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.
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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


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.”



Register to Vote!

“The pace of new voter registrations among young people in crucial states is accelerating,” writes Michael Tackett and Rachel Shorey in Young People Keep Marching After Parkland, This Time to Register to Vote.  And, they write, “[Youth]  could even help shape the outcome of the midterm elections. If voters in their teens and 20s vote in greater numbers than usual… the groundswell could affect close races in key states like Arizona and Florida, where there will be competitive races for governor, the Senate and a number of House districts in November.”

It is essential that we teach our youth not only the importance of voting to uphold a democracy, but also how to register and how to vote.

There are many resources available to help educate and register our youth to vote. The youth activist group March For Our Lives has an online toolkit.  USA.gov offers information about laws and registration as well as information on how to vote. And even sites like Wikihow have information on how to vote in the United States. There is no shortage of information.

According to PBS, Only 58% of all eligible voters voted in the 2016 election, yet voting is one of the foundations of a strong democracy. We need to teach our youth the importance of voting and the process.




“Youth In Front”

Educators from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab, and the instructional design firm Fresh Cognate have created “Youth in Front”, a new hub of learning-oriented resources and multimedia assets for young activists and the educators and adult allies interested making their voices heard — particularly those who are stepping into activism for the first time, and for the educators who are responding to action in their schools and communities.

Net Neutrality: Teaching Our Youth to Save the Internet

In 2015, Net Neutrality regulations were put into place by President Obama to protect an open internet and to stop large broadband companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon from controlling, blocking or slowing down what consumers could see on the internet, as well as prohibiting companies from charging more money for certain content. Under the laws, companies could not block access to any websites or apps, and could not impact loading speeds. On December 14, 2017, in an effort to overturn these regulations, The FCC’s five-member commission, with its Republican majority, voted 3-2 along party lines to end the regulations.

While supporters suggest that lifting the ban could allow broadband providers to provide customers with a wider range of services, critics feel that the lack of regulation could spur higher prices and slower internet. And one group of internet users, teachers and students, are perhaps the group that could be impacted the most. Costs could rise, speeds could slow, and websites could be restricted. Therefore, this is a very important topic for schools to explore, and because it directly impacts students, it is an issue that promotes student engagement. Free Press’s guide “Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know”  provides a clear overview of the issue, and their website “Saving the Internet” explores the many issues Net Neutrality brings up and offers action steps students can take.

NPR’a story Teachers and Educators Weigh In On Net Neutrality explores how deregulation can impact students, classrooms and libraries. Teachers rely on the internet to create enriching and engaging lessons to reach their students. Having broad and unlimited access to the internet provides classrooms and teachers with resources that they simply could not otherwise have.

At this time, 94 percent of school districts in the U.S. have access to high-speed internet. However, not all students have this access. A recent Pew Research study found that 5 million, most low income, school-aged children do not have access to broadband internet connection. And some Senate Democrats feel that deregulation of net neutrality will widen inequity.

According to  a 2015 Pew Research Center report, around 5 million households with school-age children lack high-speed internet service. The net neutrality repeal could worsen this digital divide that creates inequity. In addition, according to a Pew study, millions of students rely on library computers and internet connections to complete research and homework. If net neutrality is repealed, another area to explore is that rural schools could suffer more because three-quarters of schools that lack high-speed internet are located in remote communities.

Accessing information is crucial to our nation’s democracy and a free and available internet is an important part of this access. The loss of Net Neutrality threatens academic freedom, and equity. We need to teach our youth and students that their reliance on the internet and their access to information is at stake, and we need to give them the knowledge and resources to get involved.

Self-Esteem and Helping Strangers

From NPR, Teen’s Self-Esteem Grows When Volunteering To Help Strangers

“While kids may bristle at the thought of posting fewer selfies, surveys indicate 55 percent of adolescents enjoy volunteering. And according to a recent study, when it comes to helping others, teens may benefit psychologically from spending time helping strangers.”

In the three-year study of 681 youth between the ages 11 and 14, researchers found that youth who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem a year later. “Questions like “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors,” helped researchers assess the various ways teens support others, while statements like, “I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel useless at times,” helped the researchers evaluate the teens’ self-esteem.”

How can we incorporate helping strangers into our classroom curriculum? 

How can parents encourage children to commit to community service and helping strangers?

Some recent idea from my Social Studies classroom:

  • Study and support the organization Skateistan. Examine the political and cultural geography of the areas they serve, explore big issues such as equity, the rights of girls, the impacts of poverty
  • Examine food scarcity, watch the film A Place at the Table, and work with the local food bank to raise money, food or help at the facility
  • A unit on the issue of child labor globally with the reading of two texts Iqbal and Free the Children
  • An exploration into global terrorism and the way it impacts girls’ education by reading the young readers version of I Am Malala. Have students use their knowledge to educate others through writing editorials, creating bulletin boards, working with other classrooms, etc.
  • Create a Day of Service where the entire school-wide community helps local organizations and neighbors. Have students and faculty brainstorm things they can do in their local community to reach out and foster connections.

Democracy and Social Justice

“Democracy is not a state. It is not some high plateau that we struggle to reach so we can finally settle down to rest. Democracy is an act. It is an act that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles. It is an act, and a series of actions that require us to continuously verify our commitment to civil rights and social justice at every challenge.”Rep. John Lewis Reflections on a Dream Deferred

It is 2018, and seemingly now more than ever, our nation is rediscovering the true meaning of our fragile democracy. It is the American classroom perhaps, that now finds itself at the center of the fight for social justice, for it is there that teachers find themselves inundated daily with the need to undo the social damage caused by the ignorant words and deeds of our current politicians. Our classrooms are at the front lines as our students try to make sense of things our political leaders say, and it is our collective responsibility to help our youth learn how to come to their own understandings, find the truth through research, and articulate their own political and social views. As Rep. John Lewis writes, “Democracy is an act…that requires participation, organization and dedication to the highest principles.”

Not just on Martin Luther King day, but everyday, our classrooms need to teach and model the connection between democracy and social justice.  We must ask the essential question: How  is standing up against racism and injustice a democratic obligation? And we must model this connection through our own actions, our treatment of those in our school-wide communities, and also in the curriculum we design for our youth.

“Now I realize that there are those all over who are telling us that we must slow up. … But we cannot afford to slow up. We have a moral obligation to press on. We have our self-respect to maintain. But even more we can’t afford to slow up because of our love for America and our love for the democratic way of life. … We must keep moving. We must keep going.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
From “The Montgomery Story,” an address to the 47th annual NAACP Convention, San Francisco, June 27, 1956

For resources on Martin Luther King, Jr. visit the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, where you can find  papers, documents and video, a liberation curriculum, as well as  a collection of lesson plans for teachers of all grade levels.

Or try one of the 8 extension activities from this lesson: Dr King and the Movement from Teaching Tolerance for a unique way to explore, celebrate and question the progress made since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.





The Benefit of Helping Teens Find Their Purpose in Life

From KQED news, a story from Mind/Shift about a semester-long elective called the QUESTion Project designed to give adolescents a space in which to wrestle with big questions about who they are, where they are headed and what matters most in their journey through life. The project helps students answer the most difficult question: What is my purpose? What do I want to become in life?