Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Power of Building Empathy and Gratitude in the Classroom



“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
 – HARPER LEE


It was the time of year when I sat in front of my instructional coach and the TalentEd Perform tab trying to decide what my school and personal goals were going to be for the year. I reflected on the year prior and kind of knew the direction I wanted to go, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to go about it. I needed more time to process what I truly felt would be beneficial for me as far as growth, as well as what would work the best for my incoming students.

Last year was a unique year. My students had wonderful and funny personalities individually, however, when it came to working together as a cohesive unit, many times my class struggled to function. We had obstacles of getting along, name calling, and bullying, etc. My class felt like one big sibling argument all year long. In our small neighborhood school, most of these kids have been together since kindergarten and were pretty much ready to branch out to middle school where they would find more kids that shared their interests and personalities. So when it came time to figure out what I would like to take on as a goal for this year, an idea hit me.

I wanted to build a strong classroom community with my group this year. I wanted to find a way to have my students accept one another’s differences, appreciate the good things in their lives, empathize, and to just simply be a kind human being. Easy task, right?

 In order to take on such a task, I have to promote and model every single day what kindness and empathy look like. I have an entire bulletin board dedicated to “witnessed acts of kindness.” I have a specific job where it is a kid’s duty to spend their week “sprinkling” kind words to people. I have an “Appreciation Circle” at the closing of everyday where we recognize things we are appreciative of. I have a morning greeter that welcomes everyone into the classroom and a “goodbye wisher” that gives each student a special high five on the way out- myself included!

Another way for me to easily promote kindness and empathy are my morning meetings! I have been utilizing a morning meeting routine for a few years, but I wanted to bump it up and make it more meaningful for my students. I wanted something engaging that would bring my kids together and initiate deep conversation. I found an amazing morning meeting curriculum that complements our Second Step curriculum nicely. This morning meeting curriculum addresses topics of belonging, kindness, compassion, conflict, perseverance, integrity, and more! So much of what we are talking about in our Second Step curriculum is brought to life by this morning meeting curriculum. I use music videos, quotes, song lyrics, clips from Youtube, and read alouds that address these community-building themes. Kids have a journal where they are able to reflect on themselves, set goals, analyze quotes, and are given a chance to respond to the themes presented for the week. Each day, we gather together in a circle and discuss these various topics in depth. We have such rich conversations about the need to feel like they belong, the power of a compliment, how to stand up to a bully, and persevering when things get difficult. As we progress through the year, I get to know more about my students through our conversations with one another. During these morning meetings, I have been able to connect with my students and build relationships more than I ever have in years prior. One lesson in particular stands out as a lesson that solidifies my need to continue this type of social/emotional instruction.  

 As I mentioned earlier, at the end of each day, my students stand in a circle and provide either an appreciation, apology, or an “aha” moment. One day, I told them that I watched a TedTalk that explained that we (as Americans) have more than 75% of the world population. This could mean something as simple as having clothes on our backs, shoes on our feet, or a free public education.  Instead of our typical Appreciation Circle, I wanted them to reflect and think of things that they could be grateful for. I explained that it had to be something beyond, “I am grateful for Fortnite,” or “I am grateful that school is done.” There always seems to be that one kid…

My kids had beautiful responses.

“I am grateful to have friends that support me.”

“I am grateful that I have a mom and a dad.”

“I am grateful to have a fun school.”

“I am grateful that I have a roof over my head and food to eat.”

With such an amazing response, I wanted to extend this activity further. The next day, I showed a One Republic music video- I Lived. In this video, a young man is living with Cystic Fibrosis (CP). Although he has this debilitating disease, he insists on living his life to the fullest. He runs, plays hockey, enjoys summers on the lake, and participates in cycling events. There are many times the videos shows him hooked up to numerous monitors and breathing machines. He compares CP as trying to breathe through a straw. After the video, I took my kids upstairs to our gym to run around to get their heart rate up. They were so confused as to what my plan was. When I had them stop, I gave them each a straw and asked them to try and breathe through it like it was the only way they could breathe. Obviously this was a struggle and something they couldn’t do. When the lesson was over and it was time for them to go to Phy. Ed, I told them, “Remember, we have more than 75% of the global population. Today, I am grateful for my health and my opportunity to share this moment with you.”

Before I left the gym, I observed their reactions. For most, they were stunned and quiet. For others, they made comments like, “Wow. That is how he breathes? How does he do that?” “If I had to breathe like that, I wouldn’t be able to do sports like he did.” “That is what my asthma feels like.”

Empathy. For some of these kids (and maybe even adults), experiences like this are needed for them to realize how to be empathic human beings. It takes more than just reading and responding. In that moment, my kids needed to experience something that they probably take for granted every single day.  What does it mean to have more than 75% of the global population? Our school is right next to our local homeless shelter! Even students that consider the shelter a home needed a moment to realize that they still have more than others and they can still have appreciation and empathy. There are moments and experiences that we can offer our students to help them build empathy. I got to witness something great that day. I got to experience that “lightbulb moment” ten-fold. Isn’t that what brings us, as educators, the most joy? To see our students realize and get something for the first time? I know it does for me.


Q1: How do you promote empathy & kindness within your classroom?
Q2: How can we encourage more kindness and empathy within our current state in the nation?
Q3: What are your favorite community builders in your room?