In just a few weeks, the Ruth Corkin Theatre will be filled with students, parents, and alumni as we are transported back to New York City in 1899. While we will most certainly tap our feet and clap our hands to the music and feel amazed by the intricate set design and incredible choreography, it is also important to note that this year’s U.S. Musical,Newsies, offers an important history lesson to the cast and crew and those who watch the show.
Much like Hamilton: An American Musical helped to tell a historical story through song and dance, Newsies provides an opportunity to learn more about a segment of American History. Through its retelling of the 1899 Newsboys Strike, Newsies focuses on how society treated low-income children during this time period. Through dialogue and lyrics, we are given a glimpse of what it was like to be a child before protective labor laws. While early 20th-century America would shift its view on child labor laws, the United States did not ratify a change until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Newsies is just one example of the importance that the arts and humanities hold in education. Theater engages audiences through storytelling and song, draws people into the story, and creates a connection to the characters. Angela Modany describes the process in a February 2012 Smithsonian article as “embodying empathy.” By creating connections to characters, either as an actor or observer, you empathize with their experience, gaining a deeper understanding of the historical context. The concept of embodying empathy is not a foreign one to Brimmer classrooms. Whether it is through special programming like Model UN, the Chinese Temple Fair, Winterim, and community service days, or in-classroom mock trials, debates, skits, and Harkness discussions, the Humanities and Creative Arts departments create experiences for students to build connections with people, characters, or events.
This year we have discussed the meaning of empathy and its etymology in detail. To be empathic means to be “in suffering” or to feel the feelings of another. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that we naturally connect to those with whom we share common experiences or traits. The concept of embodying empathy works seamlessly with Riess’ research. When students share experiences, they are both learning important topics and developing a profound connection that creates stronger empathic responses.
I look forward to seeing you at one of the performances of Newsies in March, and if you would like to learn more about the 1899 News Boys Strike in New York City, here is a link to resources produced by the New York City Public Library.
The idea that no condition is permanent resonates as we head into Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Next week we will take time to recognize and honor the work of Dr. King and those who followed him. King also believed that no condition is permanent. He worked tirelessly as a non-violent civil rights activist in the fight for racial equity, a cause which ultimately cost him his life. In his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he whole-heartedly embraced this mantra when he famously said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
It has not been due to a lack of effort, but I have never been able to get into yoga. Hearing about all the positives that are associated with it, both of mind and body, I was eager to try it. After a 10-week session a number of years ago, I enjoyed the physical aspect of yoga, but was never able to connect effectively with the mindfulness piece.
Over the last 5-7 years, the efforts to improve wellness programs and include mindfulness exercises has been a national trend in schools. At Brimmer, we continue to evaluate our programming, tweak existing options, and provide new opportunities. This has included inviting Will Slotnick from the Wellness Collaborative to talk with students about managing stress and anxiety and the risks involved in using alcohol, drugs, and, more recently, e-cigarettes. Slotnick addresses the subject from the perspective of managing stress and incorporates meditation and mindfulness into the program. After sessions, students report feeling more connected to their thoughts and feeling more relaxed. In addition to being armed with important information, they can physically be seen carrying their shoulders lower as much of the stress has melted away during the sessions.
In a 2011 article (full publication can be found here)from the American Psychological Association journal, Psychotherapy, Dr. Daphne Davis and Dr. Jeffrey Hayes share “empirically supported benefits of mindfulness.” The list of benefits is one that we would all want for our students and children: stress reduction, boosts to working memory, improved focus, and more flexibility in challenging situations. In 2013, in an article published by the National Institute of Health in Social Cognative and Affective Neuroscience, research on the use of meditation was reported to improve emotional stability, supporting and building upon the documented research of its benefits. This was further supported by neuroscience research that showed increased serotonin levels in those that practiced meditation. So, while incorporating mindfulness as skill has been a trend, it is also very much supported by nationally recognized research.
Knowing this, I have continued to listen and research what experts are saying, often trying out techniques to improve my own mindfulness. Slotnick has recommended phone apps like Meditation Studio to our students. Dr. Helen Riess, who spoke recently at Brimmer about her book, The Empathy Effect, suggested HeadSpace, and those with an Apple Watch or Fitbit are likely familiar with the built in mindfulness activities focused on controlled breathing and reducing one’s heartrate. I know that I have found these to be useful from time to time, but more importantly, many students have incorporated them into their daily routines to help manage stress.
I fear that when we talk about meditation and mindfulness we often lose people once we use those terms. For some people, meditation and breathing exercises do not work. What do we tell those who cannot connect in this way? During Thanksgiving preparation last week, while I was preparing my apple pie, peeling apples, slicing them, and rolling out the dough, I found myself experiencing a heightened awareness of my own senses. During that process, I recognized that I was experiencing what I was missing during those yoga exercises. It turns out that baking, and also sports activity, that requires intense focus and mimics the effects of meditation.
Pyschology Today writes that mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” As we continue to venture into a world that moves quickly and we encounter incredible amounts of information at unprecedented speeds, we are going to find mindfulness activities will grow in importance. Whether it be through meditation, breathing exercises, baking, or shooting free throws on the basketball court, it is important that we help our students and children develop these skills.
As a community we continue to engage on our school theme for the year Empathy and Ethical Thinking. Whether it is through professional development for faculty and staff, programming with students, a more intentional focus in classes, or presentations to our parent community, it has been a tremendous experience so far this year.
Over the first few months, one theme that consistently comes up is the difference between Empathy and Sympathy. In a recent Upper School Morning Meeting, I showed the following video by Brené Brown.
The video vividly points out the differences between sympathy and empathy. This past week, the Parent’s Association welcomed Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group at Mass General Hospital, to talk about her research in Empathetics. Near the beginning of her talk (click here for an earlier version at a TEDx Event), she highlighted the Greek etymology difference of “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy coming from “sym” “pathos”, meaning with suffering, and empathy coming from “em” “pathos, meaning in suffering.
If we start with the most basic definition of these words, the difference is so clear. To have empathy literally means to be in the same feelings as the other person. This idea means a person has developed a deeper connection to friend, family member, colleague, or stranger by being in that moment with them, with those feelings. In addition to this clear definition, Dr. Riess highlighted that compassion is the action that we take when displaying empathy. She differentiated that the empathy was the internal feelings you have, while compassion is the action you take towards a person.
As teachers and school administrators, the question becomes what does this mean to our students? What are the ways that students may develop empathetic responses towards their classmates? And how do we guide students towards learning with empathy?
The first comes through the regular conversations we have on an individual basis, in small groups, and as a community. What does it mean for a child if they see a friend looking sad or more reserved? We are trying to help students understand that these are times to engage with their friends and not avoid them. In many ways, this has been something that Brimmer students have regularly displayed. Often, listening to their friends and helping them when possible. The more complicated situations for students come when a person’s actions may be hurtful. The automatic human response, especially adolescents, is to rebuke the person. With teenagers, this can often have impacts on social circles which just furthers any divide that may be created between each other.
What if instead, we were able to help the members of the community to have an empathetic response?
Our hope, through this year’s theme, is to help students move past the hurt and work to understand what the other person may have been feeling. Perhaps someone is not hanging out on the weekends, because they have a family member that was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Or could someone that is carrying a lot of anger, be carrying guilt for a decision they made at a different time.
In our classes, we are highlighting the importance of empathy as well. This takes a front row seat in Humanities and Creative Arts classes, where the foci of these classes is the human experience. Just imagine the last book you read or show you watched and the connection you developed with the characters. In history, teachers are helping students see history through more than one lens. This fall US History students have debated George Washington’s decision to maintain the status quo on slavery and recently discussed the question- should we celebrate Christopher Columbus or think about Thanksgiving in a different way based on the experiences of people that were colonized by Europeans?”
In our design classes, students regularly are working to understand the user as they developed their ideas. As a parent recently mentioned to me, “empathy is one of the pillars of design.” This comes to life in classes like Problem Solving for Design and Architecture, as students spend significant amounts of time learning about the needs of the users and important cultural information. I would invite you to explore more at the BrimmerID portfolio page.
Regardless of where students may end up falling on these debates, breaks from the normal routine provide an opportunity to pause and reflect. Whether the time-off means time with family and friends, volunteering, or just a slower pace, I hope that students can use the time to connect in a deep, meaningful, and empathetic way.
After a night of celebration and excitement with the Red Sox winning the World Series, Mr. Vallely and I want to take a moment to reflect on two more solemn things from this weekend.
I want to start by taking a moment to reflect on the antisemitism this weekend that resulted in the murder of 11 members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, PA.
I can still remember the smell of smoke and charred wood from when I was 13. Just a few weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, a man had come into my synagogue in Albany, NY, dousing the pulpit and ark with gasoline, and setting it on fire in order to destroy the holiest part of the building. The person came into the synagogue for no other reason, other than it was a Jewish building. Thankfully no one was hurt and though the damage was extensive, it would eventually be repaired. For me, this was not my first nor would it be my last experience with antisemitism. There had been and would be more swastikas painted and engraved on walls, derogatory comments directed at friends, and pennies thrown at me as I walked to my synagogue. Yet, despite these experiences, like most, within the walls of my place of faith there was a sense of safety.
However, something has changed over the past few years. We have seen people feel emboldened to use hateful speech. We have seen words of hate and bigotry turn into more deadly actions. Targeting specific faith base communities because of their beliefs or the way they appear. A shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, SC in 2015, and The Islamic Center of Quebec in 2017 are just the first ones that come to mind. Hate-filled people searching out those that had a different skin color or held a different faith.
Then. This weekend. This weekend we experienced a person filled with such vitriol go into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA with the intention of killing as many Jewish people as possible. Another example of unchecked hate that has taken the lives of at least 11 people. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons.
Words are so powerful. They have the ability to build people up or to cut them down. They have the ability to build deep, deep, profound connections or to develop deep misunderstandings that lead to inhumane beliefs. While this inexcusable tragedy has left many with more questions than answers, out of darkness there comes light. The days after this tragedy have shown an outpouring of support- the Pittsburgh Penguins canceling a Halloween Party and hosting a blood drive instead; church communities offering to line the entrances to synagogues to show solidarity and provide safety in numbers; Muslim organizations raising tens of thousands of dollars to support the victims’ families; and an outpouring of love and kindness. We only need to look at the overwhelming response of support across the country to understand that our world is not as broken as it sometimes feels.
When my childhood synagogue completed rebuilding the damaged area, it included a thirty foot stained glass window of the tree of life. In Squirrel Hill, PA, The Tree of Life synagogue’s namesake is a symbol in western faiths of peace and tranquility. Amidst the turmoil and chaos of our world, this symbol serves as a reminder to lead with kindness and love.
To honor the victims of this tragedy, let the words you use be a beacon for building people up, creating understanding, and bringing about peace. By doing this you can be a part of the light that pierces through the darkness.
A version of this statement was shared at Morning Meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. It has been edited for this format. In addition, thoughts were shared by Carl Vallely on the internment of Matthew Shepard.
I love going to the movies, and when a friend asked if I wanted to see Mission: Impossible, I could not resist the offer. So, there I was sitting in the movie theater enjoying some popcorn and ready to escape to the fictional world, when right at the start of the movie, within the first five minutes, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, was faced with a critical decision. Should he protect the plutonium that could be used by the bad guys to create a nuclear weapon or save his teammate and close friend? Here right in front of me, Ethan Hunt was at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking, living out our theme for the year. And I was left wondering, how does one make this type of decision?
As you heard from Mrs. Guild and Mr. R-V, at the heart of empathy is being an authentic listener and working to understand and share the feelings of others. Ethan Hunt knew what his friend was feeling and wanted to help him, even if his friend was telling him not to worry and to save the world.
At that moment Ethan Hunt had to make a choice–to save his friend or to save the world? What is the correct decision? Now, I do not want to share a spoiler, but I know we cannot all be super spies and manage to both make the empathetic choice, while also saving the world from disaster. However, I have seen plenty of evidence of your classmates being engaged at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking.
Last year the Middle School and Upper Schools came together to fundraise for hurricane relief. With three devastating hurricanes, Harvey, Irma, and Maria having ravaged Houston, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean Islands, a group wanted to help as many people as possible. However, they were faced with a decision on how to best direct the resources. Was there a right way? Is there always a right decision?
The second example from 2017-2018 was the emergence of a new community service effort–the Prison Book Program. In this program, students volunteered on weekends to send books to incarcerated people. Again, at the crossroad of empathy and ethics. Should someone in prison receive our help?
In both cases, students found ways to connect with the people impacted and made informed decisions. Whether it was finding an organization to distribute the funds efficiently or learning that by sending books to people in prison and supporting their development, it helps reduce the likelihood of them returning to prison, students used the research and critical thinking skills they learn in class to collect the necessary information to make an empathetic, ethical decision.
So, this year when you continue to volunteer at organizations such as Greater Boston Food Bank, Community Servings, Wingate Senior Center, the Charles River Clean-up, or by identifying organizations on your own, you are attempting to feel and understand what another person is going through and choosing to find a way to help those people.
This intersection of empathy and ethical thinking does not just live in the realm of social justice. It lives in our classes and hallways as well. As Mr. R-V just said, this is the purpose of the humanities is to challenge our understanding of the world through a different medium, to feel the story of another human, and to engage intellectually about the decisions confronted in the text. When you combine empathy and ethics, you get real life. Every day, you face these moments–a friend upset about something that was said about them, looking at the ethics of gene manipulation in science, or learning about another culture through our global programs.
But, I also want to challenge you today, as we start a new year. How can we as individuals and as a community do better? How can we understand what a classmate or colleague is going through and how can we better help them? Can we lead with kindness? Can we work towards having more in-person interactions and fewer online, where words can be misinterpreted and are often hurtful? The world around us is modeling something different, but let’s be better. Let’s be a model for empathy and kindness.
As anthropologist Jane Goodall said, “Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.” “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world [and people] around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What do you want your story to be this year? You do not need to be a super spy named Ethan Hunt. Let your story be one where you choose your path, listen and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world.
I have to admit, after nearly two decades in education I still get filled with all the same emotions that I did my first year in teaching. The weekend before the first day is always filled with excitement and a little nervousness and anxiety about the unknown. It has a lot of similarities to the buzz around Fenway Park on Opening Day. People gleefully walking around, filled with hopeful anticipation, while also holding onto the emotions that are stirred by the uncertainty.
The first day of school can feel very different for students and teachers. For students, it is about shifting gears. Most have summers filled with movement and activity. Even for those that had summer jobs or internships, it feels different coming back to their full-time job as students. In addition there are the questions that fill each student’s head. Will this class be a lot of work? Will the teacher understand how I learn? Will I make new friends?
For teachers, they are feeling many of same emotions. Teachers are also feeling excitement for the learning that lays ahead, but nerves about the unknown class dynamics that may exist. Teachers may be wondering if their updated lesson plans will be effective. Will their students be motivated learners? Will they connect with their students?
While there is no “right” way to start the school year, over the past ten years I have chosen not to use my first class to go over the syllabus. While it is meaningful to set the expectations and establish norms for the classroom, I wanted to use the initial time together to lower first day anxieties and start building relationships. As a science teacher this usually involved a mysterious demonstration that would create a “wow” moment, but then would challenge students to figure out how the chemical reaction worked.
However, the most important activity I ask my students to do is the first homework assignment where students fill out a sheet sharing personal information. It includes highlights of their summer, an accomplishment they are proud of from the year before, something they think I should know about them, and a goal they have for themselves.
Regardless of what happens during the first class, that time is an opportunity to start the process of relationship building. As much as our classrooms are places of learning, they are built upon a relational foundation. In Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, and Unselfie, by Michele Borba, the authors independently share that when a student feels that a teacher cares about them, the student does significantly better in the class. While one activity will not be enough for the entire year, it is a good start.
Whether you are about to have your first class this week or are in the first weeks of your school year, work to authentically connect with your students. The impact of relationship building can have huge positive impacts. Here are just a few easy ways to get going:
1) Learn your students’ names: Whether you use seating charts, look at pictures, or just memorize them, take the time to learn the names of your students, what they preferred to be called, and how to properly pronounce their name. There is nothing that makes a person feel seen more than knowing their name.
2) Show interest in their lives outside of classroom content: By asking students about what they do outside of school is a great way to connect. Did they improve their time in yesterday’s Cross Country meet? What part did they get in the school play? What song or piece are they working on in band or choir?
3) Ask student’s to share information about themselves: Learning about a child’s goals for the year, a challenge they overcame, or something they are proud of helps you connect with the student. Just this week my son’s 1st grade teacher sent home a two page Getting to Know You sheet to fill out. My family was so touched that the teacher was taking the time to read over all the answers and wanted to gather this type of information about our child.
What are some of the techniques you use to connect with students at the start of the year and start the process of building a yearlong, and often longer, relationship?