Cultivating Student Empathy: Acting to Understand

Social Justice & Empathy

How do we help students to move beyond their own perspectives to understand the lives of others? How do we challenge them to deeply understand another person whose life and experiences differ greatly from their own? How do we cultivate empathy, compassion, and even love across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and disability?

These questions lie at the heart of social justice education.

To create a truly equitable society, we must be able to empathize with experiences we may never share. We must break down “empathy walls” to transform our society. But how do we do so?

Theater in the history classroom provides one possible answer.

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Responsive Classroom: Empathy Is The Key

Kuleana responsibility

I learned a new word: kuleana. It’s a Hawaiian word that means one’s personal sense of responsibility. I accept my responsibilities and I will be held accountable.

As an educator, having a vision is important. We have a great responsibility to our students and to society. I’m privileged to be an educator, and part of my vision is to teach children not only academic skills, but social-emotional skills that will prepare them to master this concept of kuleana and use it throughout their lives.

This same personal sense of responsibility is naturally embedded in the work I do every day. I’m part of a community of educators who believe in the principles of the Responsive Classroom, a K-8 approach to teaching and learning which includes specific tools, strategies, and practices to help teachers provide a high-quality education to every student, every day. It’s not an add on nor a stand-alone program. These principles, woven into everything we do, how we speak, and how we model behavior, are based on research that shows a strong link between academic success and social-emotional learning.

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Mindfulness In The Classroom

For me, it all started with a simple chime. That’s how I first implemented the core practice of breathing — on purpose — into my classroom’s daily routine. The chime was a simple, calming sound to alert the students it was time to breathe. Sure, I felt a bit silly asking kids to bow their heads and mindfully breathe, but I did it anyway and, with each passing day, the chime and breathing practice were just part of our classroom culture — a routine I looked forward to throughout the day.

inscribed heartYou can use a chime or any sound effect that unites the group for its mindful breathing moment — a quiet, peaceful, mini-break that brings calm to the classroom. Bonus: You may find, as I did, that it allows you to achieve a focused state of mind for your own thinking. Breathing practice has become a routine in my personal life as well.

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