educators 

If and when hate crimes happen in your school, address them immediately, firmly, and include the community. Teaching Tolerance has a detailed guide, Responding to Hate at School, that should be required reading for all administration and teachers. Be ready to respond when bias occurs. If a student draws a swastika, it is a doorway for everyone to learn more. I challenge teachers to open that door, instead of erasing the symbol, leaving no avenue for education. Use bias as a chance to teach and grow as a community, and bring resources into your classrooms and schools. Teach your students to be activists and leaders by educating them to call out and fight anti-Semitism where and when they see it. 


Greta Thunberg: Inspire Your Students to Climate Action

How can we inspire our students to become engaged and active global citizens? Show them what other people their own age are doing to create social change.
Greta Thunberg, a sixteen year old Swedish climate activist, is someone who can inspire all of us to action, regardless of our age. Last year I wrote a post about her leading the #Fridays4Future movement  a student strike from school each Friday to bring awareness to climate change. At that time, inspired by the high-school students from Parkland, Florida, Thunberg decided to protest her government’s slow response to climate change by sitting outside Parliament with a handmade sign that said: “School Strike For Climate”. She handed out leaflets about climate change and used social media to spread her message. Students worldwide were inspired, and the movement spread.
Now, over a year later, Thunberg’s is a face known around the world and students around the globe hold school strikes each week. Thunberg was even nominated for the Nobel Peace prize for climate activism. Her Ted Talk, The Disarming Case to Act Right Now on Climate Change, has been viewed by over three million people, and she has addressed a UN Climate Change conference in Poland.
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Most recently, Thunberg spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic in a solar powered boat (she does not fly due to the carbon emission that air travel leaves), to raise awareness to Americans about climate change and to participate at the UN Climate Action Summit.  During her journey, Thunberg posted often on her social media page.
On Friday, Thunberg protested outside the White House.
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On Wednesday, Thunberg will testify before the US Congress and join young Americans who are suing the government over the crisis.
On September 20, three days before the UN Climate Summit in NYC, young people and adults will strike all across the US and the world to demand that change be taken to address the climate crisis. To find a climate strike near you on September 20, go to strikewithUs.org  or #strikewithus. There are over 750 strikes across the nation planned for that day as well as other events.
Two videos that might inspire students, are a nine minute interview with Trevor Noah, and a nine minute video from PBS World News. The PBS video includes a written transcript as well as highlights of quotes that could be discussed with students.
For more information on the climate strike movement using Twitter, try the hashtags #strike4climate  or #Friday4Future or #YouthStrike4Climate or follow some of the youth leaders such as: @sunrisemvmt @climatestrikeUS


Who Makes Our Things? Teaching About the Global Economy

T-Shirts, IPhones and blue jeans–objects most of my grade 7 students own, love and rely on. Thus, after a long New England winter, I could think of a no better way to captivate and re-charge their minds than through exploring the production of these goods in the global economy. As one reluctant learner said to me after class, “I am so into what we are studying.” Another commented, “These are things we never think about but always should.” Studying our things lends itself to high levels of critical thinking, grasping key economic concepts, making connections, and pondering one’s own place and responsibility in the world.

For the t-shirt, I relied on the 5-chapter NPR Planet Money Makes A T Shirt short video clips. The videos start on a Mississippi cotton farm,  introduce us to the workers and factories in Bangladesh and Colombia, explore the measurements and movements of the cargo container, and follow the shipment of goods around the globe. They introduce us to the humans responsible in all levels of production. At only about 6-minutes each, these videos are thought provoking, easy to follow, and cover a myriad of concepts to both engage and challenge students. To keep their minds active while watching, I asked students to take fill-in notes on a worksheet I had prepared which allowed them to capture and recall details to support our discussion.

After the videos, I exercised their listening comprehension muscles by playing two NPR stories:  Two Sisters, A Small Room and the World Behind a T-Shirt which looks at the lives of two sisters who work in a factory in Bangladesh, and The Afterlife of American Clothes which explores the second-hand clothing markets of Sub-Saharan Africa, which receive over a billion pounds of clothing from the US. The students were riveted to the introduction of the story, which mentions how one man donated his t-shirt to a Goodwill in Miami and five months later, when he was working in Sierra Leone, saw an ice cream vendor wearing his shirt. Both of these stories pulled in the attention of my students who thought critically about geography and the role of the global economy on the lives of all involved.

To help us explore the I Phone, we watched and discussed Inside the Apple Factory from ABC News, as well as NYU Student Goes Undercover in Apple Factory as well as looked at what is in an cell itself in Why It Takes 75 Elements to Make Your Cell Phone.

Lastly, to examine our blue jeans, we watched a documentary called China Blue which explores the movement of millions of villagers to factories in cities in China. The film focuses on a young girl named Jasmine who makes the hard journey to support her family and their farm. Viewers are invited into a rare look at a blue jean factory that makes clothes for the global market, and can examine the different points of responsibility from multinational companies, the factory owner, the government and the consumer. I show the film in 3 parts, stopping for discussion, and leaving room at the end of each part for small groups to discuss specific questions. The groups then share out their ideas to the larger class.

As there are so many products to explore and so many resources available, I invite your  input. How do you teach concepts of globalization? What activities allow for our youth to understand where our goods come from, basic economic principles, and what our role as consumers is to the global economy?

On March 15th, the Climate Kids Are Coming

A thorough resource to use as an introduction to the climate strikes happening on March 15th is the Nation’s On March 15th, the Climate Kids Are Coming.  “On March 15, tens of thousands of high-school and middle-school students in more than 30 countries plan to skip school to demand that politicians treat the global climate crisis as the emergency it is.”

For those who have not heard about the #strike4climate or #Fridays4 Future that is sweeping across Europe, it started with Swedish student, Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, inspired by the high-school students from Parkland, Florida,  decided to protest her government’s slow response to climate change by sitting outside Parliament with a handmade sign that said: “School Strike For Climate”. And so it began.  Beware of youth bearing signs. A BBC journalist covered Thunberg’s protest, and thanks to the viral nature of the media, the youth climate strike spread to Australia.

Meanwhile, in New York City, 13-year-old Alexandria Villasenor followed Thunberg and every Friday she skipped her classes to occupy a bench outside the United Nations headquarters with a sign proclaiming “School Strike 4 Climate.” In Teen Vogue’s article Meet Alexandria Villaseñor  we learn that Alexandria has been picketing at the U.N. to help build U.S. support for a school strike movement that has been surging among European students for months. Partly inspired by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, who told world leaders at a U.N. climate change summit in December that “change is coming whether they like it or not,” Alexandria says she’s undertaken her strike to fight for her own future.”

Now Villaseñor is among the leading organizers of the March 15 strikes planned in the United States.

There are currently over 100 strikes planned across the nation. If you or any youth you know would like to plan a strike, there are directions here on the Youth Climate Strike website. 

Strikes in Europe have reached the thousands, with students marching and striking from countries such as Germany, Sweden, Brussels, Belgium, and Switzerland.

“Adults keep saying, ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” Thunberg said at Davos. “But I don’t want your hope…. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is.”

In the article How Greta Thunberg’s Lone Strike Against Climate Change Became a Global Movement, Thunberg states, “I tried to bring people along to join me, but no one was really interested, and so I had to do it by myself.”  Unexpectedly, her actions launched the #FridaysForFuture youth movement with  thousands of students joining her.

For more information on the climate strike movement using Twitter, try the hashtags #strike4climate  or #Friday4Future or #YouthStrike4Climate or follow some of the youth leaders such as: @sunrisemvmt @climatestrikeUS

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life

Doing some research on youth resistance during WWII, I fortunately stumbled across a name: Adolfo Kaminsky.  His face stared out at me from my screen. Who was he and what did he do during the war, and more importantly how had I never heard of him? I immediately thought about my students, as I always do–how could I engage them with his story?

Adolfo Kaminsky was born in Argentina, to a Jewish family from Russia. In 1932, when he was seven, his family moved to Paris, where his father worked as a tailor. In 1938, the family moved to northwest France to live near his uncle, and Kaminsky worked in a dye shop, where his interest in chemical dyes began. In 1940, after the German invasion of France, his home was taken over by the Nazis and they were forced to move, and a year later, his mother was killed. At this point, at the age of 17, Kaminsky joined the resistance. After being interred in a camp, his family returned to Paris, where Kaminsky went underground to work as a forger, creating identity papers for Jews and others sought by the Nazis.

Focusing on Kaminsky’s heroic work brings up perhaps the most essential question in any classroom:

What can one person do to make a difference? 

“If I hadn’t been able to do anything, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. My hope for the world? Human beings are all equal. These words can’t be empty. They have to be reality.”

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life written by his daughter, Sarah Kaminsky.

My Father the Forger, a Ted talk by Sarah Kaminsky

Saving Jews During the Holocaust a 2 minute “History Bites” video

 How A WWII Era Forger Saved Lives One Fake Document at a Time 60 minutes story

The Forger Who Saved Thousands of Jews From the Nazis: CBS news story

If I Sleep for an Hour, 30 People Will Die NY Times article

Syria: Teaching about the Civil War and Refugee Crisis

As classroom teachers, there are always lessons we retire because they didn’t go as we hoped, maybe we didn’t like the level of student engagement or the learning outcomes. After all, teaching is reflective work, and teachers must always be willing to change whether to meet the changing needs of students or the daily changes around the world.  Then there are some lessons we wish we could retire  but they are too important to teach– such as the civil war and refugee crisis in Syria. Not having to teach about it would mean that perhaps there was a resolution, an end, and some peace and recovery for the millions of people who have been impacted. Yet last week I found myself teaching the 3 day unit again, and while I wish the crisis would end, I feel it is an essential thing for students to know about.

“I can’t believe that while we are sitting here in this beautiful classroom, this is going on for people.,” one student shared. “How is this okay?” he continued. And he was not alone–this level of engagement was classroom-wide. Conversations went on for so long, that I needed to add an extra day to the lesson.

“What was Syria like before the war?” one student asked.

“Are there any Syrian refugees in America, or in our town?”

“How can we help these people? This is not right.”

The conversation, engagement and high level of critical thinking continued for three days.

Syria is a difficult topic to teach, as the war itself is complicated and the outlook is bleak. Yet there are also stories of hope, refugees who have survived and thrived, heroic actions by people such as the White Helmets, the International Rescue Committee, and Doctors without Borders. So while there is a lot of heaviness to wade through, there are also stories of hope, selflessness and humanity that can be used to teach empathy and activism. The lesson also adds a great deal of perspective and reflection for students, who might not recognize their own privilege. Many students in our conversations reflected on how lucky they felt in school, in their community, even those who have struggles of their own.

A great starting point to teach about Syria is the website I Am Syria which offers a curriculum and page for educators which can be modified to fit the needs and structure of a classroom. Start with their background resources for an overview.

For my lesson, I followed much of the video tour. I created a reflection sheet based on the videos. We viewed a clip together, students had an opportunity to write, and then we had a discussion. While initially I was planning for students to watch the videos at their own pace, I decided to watch all together using my projector and screen and I am happy that I did. The videos provided good detail and were great conversation starters, and the sequence walked my classroom through the start of the war to the journey of refugees. The material was pretty heavy, and the camaraderie and community viewing allowed for us to process what we viewed.

For elementary students there are more basic resources and a page for activism after kids learn about the situation. As I told my students, your first responsibility to learn as much as you can, then you can teach others and make your voices heard. I ended the unit with opportunities to make change and an impact that varied from talking to others about the situation, teaching other students, writing letters or editorials, creating fundraisers for an organization, and learning about the refugees who live in our town and attend our school.

Empowering Students to Change the World

Empowering Students to Change the World explores creating student-led projects with real world implications to raise empathy and develop altruism. The article explores areas to consider, such as group size, teaching creative problem solving and allowing for creative freedom to ensure that students feel ownership and find success.

“If an end goal of education is to create skilled, altruistic citizens, why wait until after a student’s post-secondary training? Whether it’s an after-school community service group, project-based unit, or team-building event, allowing students the time, support, and freedom to create a positivity project is a direct route to building better thinkers and doers.”

In Classroom Activists: How Service-Learning Challenges Prejudices, teacher Lisa Weinbaum explores the ways in which middle-schoolers are naturally drawn to social activism. And while some students are reluctant to write, when given the opportunity to write for an authentic audience and see that their words can effect change, they are excited by the opportunity and delve more deeply into their topics.

In her article, At Risk of Greatness in Teaching Tolerance, Weinbaum describes a unit on the societal causes of homelessness that she taught to her students, 70 percent of whom were living in poverty. In this unit, the students discovered that poverty even impacted death, dismayed to find that the cemetery where people were buried was littered and uncared for.

“Rough, weather-worn crosses lay haphazardly on the ground, nails protruding. Remnants of windblown Wal-Mart bags, broken Budweiser bottles and faded pink plastic roses littered the landscape. But the final disgrace was the presence of tiny American flags, obviously planted decades ago, perhaps to honor fallen veterans. Tattered and torn, they were threadbare and colorless.  Clearly, the souls buried within the cemetery had long since been abandoned by our community.”

Weinbaum’s students vowed to clean the cemetery and were able, through protest letter writing and political activism and media coverage, to convince the local government to hold a community cleanup.

“My students were so proud of themselves. Through the strength of their collective speech, they learned their voices are valued. They learned they have political power, the ability to help eradicate injustice. Through their passion, perseverance and eloquence, they captured our attention. And perhaps for the first time in their educational lives, they were taken seriously. No longer were they labeled as “at-risk” kids relegated to remedial reading; they were the kids who forced our community to look. They were the kids who forced our community to act.”



Lower the Voting Age to 16?

Want to get your students to pay attention to politics and civics? Debate the voting age. Debating the current voting age, and questioning whether 16-year-olds should have the right to vote is a surefire way to get your students excited to explore this issue.

The organization Vote16 USA is a national campaign, organized by Generation Citizen, that supports efforts to obtain voting rights for 16- and 17-year-old youth on the local level, also works to promote the issue on a national level. Their campaign Vote16DC is a coalition of DC youth, adult allies, and local organizations, working to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds in Washington, D.C.

In the article Meet the DC Teenagers Campaigning for the Right to Vote,  one of the group’s founders, Alik Schier, states, “When I heard the bill was being introduced, I thought this is the perfect time to do this. The attention’s on young people, the spotlight’s on us—we have the nation’s attention,” Schier says. “I was really excited to finally let my voice be heard for real.”

While many believed this bill had a chance to pass, the historic event was delayed today with a 7-6 vote to table the bill.  DC Council Declines to Take Up Bill to Lower Voting Age to 16 explains the lawmakers’ decision to hold their vote.

Charles Allen, the D.C. Council member who wrote the legislation, said, “it was time to expand political power to young people, whose lives are affected by issues including climate change, education and gun safety, [but] they have no power, because they cannot vote.”  These 16 year olds will have to wait.

The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to vote for people 18 and older but does not prohibit states from setting a lower age