Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Growing Empathy in Today's Tumultuous Society

In light of recent events, I know that many of us are wondering what has happened to bring about these horrific acts upon fellow humans. While at ILA, many of the informal chats face-to-face and on the conference hashtag revolved around What can we, as educators, do to equip our students for the world in which they live? ILA saw this pressing need and scheduled an impromptu conversation facilitated by Cornelius Minor. The room was filled to over capacity with literacy leaders and advocates from all over the world. Mr. Minor did an outstanding job modeling and guiding us through some of these difficult conversations. There was a lot of fear, worry, and tears during this conversation. We all have one purpose: leading our students to making this a better world. And that requires bravery. It involves speaking up and speaking out for all of our students. As I continue to marinate on all of this, I have determined that there are some thoughts that I need to express to my fellow "in-the-trenches" teachers.  If I want for my students to be open and honest, I must be willing to do the same.

One comment that was made during this discussion that has continued to ring in my head is:

Our students leave our classrooms and live different realities.

For the last couple of years, I have striven to bring in literature, historical events, and change-makers who are from different ethnicities and backgrounds so that my students can see themselves in their reading. They need to know that literacy is not just for one part of society. It is a key cog for every person, everywhere. And while I've spent two years reading research and growing my practice into one that is much more culturally responsive, I can't help but ask myself if this is enough. After this difficult conversation at ILA and discussions with respected colleagues and friends I can determine that NO, it is not enough.

Our world is greatly lacking in kindness and empathy for others. As literacy educators, we have the opportunity to use powerful stories to help our students experience the difficult realities that the peer sitting next to them may be living. Many of our students are able to turn off the heinous acts happening worldwide and their lives don't change. For other communities, it turns them on end; turmoil, fear, worry and anxiety blankets their neighborhoods and communities. Distrust builds between communities. And our students are ill-equipped to have the language or ability to have difficult conversations.

Unfortunately, what I hear too often from teachers and parents is that it is not for the schools to discuss. I respectfully disagree. Last year, I had students dealing with mental illness, homelessness, the loss of a parent, attempted suicide, abusive home lives, foster care, addiction, and questioning their sexuality. This is in addition to the usual, middle school drama of being "different," whether it's due to ethnicity, language, religion, appearance, or ability level. Those are very heavy topics for 11 and 12-year-olds to process and deal with in healthy avenues.

Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, said,

"Great stories are about being human."

If our students can walk for a mile in someone else's shoes, experience what lives are like for those who are different from them, they are gaining insight into a reality different from their own. Those characters become our "friends." And when readers meet a new peer, the experience gained through walking around for a time with those in different realities will evoke kindness and empathy for others, even if they are very different.

As teachers, it is crucial that we get these powerful stories into the hands of our students. I am not advocating that every book is for every student. We must know our students and their parents. Have conversations with them about difficult topics. Make sure that they are ready to wear another reality for a time. We no longer can afford to brush difficult conversations under the rug and ignore them.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for lives outside the classroom walls. So let's dig into these great stories and nurture empathy in each of our learners. Because our students deserve a better present and future than what we have now.

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