One of the simplest ways to foster compassion and understanding in our classrooms is to give students opportunities to share stories about their lives. By communicating and listening, students can break down stereotypes and see each other as real people. This can be done through curriculum-related projects such as personal narrative and poetry or as part of a daily class meeting.
I’ve found particular success using the “neighborhood map.” I typically assign this at the beginning of the school year as a get-to-know-you activity, but it can be done at any time during the school year.
I ask students to define and draw a map of their neighborhoods. Maybe it’s the street where they live, the block, a section of town or perhaps the entire town if it’s small. I ask students to highlight and identify parts of their neighborhood that have significance for them. Sometimes these places go unnoticed by most people, but may have a special connection for the student. Maybe it’s a place where they hang out with friends, the spot where they fell off a bike and broke an arm, or where they go to be alone. When their maps are finished (complete with title, color and key), they take turns presenting them to the class. Their presentations are followed by a time for respectful questions and comments.
In addition to learning about each other, creating neighborhood maps also gives me a chance to know more about my students. I found out that one of my most troublesome seventh-grade boys, who struggled in school and frequently acted out, loved exploring an urban creek by his house. He lit up when I asked him about the animals he’d seen there, which easily led to a writing assignment later. Another boy, whose social awkwardness often alienated him from his classmates, revealed that he had two neighborhoods because his parents had recently separated. This resulted in several compassionate connections from classmates, who also knew what it was like to have divorced parents.
One of my most memorable experiences came when a boy, who had been adopted from Liberia at age 9, asked if he could draw his village in Africa. He spent days crafting his map and reliving memories from his early childhood. During his presentation, he told stories of playing soccer barefoot, learning how to cook from his grandmother over an open fire, and what it was like to run free all day with no adult supervision. His classmates asked many questions and learned a lot about what it is like to grow up in another culture.
Celebrating diversity is not just about recognizing other cultures and ethnicities. It is also about acknowledging that we all have rich and complex stories with varied pasts and personal struggles. The more we know about each other’s lives, the easier it is to accept and understand.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.