President Trump’s first address to Congress last month was a reminder of the important role education plays in the future of our country. Many of my students are the children of immigrants, and this year I know that it will be more critical than ever to highlight the importance of empathy, inclusion, and community in my classroom. Something I know many other teachers are thinking about as well.
The Power of Empathy
Empathy isn’t a new concept in my classroom ― we began learning it well before this election. My classroom is inclusive which means that every student in our school (starting in second grade) attends my technology course. ALL students. As a result I have a room that is typically filled with students with varying strengths and abilities. To make this work, empathy is key. We’ve spent time talking about the fact that everyone struggles at one thing or another, and that is why it’s important to support each other ― not tear each other down. The correct reaction to, “I don’t get this” is: “That happens to me, too” or “I know how that feels.” Reactions like, “What? That’s so EASY!” are identified for what they are: counterproductive and unsupportive.
I would like to say that I taught this to my students through inspiring lessons or creative role plays, but I honestly think one of the strongest ways I communicated the need for empathy when struggling is by struggling in front of them myself. When teaching them computer programing, I’ve showed them programs that have caused me to struggle. And as they’ve watched me fight my way through a line of code, the walls between student and teacher have crumbled. They see that learning is not exclusive to childhood — we are all learning and some things we learn fast, others we learn slow. It’s important, therefore, to pause and empathize with one another in the struggle.
One thing that’s helped a great deal is an animated video series ClassDojo developed with universities like Harvard and Stanford that focus on concepts such as empathy, perseverance, and growth mindset. Starring the monsters Mojo and Katie, the videos use familiar school scenarios to help students understand the importance of looking at things from another person’s perspective, and more. Plus my students really identify with the monster characters in ways I wish I could myself!
It was directly after watching one of these videos that my students banded together to help a fellow classmate. I teach one section of reading each day, and often we do what is called a partner read. My students love to experience the freedom of picking their own partners, with the exception of one student who finds picking a partner really stressful. His reactions ranged from frustration and sadness, to anger. So one day, when he was out of class, they came up with a plan. “We gotta find a way to help him get a partner without getting upset.” They told me. The plan they came up with was simple and so kind. We use chromebooks every day, and so we randomly put a sticker on one of the chromebooks and whoever ended up with the chromebook with the sticker was his partner. Their job was to immediately seek him out during free partner choice. The benefits to him have been fantastic. Because of this small change, he knows he is well-liked. And because so many people seek him out as a partner, his anxiety over not being chosen has disappeared. But the benefits to the rest of the class are also fantastic ― my students have been able to see things from another person’s perspective. They were able to put themselves in his shoes, and to understand that his emotional well-being is just as important as theirs. They are filled with a sense of fulfillment when they see him smile as they walk toward him and say, “Will you be my partner?”
How Empathy Builds Community
What amazes me about empathy is that once students start thinking about engaging differently with each other as individuals, we see the effect on the classroom as a whole. As they get familiar with the language and the concepts, my students have started taking ownership over making our classroom a more inclusive, welcoming space. They have come to understand that all class members are significant. The impact of this was clear not long ago, when a student in my class, who is a selective mute, volunteered to answer a question. Immediately after she spoke, her classmate said, “You should give her Dojo points for that! She was really brave!” It was not long after that we create a new way to encourage everyone to speak up in class. Through ClassDojo we created a Bravery skill where students would give each other points if they attempted something outside of their comfort zone. The end result of this peer recognition was that a few days later, the same girl drew a picture of herself behind a bank of microphones speaking to a large crowd. Her classmate had encouraged her, and now she felt powerful.
Using this Moment
Challenging times can make the world seem like a big, disconnected, and uncertain place, but in classrooms all across America, teachers like myself are working hard to build and strengthen the ties of community. Whatever the future holds, the next generation will be able to face it with an empathetic spirit that benefits every member of society. And thanks to Mojo, we know there’s a lot we can learn from a little green monster as well.
This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post on March 10, 2017
Jennifer Ellison is a reading specialist at Phillips Elementary in Napa, California.