As the next election cycle begins to intensify and while reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I was thinking about the way in which we engage in dialogue in areas of potential disagreement. It has been a shift away from the discourse about ideas to the volleying of tweets intended to criticize without the openness for dialogue.
I could not help recently thinking about the opportunity I had to meet Cory Booker just over eleven years ago when he was the Mayor of Newark. His commitment to improving the city took him off the path of “traditional” democratic ideas when he looked to improve the education of young people through Charter Schools. This work led Booker to an invitation to be the keynote speaker at a gala for a Boston area conservative think tank. Would this happen in today’s political climate- Booker, who was a registered Democrat, of one major city speaking to a room filled with Republicans from another major city? It is certainly hard to imagine today.
I, also a registered Democrat, was invited to attend the event last minute and was told that I should not miss the opportunity to hear Cory Booker speak. So, I found myself standing in the ballroom getting a chance to speak to Booker briefly. During his speech, I sat in awe of his presence and his skilled way of conveying his message of hope and his vision for the future. It was November, 2009 and a ballroom packed with some of the most conservative thinkers in Massachusetts were celebrating the vision of a Democrat. That night stands as a reminder to me of all that we can do when we enter into debate with the openness to be convinced and not to simply try to be heard.
In 1962, at Cornell College, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr shared, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”1
Dr. King’s words at Cornell College could not ring more true today. They are a message from the past that we need to embrace at schools and in our lives. Schools provide the possibility for young people to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and learn to embrace all their differences. These pedagogies exist in schools and allow us to guide students. Discussions about texts in English classes, debates in history, group discussions of data in science, and being globally focused as a school all can help answer the call of Dr. King.
Yet, we need more than just schools at the moment. Over the last few years, we have separated ourselves as a society based on our ideas. While social media platforms have connected us in unfathomable ways, their algorithms have also filled our feeds with homogenous ideas. This is compounding the separation and leading to the fear of the other that Dr. King referenced at Cornell. In Dr. Helen Riess’ book, The Empathy Effect, she shares that humans are drawn to those that are similar. Cognitive Science tells us that it requires effort to invite new people into your personal circle, because you have to look for similarities that may not be immediately obvious. Riess writes that humans make a decision about another person in a matter of moments based on the first impressions- how some looks, how they sound, and their interests. The connection can shift over time but requires people to continuously learn more about a person through shared experiences and deeper conversations.
We need more shared experiences. Moving forward, we need to be willing to listen to other people and engage in real dialogues that are meant to build relations and move us forward. We need to get better about being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We need to once again be willing to invite Cory Booker to speak to a room full of conservatives, as well as Governor Charlie Baker to a room of liberals. Dr. King’s message was clear, separateness leads to fear and the only way to combat fear is by engaging with each other instead of tuning each other out.
In the weeks and months leading up to a vacation, I start to revisit the books that have been on my reading list. I take a look at books that are currently in process, those that I purchased but have been sitting on a shelf(real and virtual), and the ones that I have heard people talking about recently.
Like most, my interests ebb and flow. I also tend to read more than one book at a time, usually balancing a more heavily researched based book with a biography, historical fiction, or more guilty pleasure, murder-mystery books.
So as we head into the Summer 2019, I thought I would share how my reading list is shaping up for this summer. I am sure that some new books will find their way on to the list and others may get bumped, but the best place to start is at the beginning.
This is a book in progress that I am in the final stages of reading. It started as a preview for a potential option for a faculty summer read and since that time was added as one of two options for faculty to choose from. Savage’s book focus on his journey as a Maker and the lessons he has learned over time. The book goes well beyond the ideas of physical making. His experiences creating are simply the way he introduces thought provoking ideas. I also really enjoy the way Savage defines Maker Culture and does not believe it is simply about building physical projects, but instead is rooted in the process that anyone takes to create something new.
I was excited to find this book. It is based on a significant amount of research on the impact of virtual networks. I’m looking forward to this book, because it has a forward-looking approach, where as some other writings about technology look at the impact of technology solely from a place of deficit.
Radium Girls is one of the books that has been sitting in my Kindle app for a while. As a science teacher, I am a bit embarrassed that it has taken me this long to get to the book. However, I am committed to reading this story about the girls that were known as “shining girls” because of the work they did at the radium-dial factories for watchmakers. To ensure that it does not get bumped, I started reading it last night and it hits my interests of science and history.
I happened across this book from a Twitter recommendation by Rachel Frankil(@srtafrenkil). NeuroTeach comes out of the Center for Transformative Teaching. The book, which includes pages for the reader to complete, discusses the importance of teachers understanding how of “the brain receives, filters, consolidates, and applies learning for both the short and long term.” The underpinnings are that teachers have an impact on how a child’s brain develops simply by the nature of their work, so teachers should have a better understanding of how the brain works. This books has a textbook feel to it, so it should be like self-paced professional development.
This book came highly recommended from a friend that has never missed on his book recommendations. 21 Lessons is Harari’s third book and completes the “trilogy” of Sapiens and Homo Deus. In his first two books he examines humankind’s history and writes about the future. In his newest book, Harari looks the issues we are facing at the present and will face in the near future. It has also been sitting in my Kindle App since December and it’s time dig into it!
A few other books that may make the summer list…
Here is what the NY Times had to suggest for summer reading
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.