Teaching Empathy

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, not just in my students, but also in adults. There’s a lot going on in the world right now and in Canada that gives me hope and that makes me sad about humanity in general and I see my classroom as a little microcosm of that.

There are times when students do things without thinking about the consequences and how their actions will affect others. There are times when adults and world leaders do things without thinking as well. We all do. But how can we fix this problem? How can we help students (and adults) to learn empathy, to not only think but care about the affect their choices have on other.

The other day I was driving and the person in front of me was driving really slowly. This annoyed me because I wanted to get home at the end of a long day but I knew there was nothing I could do about it other than hope that this person was going to turn at some point. And then someone came up behind me and started tailgating me, even though I was not the reason we were going slowly. But I thought, even if I was the reason we were going slowly, how is tailgating me going to help anything? It’s just going to make me upset (which it did) and worry for my safety. I could have moved closer to the car in front of me, but what good would that have done? I could have slowed down and made the person behind me even more frustrated but how would that help? Revenge doesn’t usually make people see the “error of their ways” it just generally makes them more angry and continues the viscous cycle. But it also seems to be very much a part of our human nature, a part that I would like to get away from.

I’m not blameless in this. I’ve had people “wrong” me in some way and I’ve planned out and sometimes even exacted my revenge. It never helps. And it’s funny, you hear people say things like “I’m going to do this because they did that. And then they’ll be sorry!” And does it make the other person sorry? Not that I’m aware of. Revenge doesn’t fix anything.

A few years ago I used this great program with my class for Health that talked a lot about anger management and forgiveness and empathy and how to deal with breaking the revenge cycle. It was really fantastic and I wish I could use it again. I have an older version of the program in my classroom right now that I’m going to try out but it isn’t the same. Other classes in our school are trying out this “Roots of Empathy” program where they bring a baby into the classroom at different times throughout the year and there are lessons all about empathy built around the visits. These are great programs. I hope that teaching our students to see outside of themselves, to see beyond their first reactions will help them to grow into carrying individuals, because goodness knows we could use more like that in this world.

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3 weeks?

It’s hard to believe that Christmas break is coming up so soon! It feels like I just started teaching this class and yet I’ve been their teacher for 2 months already. I spent a long time at school on Wednesday trying to get a few things sorted and cleaned up a little and put a little extra reminder to a few of my students to help in the whole organizing process and it was nice to have a few around at recess to help sort the art work into folders and sharpen pencils. I need to put labels on a few of the baskets I’ve put around for various things so that students don’t have to continuously ask me where to put things (in theory) but I’m glad I’ve got a few more things sorted away.

We’ve been trying out this problem of the week idea that I had, though we’ve been working on the same problem for two weeks now and hopefully we’ll be able to discuss it tomorrow. The “problem” I put to them last week was about a class pet. When I first started teaching this class that was something they asked about and I said I would consider it, and I have and it’s something I’ve wanted to try out. I’m leaning (and the kids are leaning) towards a reptile of some kind because they seem to be easier to keep without having to bring them home over the weekend. There’s a lot to do to set up a habitat though so I wanted my students to do the research about what all would be involved, what it would cost to start and for upkeep.

Last week, their efforts were less than stellar but there was a lot else going on. This week I managed to impart on them that if they weren’t willing to do the research, I wasn’t sure that we could get a pet. And now I’m starting to see their efforts. I have a few writing out information on paper and posting it on our problem of the week board, and others posting on our class edmodo site.

Over the next three weeks leading up to the break, I know that there are going to be a lot of interruptions for practice for the concert and for assemblies and things. I’m hopeful that we’ll have three good weeks though.

Recharging batteries

It’s been a long few weeks. Between report cards and parent teacher interviews and French class and teaching and life, I’m pretty tired but I had a decent sleep last night. I was in bed for 12 hours, wasn’t asleep for all of it but not too bad. Woke up with a sore jaw and vague memories of stressful dreams so I know I haven’t managed to calm the stress down completely but I’m getting there.

I decided to take another French course. The last one I took was good, I love the instructor, she’s fantastic, but I took the one geared towards people with an intermediate plus or advanced level of French (I have advanced) instead of the advanced plus to superior class. Last year I took the one for advanced plus to superior because it was on a day I could go and the lower level one conflicted with rehearsal. I got more out of the one last year. This one I felt like many of the people in the class were reluctant to try to talk which I found frustrating. I mean, it’s nice to be near the top of the class, but I didn’t feel as challenged as I had. So I was really happy that the instructor asked me and another student if we’d like to join this French writing class coming up. It’s geared towards a higher level of French but she thought we could handle it. It would be three Saturdays in November.

The first problem was that last week after finishing up my report cards and dealing with another issue on Friday, I completely forgot about class. I slept in, got some stuff done and then suddenly in the afternoon realized that I hadn’t gone! Well that was pretty terrible. I wrote the instructor and apologized. Then she sent me the homework we had to do for next week. Part of it involved going to this website and doing these diagnostic quizzes focused on verbs, specifically the subjunctive tense, which I’ve always found hard. Anyway, I finally got around to trying them out during parent teacher interviews and I’ve never been so frustrated. The first one I got 40%, and that was the highest mark I got. On one of them I got 5%. Yup, I got one question right out of 20! I was so frustrated! I couldn’t figure it out.

So I went to class yesterday but had sort of decided that if it was too hard, if I was too frustrated, I would leave at lunch. I know that being frustrated and feeling challenged is a sign of learning and that’s good, but if it was all too far above me than I wouldn’t get anything out of it. It turned out to be okay. Yes, it was really hard and yes, I did much worse than a lot of people but I also noticed that most of the people there were high school French immersion teachers and that most of them already have a superior certificate for speaking French and just want to improve their writing. So I listened and contributed a little and tried and pushed through my frustration. But I have to admit I cried a little on the drive home because it’s hard feeling that far behind. All I wanted to do last night was curl up on the couch and have my husband bring me food while we watched TV so I could recharge my batteries.

I know that my students, especially those who are new to Canada must feel like this a lot of the time. In fact, I met with a few parents who just came to Canada this year and they were worried about how their children weren’t as happy as they would like them to be. There’s one in particular, it’s more obvious because they’re part of a set of twins. One is very easy going and doesn’t mind making mistakes and takes all these new challenges very much in stride. The other is more competitive and more of a perfectionist. He’s used to being at the top of the class and is finding learning English and French and just being in a new country very frustrating. He’s unhappy. I get it. I totally get it.

Tomorrow I’m going to share this story about my French class and my frustration with my students. I’m going to tell them how frustrated I was and how much it hurt my self esteem to show those quiz results to my instructor and how I cried on my way home, but also how I decided to stay in the class and do the work and get past that frustration. How I did some self care and asked for some comfort when I needed it to help me deal with my emotions so that hopefully they will be able to make similar choices about their learning.

We are our choices

I’m struggling with an issue that I haven’t dealt with in a while and one I didn’t really see coming, which probably makes it that much worse. The problem is willful defiance. Someone making the choice that they don’t care about their own learning or the learning of others and refusing to do work because they just don’t want to and don’t care one little bit what I say about it.

I get that as teachers it is our job to encourage, to coax, to guide students towards learning. We make it fun, we play games, we sing songs, we read books, we model, we talk about why what we are learning about is important, not only now but in the future. I do all those things and more in my classroom and yet of course I encounter students who decide that French is not important. It’s too hard or it’s too boring or it’s just not for them and no matter how many songs and dances (literally) I do or how many videos and real life examples and speeches I give about how important French is I feel like I’m fighting against something much bigger and more systemic than I can possibly win. But I keep trying, I keep encouraging, I keep teaching because it’s my job and because I honestly do believe that learning French is important and beneficial. I do.

For some students, I see that they’re struggling. For some they’re struggling in English or they’re trying to learn English and French for the first time and that’s hard. Sometimes they have learning disability or some sort of other cognitive problem that makes learning a new language challenging. Sometimes it’s an anxiety issue where they’re afraid of making mistakes or frustrated by the fact that they can’t express themselves as well in French as they can in their first language. All that I get. I have the utmost sympathy and compassion for those struggles. That’s why I try to focus on the positive. I don’t punish for speaking English and I have lots of discussions with my class about what they’re learning and how they’re learning and why we’re doing what we’re doing so that hopefully they’ll understand.

So I think that’s why this blatant refusal, this “I just don’t feel like it.” this flippant oppositional behaviour floored me so badly. This was coming from a student who is quite bright and capable, but, frankly, lazy. And maybe I need to reevaluate my thinking. Maybe this student is just bored and needs to be challenged in a different way. But this is also a student who when told to stop play fighting at school (like with punches and stuff) said that he didn’t want to stop because it’s “hilarious”.

All this triggered a thought process about choices and how everyday we all make so many choices about what we’re going to do, whether it’s something that we want to do or not. When my alarm goes off in the morning I choose to get up and get ready for school even though I’d prefer to sleep in for a few more hours before going to work. I choose to eat healthy food because I know that I’ll work better if I’ve eaten well even though I might want to have a chocolate bar instead. When I’m at work, I stay late after my students leave doing things that are not my preferred activities like marking or filling out paperwork rather than talking with my co-workers or going home early because I know it’ll help my students to learn by informing my teaching. When I come home, I make the choice to cook supper and do some cleaning because I want to eat good food and I dislike mess more than I dislike cleaning (though just slightly).

Now I know that I’m very privileged and that my upbringing and my life have made it easier for me to make these choices. I’m a bilingual white Canadian in the middle class. I have amazing parents and I had a better childhood than most. I have a good education, a great job, a supportive husband and a safe living space full of good food and heat and water and love. All of my basic needs have been met my whole life. I’ve always been encouraged to be independent, industrious and empathetic. So yes, I get that it’s not that easy for everyone to make those good choices all the time.

But I also feel like, okay, my job as a teacher is to help students to learn. If a student makes a mistake on their work I help them to fix it by re-teaching or (even better) by giving the student the tools to fix it themselves. In my opinion it’s the same with behaviour. If a child makes a mistake with their behaviour, I re-teach what they need to fix the mistake or give them the tools to fix it themselves. But what do I do when a student just flat out refuses? When they are basically mocking what I am trying to do? I try very hard to not take it personally but it’s hard.

Obviously this child is quite independent, at least in some ways, so that can be a good thing. Honest, to a fault, and has their own agenda about what is and is not important in education. So how can I help this child make good choices about doing work?

Light at the end of the tunnel

Yesterday I needed to write a 150 word piece for a French class that I’m taking so I didn’t write a blog post. I’m starting to see the end of all the extra work that report cards bring. My students took their reports home today so I can’t change them any more. I changed another one this morning. Parent teacher interviews start tomorrow and go until Friday and then it’s back to our regularly scheduled teaching which will be nice. I’m treating myself to a supper at the mall followed by a movie with a few friends tonight and even though I feel like  should stay until my desk is cleaned and everything is put away, I’m leaving school at 5 tonight which feels early. Speaking of, the cutest thing yesterday, one of my students was here late for an art class after school and he saw I was still here. He told me he’d noticed how early it was getting dark and that he was worried about me staying here until after the sun went down because the moon doesn’t give a lot of light. So sweet.

Responses to events in the news

The attacks in Paris are very upsetting. The attacks in Beirut and the fires in Indonesia and earthquake in Japan and the Syrian’s fleeing their country and all the other places that are experiencing suffering of some kind, it’s upsetting. I’m very glad that, of my friends at least, I’m not seeing this turn into any anti-Muslim or anti-refugee or anti-immigrant rallying point. I’m glad that my friends are not that short sighted to think that a small group of extremists reflect on the majority of peaceful people. As I’ve said before, I have many students in my class this year and in previous years who are immigrants, who are Muslim, and even some refugees in the past, and I will turn all mama bear on anyone who would try to tell me that they are bad just because of their religion or the country of their birth or the country of their parents’ birth.

I worry about how to talk about these events with my students, because I know they’ll want to discuss it tomorrow in class. I think it’s important for them to know what’s going on in the world, it helps them to become caring global citizens. But these things are pretty scary. Luckily, when I was listening to RDC yesterday after my run, they were discussing just this issue. They were saying how it’s difficult to find sources of information about news events that are geared towards children where it’s not talking down to them and giving all the facts in a way that children can understand. They suggested a BBC website called Newsround. This site shows all the latest news from around the world geared towards children and one thing I really appreciated is that they have an article about what to do if you’re upset by the news. It has advice for children about what they can do if they find the news upsetting. For example, it says:

Some stories reported by Newsround can make you feel sad – but you are not the only one and it’s OK to have those feelings.

Upsetting events often make the news because they don’t happen very often.

Throughout the site they show examples of, not only the upsetting events, but also showing the helpers, showing the peaceful responses across the globe to tragedy. I think it’s important that children see that revenge and retaliation aren’t the way to deal with issues.

I’m a big Doctor Who fan. The latest two parter episode did something that I love, actually, it’s one of the big reasons that I love Sci-Fi and Fantasy in general, because they can show big, real issues but from a different perspective without seeming preachy because they’re dealing with aliens or elves, not immigrants or religious extremists. Anyway, in these two episodes they were dealing with a problem where this race of aliens had settled on the Earth and were trying to blend in. There was a peace accord but now a small group of extremists wanted to rise up, destroy the peace and take over the planet. Between one government official wanting to spontaneously destroy all the aliens and the leader of the extremists wanting to kill all the humans and take over the world, the Doctor had to try to solve the problem with as little lives lost as possible. Sounds impossible.

Doctor Who

I was worried about how they were going to solve this. Doctor Who gets very dark sometimes and people die because it reflects reality. I won’t spoil the ending because maybe you watch the show and maybe you’re not up to date on the latest episodes.

Likewise, my husband and I were watching Star Trek TNG last night (I know, I’m a huge geek and I’m proud of it) and again, there was an episode that was so obviously a parallel to real world events. The Cardassians had forcibly removed the Bajorans from their home world and now the Bajorans have been resettled on other planets, living in poverty. Sound familiar? And again, there was no easy answer in this episode, just like there’s no easy answer in real life, but what I love about the kind of Sci-Fi that I watch and read is that they show how revenge just creates more pain, not less, and that diplomacy and empathy will get you much further than guns and bombs. I want to believe that this is true in real life as well.

Thinking outside the box and outside the classroom

My report cards are more or less done. They’re signed and photocopied and sitting on my desk next to the envelopes that already have names on them I just have to put them in the envelopes and I have to make an insert to go with them with some information about them and the parent teacher interview time. So now I get to breathe a little this weekend and think about something other than report cards.

I have a few students who are disconnected from school. There are a few who miss a lot of time or are chronically late and when they are at school, getting them to do actual work is a major chore. Getting them to follow simple rules actually can be frustrating at times. But I’m trying to make connections and get to know them as people so I can help them to feel connected to our school. I know I can’t win them all over but I’m certainly going to try.

When I woke up this morning I had a bit of a brainstorm that is still not quite fully formed so I’m looking for some ideas about how to do this. I want my students to be creative thinkers and I want them to feel like they can make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of others. I want them to feel like they matter and that they are the ones in charge of their own learning.

I was listening to the radio last weekend and they were talking about these creative people coming up with these amazing ideas to help combat climate change. There was one story about someone who lived near a glacier that was melting too quickly and not reforming any more in the winter. The towns around were drying up and people had to move away because nothing would grow. So this person decided to re-form the glacier. He dug deep into the earth on a side of a mountain where the sun didn’t shine in the winter and trucked in tons of snow. Over time, the glacier started to re-form and then in the summer, the sun would melt some of the ice and irrigate the land. Another story talked about people painting the sides of mountains white because the black rocks were absorbing the sun’s heat and melting the ice too quickly, so if the rocks were white, they would reflect the heat and the ice could melt slower.

This is the kind of thinking that I feel we need; people who can come up with new and creative solutions to problems, not just follow what we’ve always done in the past. We’re living in a world of rapid change and we’re going to have to adapt quickly. I feel that we also need people who care about what’s going on in the world and care about what’s happening with other people so that they’ll want to help them and want to come up with solutions.

So my brainstorm this morning was to have some sort of “problem of the week” board, probably on my flip chart and also on Edmodo where I post a problem up at the beginning of the week. All week long they can write down questions or ideas and then we look at what they came up with as a class at the end of the week. I’m not talking closed answer problems or silly math problems like “If Bill had 20 watermelons and John took 15, how many does BIll have? (Better question, why is John taking watermelons?)” – though some I’d like to involve math, but also questions involving science, art, philosophy, real world problems, real school problems and real classroom problems that could have many solutions. I think this is a really cool idea. But here’s my problem, what problems should I put up? What is a realistic problem to ask 9 – 11 year olds to think about? Any ideas?

My other big idea, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, in fact it’s in my professional growth plan for the year, is getting out into the community and having my students volunteer and do more field trips. Again, this is a great idea and I think it will help with my students feeling involved in their learning and all that great stuff but I’m a little stumped for ideas of where to go and what to do. I’ve been thinking about the Syrian refugees though and I’ve been toying with the idea of partnering with the Multicultural Association somehow to have my students help out in some way. They’ve talked about a desire to help and I think, especially with the very multicultural group that I have, that they could be very helpful in some ways, some could even act as interpreters. But again, these are just vague ideas and I need something more concrete. So I’m looking for some help.