Tag Archives: empathy

Change the Setting to Change the Mindset

When we start talking about hot topics, people immediately take sides and get defensive. Most people, let alone students, struggle being truly empathetic and looking at a situation from multiple points of view. Everyone understands their own point of view and oftentimes think that they grasp the opposite side, but usually they don’t. This leads to emotional debates that only entrench people more deeply in their positions. Teaching the SEL competency of Social Awareness is vital if we want to heal divisions in our country and world. We need to build empathy in all of our students.

How can we talk about important issues without the conversation breaking down into unproductive arguments?

Once I shared a news article with my students about U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. But instead of giving them the actual article, I copied and pasted it into a GDoc and changed the setting of the story. I substituted China for the United States and Tibet for Iraq. We read and discussed how horrible the Chinese actions were. I wanted students to commit emotionally to judgement before I revealed that there was something not true about it. Eventually I told them that it wasn’t really about China in Tibet, but the U.S. in Iraq, and gave them the link to the actual article online. Then we looked online at the disgraceful pictures of Abu Ghraib (warning many are graphic). Since I teach thematically, students immediately made the connections to other U.S. atrocities that we had previously studied in the Moros Massacre (Samuel Clemons’ commentary) and My Lai Massacre.

This bit of deception helped open the minds of some students who initially would have been resistance to any critique of the U.S. military. It allowed them to take their jingoism out of their first impression of the event and evaluate the facts without their instinctive bias. In the end, students were able to more deeply understand why America is unpopular in certain parts of the world.

A while back, I heard about (don’t remember where) teachers in Israel using “The Troubles” in Ireland to build empathy in their students by studying the complexities of religious (Protestant vs. Catholic) and ethnic (Irish vs. British) strife in another part of the world. The conflict in their own country was too personal and close at hand for students to consider objectively. But by first looking at similar issues abroad, students were able to apply it back to themselves. I think this is a genius approach to teaching empathy.

This week I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Presents: The Limits of Power, an excerpt from his book David and Goliath. This podcast episode focuses on the very topic of escalation between the the Protestants and Catholics in 1970’s Ireland and how the British got involved, and I think that it can be applied to more than Israeli / Palestinian conflict.

Gladwell explains that a paper, Rebellion and Authority from Leites and Wolf argued that economics was the key factor in dealing with rebellions. It was (still is???) the primary viewpoint of governments and law enforcement at the time. Basically use force to make insurgents feel pain, and they will comply. The feelings and emotions of the people are irrelevant. Gladwell’s excellent storytelling demonstrates the fallacy of this theory (Sidenote: this theory also was behind the U.S. strategy in Vietnam).

Of course, he has the American struggle for equality and full civil rights in mind, when he wrote this chapter of his book and the parallels are obvious. This podcast would be great to use with students and have them first analyze “The Troubles” and then apply their conclusions to the Black Lives Matter movement and other resistant movements.

Sometimes we need to change the setting to change the mindset!

CASEL has recently updated its competencies to reflect the importance of equity. Social Awareness now includes sub categories:

  • Taking others’ perspectives
  • Recognizing strengths in others
  • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
  • Showing concern for the feelings of others
  • Understanding and expressing gratitude
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities
  • Understanding the influences of organizations and systems on behavior

I think one of the most important additions is the last bullet point. We need to teach students the legacy of systematic racism. History is not just individuals making decisions, but huge, powerful systems that control and limit options for the disadvantaged. In the United States, public schools are one of these systems. And when it comes to “identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones,” it is often easier to critique another country than one’s own. Try using “neutral” international settings to build consensus before engaging in partisan domestic issues. The future of democracy may depend on our ability to develop Social Awareness in the next generation!

5 Ways to Integrate SEL in the New Year

I have never been one for New Year’s resolutions. Most of my planned changes around exercise and diet are lucky to last a month. So rather than resolutions, let’s look at 5 ways to start integrating Social and Emotional Learning competencies into your daily classroom routines.

1. Check in

Students develop their Self-Awareness when they feel safe and loved. Teachers create psychological safety by establishing meaningful relationships through daily conversations with all of their students. An excellent routine for this is meeting students at the door. You might give students a greeting choice or if you are extremely creative you could have a personalized handshake for every student.

Another tool is the Yale RULER Mood Meter. This helps students identify their emotions which is the first step to learning self-control. Use the Check In as a formative assessment on whether or not each student is ready to learn or has some concerns that need to be addressed first. Check Ins might feel too touchy/feely for secondary teachers, but middle and high school students desire to be seen daily too.

2. Check out

An important part of Responsible Decision Making is reflection. Reflection creates velcro moments where the learning “sticks.” Start a daily routine of ending each class with a Check Out. Try journaling, exit tickets, or turn and talks. Mix it up between written and verbal checkouts to keep it fresh.

Sometimes reflection should focus on content with a formative check of a concept learned. Other times students can self assess on an SEL competency that the class is concentrating on. Students could consider how their group is working together or if they have been actively listening without judgement. Reflection doesn’t need to be a huge time suck. Two or three minutes a day is enough.

3. Re-evaluate Norms

The start of the year is a great time to reboot class norms and routines, but why not ask students to evaluate the current class culture? Give your students specific scenarios where they struggle to discuss in a talking circle. Students will develop Self-Management by coming up with updated norms for class.

Each day assign one norm to focus on during the class period. At the end of class, have students self assess how they did on that norm by holding up a fist to five. Be sure to debrief privately with individual students whose number does not match your observation (whether it is higher or lower). This is your opportunity to reinforce the norms and hear their perspective on why they are struggling.

4. Read

Empathy is the most important aspect of Social Awareness. Lack of empathy is a major cause of conflicts around the world. Literature is a great way to teach it. In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain Zaretta Hammond states, “When we are being told a story or are telling it, the brain’s neurons light up not only in the language processing parts of the brain but in other regions just as if we were performing the action ourselves (p.135).” Stories allow us to experience other’s lives and perspectives.

Literature should be a part of every classroom, kindergarten through high school. Some of the best genres to teach empathy are biographies and historical fiction. Choose diverse stories to encounter feelings and opinions from across time and space. Don’t neglect less traditional forms such as graphic novels, podcasts, audio books and picture books. Read aloud to your whole class to engage reluctant readers in empathetic stories.

5. Launch a Project

Project Based Learning is the ideal framework for SEL. Look over your standards for the next quarter and think about what adults use that content and in what context. Have your students actively engage by mimicking professional jobs that match the content. Invite in local experts to guide your students through inquiry. For project ideas by grade level and content, check out the Project Library at PBLWorks.org.

Relationship Skills such as teamwork and communication are best taught, practiced, and assessed in the context of student groups working on an authentic project. Students need to be directly taught SEL, just like any content or skill. Don’t try to teach all of the competencies at once. Choose one aspect at a time to address during the project so students can focus on improvement in that area.

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.