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.



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.
Screen Shot 2019-09-14 at 6.50.24 PM
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.
Screen Shot 2019-09-14 at 6.52.59 PM
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


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

Good Kids, Mad City @GKMC18

The Chicago-based Good Kids, Mad City describes themselves as, “Black and Brown young people united in fighting to end violence in our cities. We call for more resources to underserved communities.” As youth groups nationwide are working hard to get gun legislation passed, these youth are looking to eradicate the underlying causes of gun violence such as poverty, mental health issues and a lack of resources.

Good Kids Mad City: A New Student Movement is Born out of the Streets of Chicago, Baltimore and D.C. writes that the group began to organize after Parkland to create a model of youth safety that calls for:

Investment in Youth Employment– Many youth in communities of color have complicated living conditions and have to provide for our families, but there aren’t enough resources. Gun violence is a symptom of poverty.
Investment in Schools– Schools should provide mental health support and other wrap-around services to help students heal from trauma and to address non-academic barriers to learning.
Investment in Communities– Communities hardest hit by violence need sustained investment in health, education, employment, and housing.

These Chicago Teens are Fighting the Underlying Causes of Gun Violence states, “Chicago’s punitive stance on gun violations has contributed to high incarceration rates, particularly in low-income neighborhoods of color, according to a 2016 report from Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. The students behind Good Kids Mad City say this approach contributes to a cycle of violence and poverty — and that it doesn’t address why people feel the need to carry guns in the first place.”

Follow the group on Twitter @GKMC18

The group also started a Go Fund Me to raise money for their work. 


Change the Ref: Manuel Oliver

I was truly honored to meet Manuel Oliver from Change the Ref on Thursday as I went to support students from @50milesmore who were marching from Worcester to Springfield to protest at Smith & Wesson for gun reform. Oliver lost his son, Joaquin, in the Parkland tragedy, and turned to his art as a form of activism. Founded in the memory of their son Joaquin who was one of the 17 victims, Manuel and Patricia Oliver are committed to making sure that their son’s life and the lives of the other 16 victims are never forgotten and that real change happens to prevent future tragedies like this from happening ever again. Change the Ref uses urban art and nonviolent creative confrontation to expose the disastrous effects of the mass shooting pandemic and to help push for gun reform. IMG_8257

WALLS OF DEMAND is a nationwide art project, and a way for Manuel Oliver’s son, Joaquin, to have a voice. These murals have a very powerful image so it’s hard to look away, and hard to ignore. These walls trigger people to think about gun violence, and the need for change.

Follow their powerful work by visiting their website or on twitter at @changetheref



The Kids Are Alright

I have been a middle school Social Studies teacher for almost 20 years, and during that time I have not seen youth galvanized around an issue like that of gun reform. In fact, recently, after viewing Teaching Tolerance’s film A Children’s March with my students, I asked my students what issues they would personally take a stand for. While they held strong opinions on many topics, most of them struggled to find an issue that would propel them to action like the students they watched in the film, marching in the civil rights movement and creating social change where adults could not. They agreed that the issue would have to be really important and really impact their own lives for them to take an active stance.

Then came another school shooting, and now we see the youth of America rising up. And why wouldn’t these students want to become active in this issue? In 2018 alone (and it is only February), there have already been eight school shootings by some reports, and the nation’s youth (and teachers) have been the target. And suddenly, the vast social media communities that youth have created around themselves on twitter, snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, become the perfect fuel to spread this spark of social activism quickly. “How the Survivors of Parkland Began the #NeverAgain Movement” explores how the activism was ignited and has spread rapidly using the technology that the youth have mastered.

When Emma Gonzalez, a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior whose face has since become a symbol for this quickly growing youth-led political campaign, screamed “We Call B.S”,  her words resounded like a rallying cry.  And clearly, the Parkland students are not going away. Cameron Kasky, another survivor of the shooting wrote My Generation Will Not Stand for This, and grilled Senator Marco Rubio in a recent CNN Town Hall on Gun Policy.  At the event where CNN hosted survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting along with law enforcement, congressmen, and a representative of the NRA in a town hall on gun policy in America, there were some very emotional moments, including Kasky asking Senator Rubio if he would stop taking donations from the NRA.

“Young people have helped lead all our great movements,” President Obama recently said on Twitter. “How inspiring to see it again in so many smart, fearless students standing up for their right to be safe; marching and organizing to remake the world as it should be.”


One of the biggest events these youth activists are planning is the March For Our Lives on March 24th in Washington DC and in cities and towns around the nation. The march’s website states that the mission and focus of March For Our Lives is “to demand that a comprehensive and effective bill be immediately brought before Congress to address these gun issues. No special interest group, no political agenda is more critical than timely passage of legislation to effectively address the gun violence issues that are rampant in our country.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the event is that it is being coordinated by students themselves. The organizers state that the march is being “created by, inspired by, and led by students across the country who will no longer risk their lives waiting for someone else to take action to stop the epidemic of mass school shootings that has become all too familiar. ” Activists Seek to Keep Gun Movement Student-Led explores how a movement started by youth can continue in this way, with adult support and funding, but with the control in the hands of youth activists.

As a classroom teacher, I will be marching behind and alongside these youth to demand that their lives (and my life) and safety become a priority. School safety  should not a political issue, it should be a guarantee. I am inspired by the activism I am witnessing, and also intrigued and excited by the use of social media to help spread their movement. #NeverAgain

Social Activism in the Olympic Games

In the 9th century BCE, the “Ekecheiria”, or the Olympic truce, was a time period when the  ancient Greeks created a temporary peace; they put down their weapons and allowed athletes, families and spectators to have safe travel to and from the site of the Olympic games. The Olympics were to be a time to celebrate sport, and a time to have peace between warring city-states.

Over two thousand years later, some Olympic spectators believe that there is no room for politics at the games– that the athletes should show allegiance only to their sport, and leave their political and personal opinions our of the arena. The IOC themselves in rule number 50, state that “No form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites. Commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia, venues or other sports grounds.” This rule is an attempt “to prevent the Games from being used as a platform for protests, demonstrations or the promotion of political, religious or racial propaganda.”

Yet throughout history, the Olympics have set an international platform for political activism.   18 Times Politics Trumped Sport in the Olympic Games History includes a timeline of politics in the Olympic arena, and   A Not So Brief History of Politics and the Olympics explores a history of social issues such  gender, race, and LGBTQ, as well as the issues surrounding the geography of the games themselves, and boycotts.

In the article 7 Of the Most Memorable Olympic Protests in History we see a wide range of political activity, ranging from 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish long jumper, wanted only to wave an independent Irish flag, to Jewish athletes boycotting Hitler’s 1936 games, to the Cold War Boycotts in 1980 when the US persuaded more than 60 countries to boycott the games.

In her recent article, Athletes Don’t Have to Win Gold To Make a Statement, Amy Bass, author and history Professor, explores contemporary protests in sports such as the “Take a Knee” movement in the NFL, openly gay US skier Gus Kenworthy critiquing Pence, Lindsay Vonn’s politically charged words against Trump, and concludes that, “Rather than worry about who may or may not take a proverbial knee with a medal around their neck, maybe we need to understand that protest is the best of us and US — taking a stand, expressing an opinion and bringing home the gold.”

The history of protest and activism in sports allows for many engaging questions with youth:

What is the role of sports in a society?

Should athletes be involved in protest, or should they only perform in their sport?

Are athletes change makers in society?

Should athletes be sensitive to the views of their paying fans?

How does the nationalism of the Olympics both divide and connect people?


Syria: Teaching about the Civil War and Refugee Crisis

“This is happening right now?” a student blurted out and smacked the table with her hand. “Yes, while we are all sitting here, this is happening,” I responded. “How could anyone allow this to go on?” she continued. And she was not alone–this level of engagement was classroom-wide.

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

“How many refugees do we have in America?”

“What about in our town or school?”

The conversation and engagement continued for three days.

Syria is a hard 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.

A great starting point 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.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

In September, a novel I wrote called The Pirates of Cologne was published by Levellers Press. It is YA book that is based on the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates, over 5,000 working class German youth, who fought against the Hitler Youth and were part of the organized resistance. Many of the kids were imprisoned, beaten or killed for their involvement, and they were considered war criminals by the German government for sixty years after the war until they were finally recognized in 2005.

Unknown copy

I think of these heroic kids today,  on International Holocaust Remembrance day, and on most days.

On the first page of my novel there is a quote from Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” How do we teach our youth how to recognize injustice and empower them to protest? How do we give them opportunities to develop a voice to speak out, and the skills to learn, research and build strong arguments?

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, here are some resources about the Holocaust for elementary, middle grade and YA readers.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

information on the Edelweiss Pirates

Middle Grade and YA titles

The Pirates of Cologne  The year is 1942, and thirteen-year-old Sebastian Jaeger has escaped from a Hitler Youth camp and returned to the city of Cologne. Five years earlier, his father, a Communist leader, was imprisoned, leaving Sebastian alone to care for his grandmother. Attracted by the possibility of true friendship, Sebastian joins a group of street kids called the Edelweiss Pirates who make a game out of their rebellion against the Hitler Youth and the Nazis. But their childish antics soon take a more serious and dangerous turn as they begin to work with the organized resistance.

The Book Thief Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s novel is about Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl It is 1942 in Holland and the Germans have invaded. All Jewish people are frightened for their lives, so the Frank family hide. Life is dangerous but they hope for the best – until they are finally discovered. Anne Frank was a real person, and this is her diary.

Milkweed He’s a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He’s a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He’s a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He’s a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he’s a boy who realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.


Welcome to Youth Activism 101

Welcome to Youth Activism 101, a place to find resources and ideas for empowering students and young people to make social change. We all know that youth activism is an essential part of any democratic and civil society, yet finding the resources to become active citizens can be difficult. This site will support youth, teachers and parents by providing tools, resources and a forum for cultivating youth-led social activism.

The blog was created as a tool for youth, teachers and parents to find valuable resources with a common theme: how can we make ideas and resources about activism and creating social change more accessible to youth? Tabs on the header will lead to book suggestions, podcasts, lesson ideas, and a detailed list of changemakers and organizations that youth might wish to contact to get involved. From building skateboards and skate parks in Afghanistan, to getting bicycles to girls so they can get to school safely, to working to eradicate child labor globally, there are so many opportunities for our youth to work with others to improve the state of our world today. Wander around the site, and if you have any suggestions, organizations that you would like to see featured, or successful lessons, please contact us.