Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself wrestling with a profound question — where is our collective humanity as a society, a nation, and a global presence? The inquiry delves into the heart of our societal ecosystem, particularly in the way we acknowledge, or often fail to acknowledge, the humanity of young people. In this blog post, we’ll explore the need for a broader conversation around oppressive and supremacist systems, recognizing how they intentionally strip away humanity from marginalized groups, ultimately fostering a lack of empathy in the greater population. I will provide a sample process and structure for designing units of study that embolden our need for collective humanity.
The Struggle to Humanize
As adult educators, we bear the responsibility of shaping the minds of the next generation. However, there is a critical question we must confront: If we, as educators, struggle to humanize children, what does this mean for the young minds we are nurturing? The reflection on our role in fostering empathy and understanding is paramount to creating a society that values the humanity of all its members. Humanization, as defined by liberatory scholars such as Betina Love, Resmaa Menakeem and of course, Ibram X. Kendi, calls for us to move beyond the socialized ways in which we have come to see those who are different from us. In the most simplistic of definitions, it is the ability to see one’s innate traits beyond surface level, assumptions, and stereotypes. Within the scope of education, more often than not, students are positioned to be seen as an “other” in relation to their teachers. We all want to believe that we see our students as individuals, but in the cog of the system that is schooling, we unintentionally can dehumanize students by forgetting that they come to school on a daily basis with various needs, emotions and sentiments – just as adults do. I say that not for the sake of perpetual guilt but rather to be more cognizant of this dynamic in our work. Through curriculum and instruction, we can offer small snippets of humanizing moments. These humanization moments allow students to be seen and heard within the context of academic content, but also through validation by their educators. The section below offers three entry points into humanizing the experiences of students.
Empathy Interviews or Cogenerative Dialogues
The concept of empathy interviews stems from user design processes. Specifically, schools who engage in improvement science practices use this approach to discern the interests of the “user.” In most cases, the user is the teacher or students in question. Dr. Christopher Emdin constructed a similar idea in his seminal text, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’All Too. Cogenerative dialogues is the process of soliciting input and feedback from students on a continuous basis. Continuous is contingent on the teacher, but it is my recommendation to conduct this process at a minimum of one time a month.
Empathy interviews or cogenerative dialogues are opportunities for teachers to receive feedback on their practice beyond the depersonalization of surveys or similar modes of inquiry. By engaging a cohort of students in face to face, direct conversations, educators are doing two powerful things. First, they are affirming to students that their voice and opinion matter. Educators are noting that students are not simply bodies or vessels – they are young people with opinions, beliefs, fears and dreams. Second, they are minimizing the power dynamic of teacher versus students. As teachers, we might struggle with the balance of building a rapport while holding students at a professional distance. There is nothing wrong with this! Over time, however, we can unintentionally create an imbalance where we believe students don’t have anything to contribute.
So how do we do it? Well, this process is a very simplified approach. Empathy interviews can vary depending on the student group and focus.
1. Set a Focus: Determine what it is that you want feedback on. Is it a lesson? Novel? Unit of Study? It is important to note your focus as this will frame your question and desired questions.
2. Determine Your Sample Size: If you are new to this process, I recommend interviewing no more than 5 to 7 young people. You will ultimately want to include as much of the class perspective as possible, but running multiple small groups with 5 to 7 is a great way to begin conversations with students. You should also select a cross-section of students who have varying personalities or presence in your class.
3. Determine Your Questions: Create an entry-level list of questions that revolve around your focus. You should have anywhere from 7 to 10 questions ready for discussion. More often than not, however, you won’t need as many questions. Depending on what is shared, there might be instances where follow up questions are posed for further elaboration.
4. Conduct the Interview! Set the date and time for the interview and allow it to occur! You can choose to manually take notes or record students’ reflections. This is your preference!
5. Act on the Feedback: This is the most crucial step. You must implement the recommendations, within reason, and articulate how the feedback informed these suggestions. This validates the perspective of students as well as opens up pathways for additional discourse and trust.
Anchor Text to Drive Materials:
An anchor text is the foundational piece of literature that serves as the core of an entire unit of study. These texts can range from classical works by Shakespeare to modern musical albums that inspire deep reflection and analysis. For instance, one of my graduate students developed a comprehensive unit of study centered around Kendrick Lamar’s recent album.
The choice of an anchor text should be rooted in a thematic approach that guides learning throughout the unit. Consider the example of the text Monday Is Not Coming. When used as an anchor piece, this text explores larger themes of identity and overcoming profound loss. The anchor text, on its own, enables students to forge connections with the characters and feel acknowledged within a classroom setting.
However, it is crucial to complement the anchor text with what is known as wraparound texts to enhance the learning experiences provided by the anchor text itself. Using Monday Is Not Coming as an example again, supplemental materials could encompass, but are not limited to, an analysis of how specific cognitive behavioral techniques can support healing and the nuanced implications of racial trauma.
Addressing this multifaceted issue requires adopting a thematic approach as an essential component. The impact of coordinated legislative actions and policies that limit discussions on certain concepts in schools, like critical race theory, cannot be disregarded. There is an ongoing discourse surrounding the potential indoctrination of students with particular ideologies, particularly in public schools. Educators must navigate this landscape with care, ensuring they do not inadvertently impose their beliefs and biases on impressionable minds.
The Need for Questions:
At the core of education lies the art of posing questions—questions that stimulate critical thinking, promote understanding, and cultivate empathy. The essential query for educators is: How can we furnish students with a framework to unravel intricate societal issues while honoring their individual perspectives? How can we create opportunities for inquiry that will continue to emphasize the importance of humanity? This holds particular significance as young minds are still navigating the process of shaping their understanding of self and the world.
Reflecting on a past experience with an outstanding educator in an urban school setting, there arose a compelling response to George Floyd’s tragic death. This educator chose to teach the text All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a work crucial to the broader conversation about being Black in America and the relationship with law enforcement. However, what stood out from this reflection was the personal inclination to persuade students that the police were problematic.
While acknowledging this perspective, it is imperative to underscore that as educators, our role is not to dictate students’ beliefs but to provide opportunities for them to explore diverse issues and perspectives, shaping their own convictions. The most direct and impactful approach to achieve this is through questioning. Techniques like the Question Formulation Technique, particularly when applied to both anchor and supplemental texts, create avenues for discussions that can yield meaningful conversations, fostering a sense of humanity for everyone involved.
The heart of education lies in asking questions—questions that provoke critical thinking, foster understanding, and nurture empathy. We must ask ourselves: How do we provide students with a framework for unpacking complex societal issues while respecting their individual perspectives? This is particularly important as young people are still in the process of developing their understanding of self and the world.Years ago when working with an exemplary educator in an urban school setting she felt compelled by George Floyd’s murder to teach the text All American Boys by Jason Reynolds. Such a book is important to larger discourse around being Black in America and the relationship with police. However, it stood out from this person‘s reflection of the personal need to convince students that police were problematic. I understand her perspective, but it was important to emphasize that as educators, it is not our place to tell students what they should think, but rather give them opportunities to consider how issues and perspectives have their own beliefs.
In our roles as educators, we are entrusted not only with disseminating knowledge but also with shaping compassionate and empathetic individuals. The journey toward acknowledging the humanity of all, especially the marginalized, requires continuous reflection, open dialogue, and an unwavering commitment to dismantling oppressive systems. Let us strive to create an educational environment that encourages questioning, understanding, and the recognition of the shared humanity that binds us all. Only through these efforts can we hope to foster a generation that values empathy, inclusivity, and a profound respect for the diverse tapestry of human experiences. If you are interested in continued reading, please see the list of recommended texts below.
Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad
We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Betina Love
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs All of Us and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Healing Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakeem
Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, Ed.D is a former English teacher, grade level leader and assistant principal with over 20 years of experience. A proud Queens girl, she is currently an adjunct professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She also serves as the Chief Operating Officer of Equity Consulting Group. She can be reached at email@example.com