We went through about 12 years of school before college. Every year, the varnish was put on, polishing up into “A plus learners.” Adding a thick layer of stuff to make us fit into a world that would someday need us to break the varnish off. For those of us who went into teaching, we took one of two paths… we accepted the varnish that had been put on us, trapping our creativity, our hearts, deep inside and we followed the rules, the standards, and we did things the way they had been done to us. We had just enough glimpses of following our intuition and hearts to feel alive. But, the varnish was there.
For others, we peeled away. We sanded. We had experiences that left huge holes in the varnish, letting it crack away and reveal our hearts through our teaching. We didn’t fit in. We were the ones who broke out of the system, who were trying to stop the varnish from being put on the next generation. We were trying to save them, and in the process save ourselves.
Maybe, the experiences that break you heart also set you free. You start to get rid of that varnish and you realize, your heart, intuition, and soul is coming out into what you do. And then? That’s when it feels right. Then it feels like you can save yourself, save the kids, and save the people who feel like they aren’t creative. Everyone deserves to pour their souls into their work. It makes you feel alive.
There’s no varnish remover for that 12 years of school, but the good news is, that creative soul that’s inside you as a kid is still there today. It’s time to break it free and see what happens.
I’ve been thinking about our youngest students and empathy. Last week I spent a few days at a super awesome Stanford dSchool workshop on Design Thinking and my head is still kinda spinning… in a good way. There’s a reason we have the word EMPATHIZE so huge on the wall in The Launch Pad. It’s that critical first step where design becomes all about thinking and feeling for someone else. Not feeling sorry for someone else, but actually putting yourself IN someone else’s shoes by hearing his or her story. Brene Brown said it best, “Empathy is about connection. Sympathy is about separation.”
So how can we start the conversation and thinking with our primary and elementary learners? I’ve been thinking of some ways to build their skills and have some fun along the way.
1.) Pictures. A site like Pixabay has wonderful searchable images with a variety of situations. These could be printed out for students to examine, write on, displayed on a large board for students to write ideas on Post-its and stick on the picture. By thinking deeply about the photo, students might begin to understand how to dissect and take apart the story of another person to help improve it.
2.) Charity Projects. Just about every school has a charity or collection of some sort at some point in the year. Whether it’s can goods for Thanksgiving, pennies for sick children, or even collecting supplies for local pet shelter, these projects provide great jumping points for discussion. Sometimes we ask kids to bring canned goods, but we never stop to talk about where those canned goods end up. Maybe a Skype call with a volunteer from the charity, pictures from social media of the organization that show real families being helped, or even a story about a student receiving help at a local charity.
3.) Connecting Through Social Media. I’ve always believed in the value of connecting your class with other classrooms around the world. When kids connect with others in their state, country, or world, it allows them to understand their differences, appreciate the cultures of another, and develop global thinking that, to be honest, is just part of our lives now.
4.) Books & Characters. A good story is a great tool to start with. Common Sense Media has an excellent list of books to use as a starting point. Getting to know a character and thinking deeply about who they really are is not only an excellent exploration into literacy skills, it’s a stepping stone to developing empathy. Stories online, like Scholastic’s Immigrant series, can be powerful tools, too. I created these character cards as discussion starters, and you’re welcome to use them, too.
5.) Partner Up. When kids are learning to use digital storytelling tools, we typically do a project where they tell about themselves. After watching this video, My Friend Isabel, I realized it might add more to the project if kids tell about each other. They could compare themselves in the story, taking turns and working together, and learning what it’s like to be someone else… practicing empathy.
Teaching empathy doesn’t have to be “one more thing to add” to class. It’s easy to tweak questions add in short discussions and work toward fostering skills throughout the year. It brings learning back to the real world where it belongs. It can lead up to powerful design projects where kids can meet users and design for them. I’m really excited about this aspect of the design process and I think the real power in designing is when kids think deeply about someone else. That will take practice for our little ones. Before we start designing, we’ll be learning to see with our hearts. And that is a view that is going to help build strength, confidence, kindness and caring, so it’s definitely time well spent.