Teaching Compassion

Kaitlin Blumberg, June 2018

I have never broken a leg. When one of my students walks into my classroom on crutches, I do not know the pain he experienced at the moment of the break. I do not know how exactly how difficult his journey down the hallway was. However, I have stubbed a toe. I know the pangs of pain that come after the toe-to-object contact. I know how much it hurts to walk immediately afterwards. So, although I have never broken a leg, I can imagine that it is much worse than stubbing a toe. I understand that, for my injured student, the school day must be arduous, and I ask him if there is anything I can do to make him more comfortable in my classroom.

The stubbed-toe and broken-leg variety of issues do impact my students’ experiences in school, but they are not where their worries end. At a time when school-related anxiety is at an all-time high, bullies lurk on cell phones, and more and more families are finding themselves below the poverty line, I can step away from my own viewpoint and consider the school day from other perspectives. I try to encourage my students to do the same.

A school is a community of its own, but it is also a reflection of society. We are a part of this society, and, if we start in schools, we can work towards making it a more compassionate one. If we start with literature, we can invite students to think beyond their scope of reference – beyond their own experiences – and build empathy towards characters who may be entirely different from themselves. If we start from there, we can build the foundation for more empathetic, caring, world citizens.

The idea that we need to acknowledge others’ experiences and consider the world from alternative perspectives is at the forefront of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but, when reflecting on this concept, I do not immediately think of Scout’s eventual empathy towards Boo Radley, or Jem’s realization that the world is more complex than his cocooned childhood would suggest, I think of Atticus’ seemingly unsubstantiated respect for Mrs. Dubose.

For the first three years of my teaching, my students reacted to Mrs. Dubose’s antagonism with total opposition and an unwillingness to consider her circumstances before passing judgement. I get it – Mrs. Dubose is not the epitome of kindness; rather, she is arrogant and rude. By the time Jem and Scout have any significant interactions with her, my students have already bonded with Atticus, and they take offense to her unkind words. It takes effort and maturity to be able to reconcile her racial slurs and nasty attitude with Atticus’ assertion that she is the bravest woman he knows.

This year, as I got ready to review the complexities of Mrs. Dubose with my students, I was determined to have a very different conversation than in years past. I prepared scaffolded questions to lead them to a place of compassion – to encourage them to follow Atticus’ dictum that we should all consider things from someone else’s perspective before passing judgement – but it turned out that they did not need this extra support. Unlike my first three years of teaching, my students did not immediately dismiss Atticus’ positive opinion of Mrs. Dubose.

As we began our discussion, I asked my students to list the qualities of a brave person. Their words included “self-reliant,” “independent,” and “fearless.” Through their discussion of Mrs. Dubose’s illness, subsequent addiction to morphine, and, eventually, her determination to die “beholden to nothing,” they concluded that Atticus’ statement is justified. They were somehow able to “crawl in Mrs. Dubose’s skin” and consider her plight from a perspective different from any of my past students’.

This led me to wonder: is this batch of students inherently different from those I have taught in the past, or has something in my teaching changed to inspire this new attitude?

Although it would be wonderful to believe that something in the water supply in 2003 produced a cohort of empaths, I do think that there has been a shift in my teaching that has led to my students’ willingness – I say willingness, because I believe the ability to empathize is present in everyone – to empathize with those unlike themselves.

The overarching focus of our ninth grade English curriculum is “identity.” We ask students, “What does it mean to be an individual?” and “What qualities make up your identity?” I believe we need to take these questions a step further. By extending our discussions of identity and adding “What does it mean to recognize and honor someone else’s individuality?” and “What type of person do I want to be and why?” we can begin steering teenagers towards heightened self-awareness and increased willingness to empathize with their fellow classmates and world citizens. We can teach compassion.

Reflecting on the changes I have made in my teaching throughout my four years, I realize that although sometimes subconsciously, I have made compassion a focal point of my curriculum, and ultimately created a classroom culture that values and encourages empathy. It started with small changes, and I found that it eventually became an underlying part of most of my class’ theme-centric conversations.

In my first two years of teaching, I was afraid to have “controversial” discussions with my students. I didn’t know where to draw the line between leading them towards more compassionate attitudes and sharing my own opinion regarding topics that seem taboo in today’s political climate. However, I came to realize that most of these topics, and the discussions I so desperately wanted to encourage, connect to compassion.

In order to encourage these discussions and encourage students to start thinking more empathetically, I began to adjust my assignments, discussions, and language. Upon reflection, I can categorize these changes in four ways:

1. Ask the important questions.
One of the first projects I did with my English 9 Honors class involved reading the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and connecting it to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I asked students to discuss whether Frankenstein’s monster deserves the rights outlined in that document, and to consider how his life would have been different if those rights were honored from the time of his emergence into the world. My students had mixed reactions – some argued that the creature is not human and he is therefore undeserving of these rights, while others argued that his intelligence and capacity for emotion is reason enough to insist that he is deserving of the rights outlined in the UDHR. I didn’t insert myself into their conversation, but instead remained a bystander in my own classroom. I left feeling disappointed in myself for my passivity.

This year, the same arguments emerged. Instead of staying silent, I asked a simple question: What does it mean to be human? This discussion led to more of my students empathizing with the creature. They began to connect humanity to something more than an origin and appearance similar to their own. A majority of my students concluded that, because of his capacity for compassion, he also deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. I was excited to see that such a small question could lead to such a shift in my students’ thinking, and I sought to continue asking questions concentrating on human connection.

2. Do not be afraid to have “tough” conversations.
At the end of our Romeo and Juliet unit, I always asked students to discuss the hatred between the Montagues and Capulets, and emphasize that this hatred could only be extinguished by love; however, this year, I added a single word before “hatred” in our discussions: blind. My students and I discussed how the Montagues and Capulets, especially Tybalt, let themselves be consumed by an ancient grudge with an ambiguous origin. With some prompting, my students began discussing examples of “blind hatred” that we see in the world today: racism passed down through generations, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-semitism, etc., and thus then connecting the theme to these mindsets. I was happy to find that my students wanted to have these conversations. They began sharing their own experiences with these all-too-current issues, commenting on times when they witnessed or were directly affected by incidents of intolerance. Students were asking questions, and they began commenting on the injustice of such occurrences. In future units, students were able to reference these discussions and make connections between texts that I had not seen them making before.

3. Encourage students to confront the counterclaim.
My research paper assignment began as an inquiry-based argument essay. Students were asked to choose any topic of interest that could be debated, research both sides of the argument, and write a paper defending their claim. Although it is valuable and important to let students follow such paths of inquiry, I wanted to make the assignment more purposeful and to encourage a connection to identity. I decided to ask students to choose a quote from any text that they read in my class, and to argue that it should be adopted as someone’s “life motto.” Students were required to research people or organizations who they feel are living by and/or promoting this motto to support their claim, but they are also were required to research those who are living against this motto or promoting the opposition.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that a majority of my students chose quotes reflecting the golden rule from To Kill a Mockingbird, the importance of friendship and responsibility from Frankenstein, the denouncement of labels from Romeo and Juliet, and the message of acceptance and equality from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream. In making these choices, they committed themselves to researching people who embody these ideals, but also to recognizing and accepting that there are people in the world who do not believe that everyone should be treated with equal respect and do not believe that everyone deserves equal opportunities. This leads them back to the questions regarding their identity: what does it mean to recognize and honor someone else’s individuality? What type of person do I want to be and why?

4. Make text-to-life connections.
As they reflect on the discussions and assignments from their 9th grade English class, I hope that my students will take the lessons of the canon to heart. I hope that by encouraging them to consider the qualities that unite humanity, rather than separate us, they begin to see themselves in others. I hope that by inviting them to discuss examples of ostracism and intolerance in the world, they will strive to do the opposite. I hope that by leading them to choose positive role models and acknowledge that there are still those who exist as the antithesis of these role models, they will be inclined to exude and promote kindness in their daily interactions.

I have started to see a shift towards empathy in my students, and, as I continue teaching, I strive to find more ways to encourage compassion – to encourage my students to realize that we all wake up and try to be our own versions of successful, and that a bit of kindness can be the catalyst for another’s happiness or for societal change. By continuing to “teach compassion,” I hope to be a part of this change.

Kaitlin Blumberg is an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School in Central Valley, New York. She is also an inaugural NYSEC Early Career Scholarship winner.

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