Tag Archives: empathy

Remote Community Partnerships in PBL

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This is the sixth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.

Artificial vs. Authentic

Everything is schools tends to be artificial or done for “practice.” Students rarely address original issues, but instead learn about what others have achieved in science, literature, history, and math. The system is designed to teach students a subset of information about what we already “know” to be true. Ignore for a moment, the ridiculous standardization that adults can choose the correct subset of the vast knowledge of the entirety of human existence that is necessary for all children. This pedagogical approach of only learning proven facts is boring and patronizing. Then we wonder why by the time students reach secondary school they aren’t curious? The truth is, they are still curious, just not at school.

Educators are preparing kids for their future, instead of helping them navigate the present. The world has so many problems that the next generation will have to deal with: poverty, hunger, equity, pollution, climate change, wars, and ethic strife to name a few. What if instead of telling students you will have to fix these problems some day, students worked on solutions right now? Why do we so often sell our kids short on what they can do?

What if school was a set of problems to be solved instead of standards to be covered?

So if we have the mindset that students should be addressing meaningful problems instead of mindless worksheets learning what someone else has already figured out, then we must engage in our communities. We do this so that kids can grapple with global issues, but apply solutions locally.

Not all of our students will be Greta Thunburg with a worldwide voice to address their concerns. It is critically important that all of our students do understand that change happens from the collective actions of individuals, not just famous voices. The Civil Rights Movement is as much about the hundreds of thousands who stood up against segregation on buses and at lunch counters as it is about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. The nameless sea of faces who heard the I Have a Dream speech and acted on it are as important as the man who gave it. Your students can make an enormous impact locally in their community that leads to systemic change.

Role of the Community in PBL

So how should you involve the community in Project Based Learning? There are several key roles that the community can play throughout the process. You could invite a guest speaker to launch your entry event by introducing a problem for students to explore. Or invite them during the middle of the project to provide expertise on one of the student Need to Know questions.

Consider finding a group of experts who can coach students throughout the project, giving feedback and expertise. They might be a combination of older students, university students, and professionals. Maybe your hands-on project is better served by partnering with a construction company and having a group of blue collar workers share their craftsmanship. Whatever the fit for your project, when you bring in outside experts you are modeling collaborative learning and that you, the teacher, don’t know everything.

The community might be the audience for the final presentations that students will share their findings with. Traditionally this tends to be a big, public showcase. But it can be just as powerful to present to a smaller panel of experts who can give students meaningful feedback. This could be done live in a video conference call or on demand via videos with feedback. (Flipgrid is a great tool for this). Ideally, involve the community throughout the project from start to finish for greatest impact.

The community can serve as the source of the project. Matt McCullough visits local businesses and asks them to give him problems that students can help solve. He is not asking for their support or resources so much as offering to provide a service to them. One of my favorite examples is when his elementary school collaboratively investigated which potato a local business should plant next. Students from kindergarten through fourth grade worked on different aspects of the problem. They were not just researching for a local farm, but a business cultivating thousands of acres throughout the midwest and the east coast. Upon conclusion, the fourth graders presented their findings to over 100 shareholders who flew into their corporate summit. Check out the video to see the culmination and imagine how these students felt.

So who should your students engage with? The short answer is everyone. Practicing the SEL skill of Social Awareness, students should be getting multiple perspectives on any problem that they are considering and practicing empathy. They can engage with other students at different grade levels or other schools (think penpals using video conferencing), parents, local businesses, the chamber of commerce, and non-profit organizations. They can network with colleges and local professionals who are experts in a topic they are investigating. Student could connect with public service workers such as police, fire, and local government officials to understand current policies and advocate for changes they find necessary. Surveys could go out to the entire community literally making everyone the target audience.


One takeaway from Covid is that everyone in the world knows how to video conference. Furthermore, a larger number of people are working from home than ever before and are willing to “visit” your classroom. It is actually easier now than before when they would have to take time off work, travel, and rearrange their whole day. Now partners can simply join classrooms at any time.

The community doesn’t need to be live either. Students and adults can communicate asynchronously to ask questions or give feedback. That is the way that adults work most of the time. We all know how to use email, text, and social media to connect with people. There are thousands of apps and websites that students also could use. None of them are gamechangers, but many of them are helpful. I personally prefer the Google suite of Docs, Forms for surveys, and Slides, but it literally does not matter! Pick one or two tools that your students have access to and you are comfortable with and run with them.

It’s really not about the tools at all, but about a mindset that sees community partnerships as a vital piece of the curriculum, as important as assessment, differentiation, and standards.

We have the technology. We know how to use it. Step out of your comfort zone and network with your community to find experts and resources for your students to address issues that matter. Let’s move school from artificial to authentic.

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

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!