Building a Classroom Culture with Empathy in Mind

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda are authors, friends, and colleagues. They co-authored the 2017 book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind.

Focusing on the first weeks of school with a personal reflection signals to your students what you value and how you value them. So, using an empathy map as a personal reflection that can be shared with classmates is a great place to start. However, what we do the first few weeks of class also needs to continuously become a part of the classroom culture. We suggest that you might establish this by emphasizing students are at the center of your classroom by intentionally gathering data with all senses.

[Want to know more about the 16 Habits of Mind? Get a short explanation of each habit, including Gathering Data with All Senses.]

Gathering data with all senses is helpful as you navigate new territories, relationships and connections. It helps us consider our students from multiple perspectives. Too often, we rely on only one sense as we build relationships—perhaps verbal, perhaps how the other is dressed, perhaps what we see them doing. However, when we use this empathy map, we are reminded that to really understand our students, we need to pay attention to all senses and all students. As with design thinking, we are trying to develop an understanding of who we will be designing for and with.

How will you know that you are partnering with the students in front of you to create more meaningful, authentic, and rigorous learning experiences? In our action research and consulting in personalizing learning, we discovered that applying these four attributes can help intentionally develop a student centered learning environment. Imagine introducing and reinforcing what you value and what your students can expect:

  • VOICE—a safe space where every learner is invited to share their thinking—become an advocate for ideas—learn how to present thinking to others—take on leadership.
  • CO-CREATION—open invitation to become a part of designing our learning experiences—help set up classroom policies and practices—join others in designing projects—take an active role in thinking about standards and demonstrations of performance—set goals.
  • SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION— a place where you can establish new networks—reach out to people outside of the classroom—discover the expertise and talents of your classmates—pursue your interests.
  • SELF-DISCOVERY—regular reflections to discover more about yourself—strengths and challenges; perspectives and assumptions; ahas and questions—who you are now—where you are going—who you would like to become.

After sharing ideas from your empathy maps, you might talk about how to design classroom rules and norms to support a healthy, vibrant classroom culture where everyone can thrive.

Want more ways to incorporate Habits of Mind and Personalized learning into your regular routines? We are running a back to school special through the first week of September.

We want to share the toolkits we designed specifically to promote learning practices and processes that elevate thinking, collaboration, and reflection in your classrooms.

Developing Academic Groups – 50% off special with code BACKTOSCHOOL

Coauthored by Mike Anderson, Bena Kallick, and Allison Zmuda

As we prepare for our opening weeks of school with our students, we want to communicate our unwavering belief that each of them belongs in an intellectual, academic environment.

We are motivated to set up our classes to believe that about themselves and also about one another. We gained so much insight by collaborating with Mike Anderson on this toolkit.

We focus on how teachers might create a safe space for struggling as learners by focusing on their thinking dispositions with the Habits of Mind, the language they use as they work respectfully with one another, and the ways they socially construct learning on behalf of everyone’s commitment to succeed.

Bundle of all 7 toolkits – 50% off special


The development of these toolkits was a labor of love to help promote clarity as to what personalized learning and habits of mind looks like, feels like, and sounds like in classrooms and in the school culture. We mined our decades of consulting practice to identify a handful of processes and practices that can be part of your learning ecosystem. Each toolkit provides clear directions and some possible prompts for reflection and future growth.

Both of these are limited time specials that will end on Friday, September 9th!

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