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What We’re Reading This Week: December 24

The Atlantic: The New York Civil Liberties Union offers a workshop that teaches students how to behave during encounters with law enforcement. Some call the class necessary, while others fear it reinforces negative stereotypes about the police.

Educational Leadership: Educator and researcher Erica N. Walker's work shows that black and Latino students, regularly faced with anti-intellectual media messages, are often already engaged with communities of support that can augment their math skills.

Edutopia: Meet National Teacher of the Year Sean McComb!

The Huffington Post: The U.S. Department of Education recently published state-by-state “educator equity profiles.” See where the most- and least-experienced teachers are working.

The Huffington Post: When this star high-school athlete came out by slow-dancing with a homecoming king, he felt empowered to be his true self.

National Public Radio: To be effective in the classroom, teachers must nurture their lives outside of it. This post offers insight into “the secret lives of teachers.”

Prison Culture: A year-end review of key developments related to the prison industrial complex, including widespread acknowledgement of the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

Caring for Plants and Animals Fosters Empathy

Educators know that young children imitate what they see and experience; unfortunately these experiences may include evidence that our world is sometimes violent. Frequent exposure to violence may even suggest to young children that violence is the norm and is to be accepted. 

One way to counteract this message is to help children witness caring behaviors and to become involved in caring activities of their own. While caring activities aren’t a cure-all for combating violence, they can be used as a vehicle for promoting empathy in young children. Once developed, these dispositions and behaviors can become life-long patterns benefiting both the children and the communities in which they live.

Fostering empathy—the ability to understand how others feel—is perhaps the most effective way to inhibit aggression and bullying behaviors. Empathy helps us become more inclusive and tolerant of differences. 

Some people may think that young children aren’t cognitively or emotionally ready to be concerned about anyone but themselves. This isn’t true. Caring behavior is evident during the first year of life. Infants show signs of distress when another baby cries, and toddlers get anxious when another child gets hurt or is punished. But while young children may feel empathy, they often need help learning how to express empathy. 

As in most other areas of social emotional development, empathy and caring need to be nurtured through direct involvement in meaningful activities. Involving children in the care of plants and animals is an excellent example of how to do this.

Tending to the needs of other living things requires children to give thought and attention to something outside of themselves. As children interact with plants and animals, they learn that other living things have basic needs which must be met for them to survive. These experiences help children make the connection between caring behaviors and good outcomes, such as growth or affection. 

Following are some specific ways in which you can foster empathy and caring in the classroom through involvement with plants and animals. 

  • Introduce animals in the classroom. You may choose to have a classroom pet, such as a hamster or guinea pig. Even less hands-on creatures—such as fish, snails or earthworms—can become a regular part of the classroom environment. The important thing is to make sure the animal’s needs can be met through appropriate habitat, food and water. It’s also important to see that the animal is always handled gently and treated with respect. If you collect an animal from outdoors for closer observation, you should keep it only for a short period of time and then return it to its natural habitat, explaining to the children why this is important.
  • Involve children in some gardening activities. A garden—whether in a window pot or plot of land—can help children empathize with the fragility of the environment through plants. As children learn about the wonder of seeds, the growth of tender new roots, and the need plants have for uncontaminated water, they will also learn about ecological perspective taking. Perspective taking is the cognitive aspect of empathy, while caring is the affective or emotional side. We sometimes use the term “perspective taking” in reference to the ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions and the situations they’re experiencing. When we speak of “ecological perspective taking,” we apply this concept to our relationship with the natural world.
  • Help children discover and care for wildlife in the school yard. Through careful observation, children can become more aware of birds, snails, spiders, lady bugs, bees, butterflies, ants, squirrels and worms living right outside the classroom door. Caring for these backyard creatures can be as simple as setting up bird feeders and bird baths, providing yarn for birds during their nesting season, planting a butterfly garden—or even avoiding stepping on ants and spiders or disturbing a spider’s web.
  • Encourage playful identification with animals. Provide simple animal costumes or puppets. Have children crawl like a snake, fly like a bird or bury nuts like a squirrel.
  • Provide a variety of animal replicas and encourage children to construct habitats for their animals.
  • Identify and share pro-nature books with children. Pro-nature books give positive messages about animals and plants and suggest caring ways to relate to other living things. (A listing of some pro-nature books for young children can be found here.) 

Helping children develop empathy for other living things means more than saving some lady bugs and spiders. As children develop empathy for plants and animals, they are also developing perspective-taking skills which are critical aspects of social emotional competence. As children develop perspective-taking skills with plants and animals, they’ll be developing a sense of empathy for people as well. 

Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer.

Showing Students and Families You Care

When bad things happen in a community, helping young people process their pain and fears and regain a sense of security in the aftermath is one of the most important charges adults must take on. Kids need the adults in their lives to be available and real and to show they care, and teachers are in a special position to do just that.

Middle school teacher Chad Donohue made it a point to show care to his school’s student body this fall. After the October 24 shooting at nearby Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington, Donohue wrote a letter to the families in his school community, reminding the students that their teachers value them and want to know their stories—and that they can turn to their teachers if they ever feel overwhelmed or hopeless.

The flood of positive responses from students’ families was telling: It mattered to them that this teacher reached out to show his concern for and commitment to his students. Here are just a few of those responses:

  • “Thank you for your beautiful words of hope. It is such a blessing to know that my boy is in your class.” 
  • “It brought me to tears. I’ll definitely be sharing with K****, as well as our daughters in high school. Thank you so much for the powerful insight!”
  • “I chose to let C**** read it this morning. He processed every word and I couldn't help but cry when his fingers touched the pad to scroll down and read more. When he finished, I asked him what he thought and he just kept his lips together and nodded, and I could see his compassion.  I asked him if he understood it and what he took from it and he said, ‘I have lots of choices if I'm sad.’"

Educators can’t anticipate when tragedies will occur, but they can help their school communities heal by opening their arms and letting students know they genuinely care about them. And fostering a caring school climate where families feel welcomed is one step that experts say can help prevent tragedies in the future.

What We’re Reading This Week: December 19

The Atlantic. Lesbian and gay teachers talk about coming out to students and navigating the professional complications of being out at school.

American Indians in Children’s Literature. Blogger Debbie Reese lists the best books of the year written by Native writers and by those "who aren’t Native but got it right.”

Diversity in YA. Author Malinda Lo analyzes YA books published in 2014 featuring LGBT main characters and themes.

The Nation. Students with incarcerated parents deal with emotional struggles that can make it nearly impossible to focus on school.

Rebecca Hains. Barbie is a classic gift for girls, but this post offers five reasons to pause before purchasing these dolls. 

Slate. Writer Alexandra Neason argues that the teacher diversity gap is more an issue of retention than recruitment.

The Daily Tribune News. The distribution of free Bibles at a public school media center raises serious concerns about the separation of church and state. 

The New Yorker. A powerful collection of photographs from the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.

If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to editor@tolerance.org and put What We’re Reading This Week in the subject line.

Eyes Wide Open

In the weeks since Thanksgiving and during the buildup to semester exams and winter break, there’s tremendous energy at school. You can see it when students enter the classroom.

There’s Stu, an introvert who comes alive in his writing for English class. He’s committed to a number of clubs and student government activities. Empathetic and intelligent, he’s well-liked and respected by his peers.

And in the same class, there’s Michelle, an equally skilled writer and student with killer wit and a brilliant sense of timing. She’s a theater kid who has mastered the science of how to joke in class without upsetting the teacher.

Since we’ve gotten back from Thanksgiving, however, both of them have been acting differently in subtle ways.

Stu’s shoulder-length hair is usually pulled back into a ponytail, but this week it’s been hanging down covering his face, like a cloak of invisibility. He still engages in class discussions, but when he’s not actively discussing Shakespeare in class, or when I see him in the hallway, he seems to draw into himself, not making eye contact, not really engaging.

Michelle is still joking in class and cracking up her friends, but in between those moments, she’s putting her head down on her desk, or her smile disappears too quickly from her face. She doesn’t move in the room with the same bouncing energy, and sometimes her jokes take on a slightly sharper, more sarcastic edge.

I shared my observations and growing concerns about Stu and Michelle with the school counselor, and she informed me that she has already been meeting with Michelle. Michelle is coping with depression and anxiety. Not having a good rapport with Stu, the school counselor asked me to reach out to him.

Stu actually approached me first, asking that I take a look at a poem he was considering submitting to a writing contest. The poem clearly showed his sense of being overwhelmed and feeling hopeless. It was simple to then ask him, “Stu, after reading this poem, (which is beautifully written), and just noticing you the last couple of days, I want to ask you if everything is okay.”

There was a long pause, and he didn’t make eye contact with me. Eventually, he gave his head a quick shake. I asked him about specific points in the poem, and his responses remained minimalist—a headshake or nod, a quiet yes or no. His poem contained references to sleepless nights, emotional starvation and self-harm. When I asked him if these moments were more than just details in a poem, and when he eventually nodded, I suggested that we should move our discussion to the counselor’s office.

It’s important to remember that mental health issues and overwhelming stress or anxiety don’t have the same symptoms as a student who is getting physically sick in class. Likewise, it’s vitally important to remember that the winter holidays with their longer breaks and various family gatherings may create untold levels of stress and anxiety for our students.

As teachers, we need to recognize that the subtle changes we notice in our students may be small ways they are asking for help. The National Association of School Psychologists has a useful list of behaviors to look for and a step of actionable steps for school personnel, while Children’s Mental Health Services offers a guide for teachers of students with anxiety disorders.

It’s in the quiet moment of the school day or the class period when glimmers of what Stu and Michelle are really feeling on the inside come to the surface. As educators, we need those quiet moments, not only to catch our breath in our hectic work, but also to be there for our students whose silence screams for attention.

Editor’s Note: The school counselor mentioned had releases of information permitting her to discuss students’ mental health with the author of this blog. All students’ names and other identifying details have been changed. 

Elliott teaches high school English and creative writing at an independent, college preparatory school. 

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