I have had a hard time reading and listening to reports on last Friday’s tragedy. I find the sadness overwhelming both as a teacher and as a mother. I listened to Christmas music instead of the news over the weekend. I closed my laptop and opened a novel instead. Just today, I read through a number of commentaries and reflections. Many people wrote urgent and impassioned calls for more attention to gun control and mental illness. I agree however I think we as educators have a more specific obligation in the matter of school shootings.
First, the Newtown shooting once again reaffirmed my resolve to mentally prepare myself for what I would do in such a circumstance. What is the best corse of action in this nightmare scenario? How could I best protect my students and save lives? Could my personal sacrifice potentially save others? What would that look like? In a previous post I wrote about resources for educators to consider when thinking through these difficult questions.
Second, I was particularly moved by a piece my friend Melissa Scheinfeld sent to me from the New York Times. At the conclusion of the article, the author Christy Wampole recommends the development of “curriculum that centers around an empathic practice.” Wampole argues children need to be specifically taught to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes:
Empathy is difficult because it forces us to feel the suffering of others. It is destabilizing to imagine that if we are lucky or blessed, it just as easily could have gone some other way. For the young men, whose position is in some ways more difficult than that of their fathers and grandfathers, life seems at times to have stacked the cards against them. It is for everyone to realize the capricious nature of history, which never bets consistently on one group over another. We should learn to cast ourselves simultaneously in the role of winner and loser, aggressor and victim.
This rings particularly true to me both as a historian as well as a high school teacher. Empathy is a profoundly effective social regulator and the more we can instill it in our students the better. Here are some thoughts I have for teaching empathy in our classrooms:
- Say “I love you” and “I believe you have what it takes” One of the signs I keep posted in my classroom is “I love you.” I reference this sign when I am accused of giving too much homework as well as when I have just finished a “I’m disappointed in you” diatribe. Affirm your students’ potential by teaching them a growth mindset. (I love Mindset by Carol Dweck! Can’t wait to post the review!)
- Create a safe classroom: Hold your students to high expectations for behavior. Teach them conflict resolution protocols. Guide them through stress relief exercises and help them deal with their anxiety.
- Use babies: Recent research shows a biological predisposition towards empathy – particularly empathy for babies. It turns out that humans are hardwired to feel sympathetically towards cute little rolly-polly people. This simple fact is the underpinning for a program called Roots of Empathy which brings babies and their mothers into classrooms for lessons on feelings and relation to others. I have tried this on a small scale in my own classroom with my own off-spring via pictures and actual visits. It works! Learn more here.
- Expose your students to empathy invoking literature and historical figures: I still remember having to hide in the corner of the library after finishing Where the Red Fern Grows in 5th grade. Books can be great entry points for students looking for something or someone to connect. Likewise historical figures like Anne Frank, Alice Paul, and Helen Keller are almost impossible not to love.
How are you cultivating empathy in your students?