Zooming in on Empathy

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Happy new year! During the holiday season, I took some time to reflect back on the ideas, imaginings, and provocations in the posts and the newsletters this past year. The intention of this community is to grow the personal behind personalized — valuing contributions and collaborations that generate fresh thinking, courageous actions, and remaining open to continuous learning. This newsletter’s focus on empathy is a good place to start.

It  was initially  inspired by a recent EdWeek commentary authored by Thomas R. Hoerr as he asked us to consider embedding essential curricular elements for the world we live in right now. Hoerr states:

As the economic world becomes globalized, competition for many jobs transcends political boundaries and continents. We have to wonder whether tomorrow’s technological advances will enhance our ability to solve problems or if they will render our human, carbon-based efforts superfluous. These questions have enormous implications for what schools include in their curriculum.

But if we step back and look at the big picture—if we consider what is essential in every situation, regardless of what technology or the workplace may require—it’s the ability to know oneself and work with others, our human literacy, that is essential for success. Today and tomorrow, people with strong intrapersonal and interpersonal success skills will be better able to solve just about every problem…

The qualities I call the “formative five” — empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit—comprise these intrapersonal and interpersonal success skills and become human literacy.

We are zooming in on empathy — what it is and how to grow that in our students, ourselves, and our school community.

We begin with a short animated video from Brene Brown in which she describes empathy is “feeling with people” — understanding their perspective without judgment, recognizing emotion in other people and connecting to that. Perspective-taking ties in beautifully with Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s Habit of Mind on listening with understanding and empathy to expand our thinking and our worldview.

How do you begin to incorporate this as part of your practice?

  • Bena and I get the party started clarifying why empathy is fundamental to personalized learning.
  • Based on the powerful suggestions of d.school, perspective taking is built into this empathy map where students can become more attuned to empathy to better understand point of view in literature, history, current climate as a potential launch for design thinking or more connected communication to others.
  • We welcome back Jill Thompson as she describes how teachers can use empathy maps to better understand student engagement, motivation and struggle.
  • Another familiar blogger on Learning Personalized, Eric Chagala, describes how school leaders can grow talent in the organization from a central frame of empathy that sought to honor his faculty’s humanity. “What have you always wanted to do with students that you have never been able to do?”
  • Finally, I was inspired by Michael Neihoff’s list of topics in a March 2018 blog post that can be leveraged both for empathy and curricular content knowledge (adapted down below). What other topics come to mind? Share your ideas with the community via Twitter or send to my email!
    • Climate Change – Climate Change will likely impact our students most comprehensively. Issues such as weather, sea levels, food security, water quality, and air quality are ripe for exploration. Many organizations – such as NASA, The National Park Service, National Center for Science Education, National Oceanic Atmospheric Association and SOCAN to name a few – are working to bring climate change curriculum and projects to teachers and students.
    • Health Care – Since this has become a prominent topic in the national debate, students are becoming aware of the issues in our country related to rising costs, access, quality and equity. They know that this issue is connected to profits, insurance, bureaucracy and more, but they also have a fresher sense of how it could be different, and how we could learn from others around the world. The work on this topic, like many others, is being led by our universities. Institutions such as University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins and Stanford are leading the way.
    • Food Insecurity – 13 million young people live in food-insecure homes, almost all of our students, as well as educators, know someone who is hungry on a daily basis. Differences in socioeconomic status, opportunities for growth, housing, security, support services and more can lead to high quality project based learning complete with research, data analysis, diverse solutions and ultimately a variety of calls to action. If you want to see how one teacher and his students transformed not only their school, but entire community related to food insecurity, check out Power Of A Plant author Stephen Ritz and the Green Bronx Machine.
    • Violence – Students care about their collective safety and futures, but also know something can be done. In addition to the specifics related to school violence and safety, students can study details of how to advocate, organize, campaign and solicit support, learn that this is a complex problem that has many plausible causes, and, perhaps most importantly, hope for progress. They also know that although they are concerned about attending school in safe environments, our society and culture have violence-related problems and issues that they want to see addressed. Following the recent incident in Florida and the subsequent response from students, the New York Times has compiled a list of resources for educators on this topic.
    • Homelessness – The topic of homelessness has garnered more attention than ever as more and more communities wrestle with a growing homeless population. We often hear from educators, employers and others that we want to raise adults that are able to solve problems, improve our communities, and have the ability to see beyond themselves. In addition to opportunities for our students and schools to partner with local non-profit organizations dealing with homelessness, this topic, like others, is also a great way to elicit empathy in our students. Organizations like Bridge Communities, National Coalition For The Homeless, Homeless Hub and Learning To Give are some of the many leading the way.
    • Sustainability – Students are becoming more and more aware that our very future as a species depends on how we address sustainability challenges. Students have tremendous opportunities to collaborate, think critically, communicate, and be creative when questioning if a current practice, method, resource or even industry is sustainable without dramatic change and shifts. Students who tackle these challenges will be our leaders – business, political and cultural – of the future. Educators and students can find almost infinite resources and partners. A few of these are Green Education Foundation, Green Schools Initiative, Strategic Energy Innovations, Facing the Future and Teach For America.
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Carol Delvecchio
Carol Delvecchio
5 years ago

Empathy is fundamental to the creation of enduring relationships. I am 100% dedicated to connecting with as many of my students as is humanly possible. It is through this meaningful interaction that trust is developed, and trust opens a door to the heart. Once the heart is open the mind follows and personalized learning becomes not only possible….but easy. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares about how much you know, until they know how much you care.”