Tag Archives: empathy

Out of the Margins

“So how do your students look this year?” The question was asked not, as many people might expect, by a colleague or even a parent but by three of my former students who are now juniors as we found a chance to talk at the annual Local Family Picnic. “They look great,” I said. “Of course. You know! Given the emails they’ve been writing me about the books they’ve been reading.” One of them laughed and said, “Your favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015?” I laughed in return, responding “Absolutely!” knowing she was secure in the knowledge they were all part of my favourite Humanities 7 class of… 2010-2011. (For the record, I only teach one section of Humanities 7 each year, so the “favourite Humanities 7 class of…” line is something of a running joke.)

As I prepare for the imminent arrival on campus of my brand new students, as the middle school team prepares to bring together and start building this year’s community, I find myself focused not just on what the kids might be thinking and feeling but also on the parents. My son attended boarding school for three years and is about to start his junior year at college, so I know firsthand what parents are going through. The level of trust we parents place in a school when dropping off our children is powerfully and deeply touching, and part of what motivates me to do my absolute best each and every day is working to meet that trust (not that I need any more motivation than looking out at my students looking back at me!).

So it stopped me short when one of my virtual colleagues on Twitter, another teacher who is also a parent, wrote, “My son had nightmares of police killing him….when he walks in your classroom how will you comfort him? #Ferguson” That I would do something is unquestionable. The harder part is the what. I wrote back, “I keep searching for the answer to that. Empathy and a hug only go so far. Think of concrete actions we can take to fight racism?” I believe that kids, perhaps even more so than adults, want to feel they have some degree of control over the world around them. While we will never live in a perfect world, we can certainly work to move society towards greater understanding, inclusiveness, and acceptance. And including my friend’s child in coming up with ways to do so would hopefully help him feel more empowered.

My imminent students may or may not have had such nightmares, but certainly they must have some level of awareness of and concern over what has been going on in Ferguson. And every year I’ve ever taught Humanities 7, whatever might have been going on in the world, stereotypes have always been a hot topic at some point in the year, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more or less any other type of ism of which you could think. With 7th graders’ heightened sense of fairness and drive to bring justice about, we always end up brainstorming and discussing what people can actually do. Knowing concrete actions to take can be comforting.

Another of my virtual teacher-parent colleagues is expecting her first child, and she found herself in need of comforting post-Ferguson as well. Among the links and resources we shared in reaching out to her was a video made by Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations About Race.” It offers both some background information not everyone may know and a protocol to frame these conversations. The video, which takes about 22 minutes to watch, is an incredible resource for schools, other organizations, and people in general who want to help undermine the systemic racism that feeds stereotypes both deliberate and unwitting, people who want to move forward.

And really, moving forward is not an option but a necessity. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – besides systemic racism, we all have to deal with the effects of patriarchy on attitudes toward gender and sexuality, of classism on attitudes toward socioeconomic status, and so on. The intersections of all the various axes of privilege and oppression play out differently in different people, making each individual story matter deeply. So listening, learning, affirming, and acting are all important parts of the process. Moreover, as a global community wherein each of us is working to become our own best self, they are quite literally part of our school’s mission.

My friend who asked about her son wrote me, “thank you for the response. I appreciate it greatly. #village” It does indeed take a village. And that village is us.

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Filed under Current Events, On Education, On Parenting, Uncategorized

Potential Lives

Some years, if it suits a specific unit the Humanities 7 students have designed, I’ll do an activity where I will show them an image of Rodin’s sculpture “Celle qui fût la belle Heaulmière” (“She Who Used to Be the Beautiful Heaulmière”) and ask them for their reactions. Most years, their reactions will generally begin with either a generic “Ick” or surprise that a sculptor would have wanted to create that image in the first place. I then tell them the title of the sculpture and ask them if and how that would change their reactions. Finally, I read them a quote from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land that gives one of the character’s perspectives on a great artists’ ability to simultaneously show people as they are, suggest how they used to be, and show how that contrast affects them, and why he thus views this particular sculpture as a masterwork. While the students may or may agree that the sculpture is in fact a masterwork, they generally do come to view the work from the perspective of the subject and in the process engage deeply with concepts of beauty and self-image.

I decided to try the activity with this year’s class, and from the very first comment, these students were thinking from the perspective of the subject of the sculpture, shifting smoothly into a discussion of beauty, feelings, and self-image. External judgment was completely lacking from the conversations, replaced by a predominant sense that the subject of the image had probably had a tough life. Giving them the title of the sculpture evoked some additional discussion, so by the time I read the quote, it served more as a commentary on one aspect of what they had already discussed than a stimulus to more discussion.

Usually when I do this activity, it’s in the middle of a unit on Aesthetics and so relative notions of beauty are very much on the students’ minds. This year, our theme question took a slightly different direction than usual, and connects explicitly to the notion of judgment as it relates to physical appearance. So there’s a possibility that the overall context of the unit shifted the thinking of this year’s class from how most groups react. That’s especially true since our current read-aloud book is Wonder, which is about Auggie, a boy with mandibulofacial dysotosis and other complicating factors that result in severe facial anomalies, tracing his first experience in a real school when he enters the fifth grade and how his appearance affects those around him. The book is written from the point of view of several different characters, going forward and backward in time, which makes it particularly easy for students to examine and integrate multiple perspectives. Still, these students have exemplified empathy from day one, and I was not surprised that they were one of the classes that had atypical reactions to the Rodin sculpture.

These days, a lot of people are putting forth a concern that middle school students are not as empathetic as they used to be, affirming that fiction can play a key role in helping them develop a sense of empathy. I know my students were caring and empathetic the moment they walked into my classroom, but I also feel that the books we have read this year have offered them moments to think deeply about what it takes to be genuinely supportive and not just put forward good intentions. The students also brought up the notion that adults are by no means perfect in their own ability to empathize with and support others, citing a moment in the story when one mother photoshops Auggie out of a school picture and distributes copies to the other parents. You should have seen the shock on my students’ faces when I read that passage! But this also gave us an opportunity to talk about being a grown-up, and I offered the notion that growing up wasn’t just about becoming our own best selves but also about developing skills to handle those inevitable moments when we fall short.

Humanities 7, I write my new students and their families over the summer, is at its root about what it means to be human. Today was one of those days that brings home how achingly complex that can be. But it was also one of those days that brings home how much potential lives within each one of us.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized