Turning Empathy Into Action

Turning Empathy Into Action

post by Rebecca Marsick, 2018-20 Associate of The Educator Collaborative

Turning Empathy Into Action

Nearly a year ago at NCTE 2018, Chad Everett’s statement at the end of the incredible workshop he ran (alongside Sara Ahmed, Jess Lifshitz, and Tricia Ebarvia, “Reading for Freedom and Identity”) made me involuntarily take a very sharp inhale. He ended his piece of this workshop, built around helping students and teachers unpack their individual identities in order to think about the various lenses through which we see others, with the following statement:

“The end of empathy is not emotions, it is action.”

In my role as a former English teacher and current literacy coach, I have been working with students and teachers for years to bring a wide variety of texts into our curriculum in order to help build empathy. I regularly talk to adults and students about the research behind how books build empathy in readers. In this regard, I felt comforted knowing that I was helping students and teachers to (hopefully) read books about a diverse range of topics and people which would (potentially) create empathetic people who would be more aware of the diversity in the world around them. My sharp inhalation was the result of the realization that this was so clearly not even close to enough. How could I not have seen this? How could I have thought this was enough?

Fortunately, in my role as a literacy coach, I work closely with a social studies teacher, Cathy Schager, who embeds activism into the core of her work with students, and she has asked me to collaborate with her on many of her class’ worthy endeavors. Through this work, we are striving to uncover the means to help students turn empathy into action, regardless of the content area. Ultimately, we believe that the first step in this process is inquiry.

These are the steps we have taken to help students use inquiry to build empathy, and turn this into action:

  1. It all starts with writing. 

Writing is thinking. It is a way to process our thoughts. As John Antonetti, author of 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong, has told us, “You can’t ask students to share their thinking if you haven’t allowed them to have a thought.” Journaling, especially when beginning a new topic, allows students the ability to have many thoughts. 

Often, we like to begin class by having students open their notebooks and respond to a prompt for 5-10 minutes. This is not something that we grade or even collect; rather, it is a way to get students to think about an idea before we ask them to share it, which gives students time to process their thinking. This time, in turn, means that more students then feel prepared to share. 

The following are examples of prompts we have used to get students thinking about specific concepts in a course.

AP Economics: What is the most valuable thing in your bedroom? 

  • Students will be learning about the way items are valued in this course. This prompt helps them think about the different definitions people connect to value.

US History: What was a time that was important in your history?

  • This prompt encourages students to think about what each of us deem to be “important” in our own histories, which will later be transferred to the lenses we use to evaluate US history.

Contemporary World: What is a place that you love?

  • Students in this class are encouraged to study the ways in which people and cultures are similar throughout the world as opposed to focusing on differences.

Book Clubs on Othering: Who do you feel most yourself with and why?

  • Through reading books and discussing the concept of othering, students are thinking about what makes someone feel like they belong to a group or not.
  1. Create a space for difficult conversations.

In order to have students work towards activism, they need to begin uncovering their own biases and beliefs. This is uncomfortable and difficult work, but it is work that is essential and too often missing from many classrooms. We are by no means experts in this area, but these are some of the norms we have established in helping to create a safe space for difficult conversations. 

During class share, the teacher models appropriate reactions. 

  • Often times, our students respond in inappropriate ways because they are uncomfortable. As teachers, we step in during these moments and model how to respond as a way to counteract a student’s response. This allows us to help the class see an appropriate response while not embarrassing students for their actions or behaviors. 

Approach everything as curious observers.

  • We are all researchers, curious about how the world works. This is the role we want our students to play when we are first talking about an idea. We need to ask questions and learn about a topic before we can delve into specific conversations with one another. So, at this point in the conversation, we ask students to pose questions that we can begin to unpack with the understanding that these questions reflect our curiosity.

Collect data from class, not reactions.

  • Students know that when we are having these discussions, we are using their ideas as a way to collect data on patterns of thinking. We are not looking at a specific individual’s ideas, but rather at how the collective group is thinking. We chart the responses that students give, but not the names of the individual students. This way, when we are finished sharing, we can look for patterns in the responses and discuss those, rather than what individual students think. 

Teach wait time.

  • It is an important life skill for students to learn wait time, especially if something is said that angers or upsets them. We talk to students about not having an immediate emotional response because the ability to use one’s words, rather than one’s emotions, to convey anger is much more powerful and impactful.

Be Reflective.

  • Think. Reflect. Students need to be accountable for their actions and words. One of the ways to hold them to this is to ask them to reflect upon what they have said and what others in the class have conveyed. Noticing emotional reactions and unpacking WHY we have them is a critical tool for students to use. So, we make sure to give time for written reflection, sometimes during the discussion and other times at the end.

Know when to step in and adjust conversation.

  • As teachers, we need to sense when the discussion is moving in an unproductive direction. This is when we step in and point out some questions students can think about to redirect the conversation and/or ask students to take some time to write a reflection concerning how they are feeling and why, as well as how to move the discussion in a more productive direction. In some cases, this means tabling the discussion for the day.

Give strategies for what to do if a student feels triggered.

  • We always allow students to leave the room without question if they are feeling uncomfortable. They can take some time in the hall, get a drink, or speak with a guidance counselor if necessary. We then touch base with them afterwards so that we can understand how to help them in the future. These conversations are not mandatory for every student, as we recognize that each individual’s experience means that they react and interpret ideas in different ways.

In order to begin guiding students in how to have these conversations, we use specific texts to help with content that is relatively “safe.” We NEVER start with very controversial issues that are personal to the students in the class. We need to help students understand HOW to navigate difficult conversations before engaging in them. Therefore, we use examples from:

  • Pop culture, like Beyonce’s video for “Formation” and related articles about the choices she made and their cultural and historic relevance;
  • Poems from Eve Merriam’s Inner City Mother Goose from 1969 that use the traditional Mother Goose stories to detail issues in the inner cities;
  • Current issues in the media;
  • Social media like Twitter and Instagram posts;
  • Images such as memes that have gone viral.

The key to finding “safe” content is to listen to students’ conversations and see what they are talking about because this is what they are curious about. Anything that is relevant to their lives will be a great jumping off point for discussion.

  1. Promote student inquiry.

In Harvey Daniels’ The Curious Classroom (2017), he states:

“Studies show that curiosity is a measurable mind-state during which learners not only hoover up information about a topic, but will also remember extraneous or accompanying events. In other words, we seem to have a “curiosity switch” that, when flipped, can juice up powerful learning (Strauss 2012)” (Daniels, xvii).

Curiosity leads to inquiry, which is at the heart of student (and all individual!) engagement. If we want our students to really understand ideas and content, with our guidance, we need to give them choice in determining which aspects of the content they are most interested in. This is where inquiry becomes an essential part of the learning process, especially when we are asking students to delve into topics that may contradict their current mindset. We want them to choose an area where they may already have an opinion, but recognize that they have a lot more to learn and are interested in doing so. 

There are many ways to engage students in inquiry, from using the @RightQuestion Question Formulation Technique (https://rightquestion.org/what-is-the-qft/) to get students asking questions, to having students explore articles and picture books for a period to get a quick idea of what they are interested in focusing on, to doing a quick Internet Run in which students have 5-10 minutes to enter a specific search term and begin asking questions about the information they find. 

One way that we have helped students think about where their areas of interest lie are through book clubs. Books such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, and How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon all tackle multiple social issues in stories with teenage protagonists. Whether or not our students can see themselves in the issues, they can see parts of themselves in the characters, which draws them into thinking about the social issues.

Fortunately, there are many books that you can draw from that address a diverse range of issues and people. Some places to look are We Need Diverse Books (https://diversebooks.org/), #DisruptTexts  (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23DisruptTexts&src=tyah), 1000 Black Girl Books blog (https://grassrootscommunityfoundation.org/1000-black-girl-books-resource-guide/), and The Nerdy Book Club blog (https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/). 

As students read, they are responsible for choosing an issue that is interesting to them and then begin doing research on that issue. However, we feel it is essential that students track their thinking (and shifts in thinking) throughout this process so they can understand that the purpose of learning is to recognize the lens through which we understand social issues as well as how that impacts our ideas about people and cultures. The exploratory essay (this is an example of what students write based upon the books listed above(https://docs.google.com/document/d/1_l4jf_lxRVf11lO3qNQM_wkvQARvVEUtCPJ35-Yss2g/edit?usp=sharing)) is a really powerful way to do this. 

The basic premise of an exploratory essay is that it requires students to notice where they stand on an issue before they begin researching, notice how their thinking changes as they research an issue through multiple lenses, and where their thinking is at the end of the research. In fact, in this type of essay, students start with a question and end with a thesis.

Once they have engaged in this type of research-based inquiry they are often angry about the issue and the injustice of how people are treated. Now they have developed the empathy necessary to decide how to turn their inquiry into action.

  1. Turn inquiry into action.

Here is where I will come back to Chad Everett’s original statement that made me rethink the work I was doing in classrooms with both teachers and students.

“The end of empathy is not emotions, it is action.”

I now have an addendum to this statement. Recently, I read an article by Beverly Tatum in the Harvard Educational Review entitled “Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom.” In it, Tatum states, “Heightening students’ awareness of racism without also developing an awareness of the possibility of change is a prescription for despair.”

This statement reinforced for me the importance of giving students tools for activism as, just as with “heightening awareness about racism” can lead to despair, so can having a heightened awareness about other social issues. Yet, embracing activism in the classroom can seem like a daunting task for teachers. It doesn’t have to be.

We have seen students engage in many forms of activism as a natural growth from their initial inquiry. After students have done the work of researching and noticing how their own thinking has shifted, they really begin to care about the issue on a grander scale. Now, they are ready to engage in activism. The key is that students need to be the ones to determine the form of activism they would like to engage in. Some possibilities we have seen are:

  • Writing an open letter to a local paper on the issue as it affects our community;
  • Creating a space in the school for students to reflect on the issue, and then looking at these school-wide reflections as more data;
  • Speaking with administration based upon the information we have collected and building an assembly for students to attend;
  • Creating informative posters based upon the research to place around the school to inform students on an issue;
  • Building and moderating a panel with experts on the issue for community members to attend;
  • Speaking to reporters from the school paper about the issue;
  • Writing and filming a documentary about the issue and then holding a screening for the community.

We have noticed that students often want to confront the issue starting on the local community level. Through their work, they have begun to foster and moderate difficult conversations among their peers and other community members and organizations. This is where we see our work with students paying off the most, for it is only when students feel empowered to begin doing the work themselves that the real change will happen.