Can empathy save the world?
Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, author of Tough Talk, Tough Texts: Teaching English to Change the World, argues that it can. Tough Talk explores how teachers can use tough texts to build empathy, challenge students academically and, like the subtitle suggests, change the world. O’Donnell-Allen’s book helps children enact democracy by teaching them to read challenging texts and engage in civil discourse in the classroom.
Tough Talk is a superb classroom resource. It combines critical literacy, discussion protocols, and contemporary research. O’Donnell-Allen highlights empathy as a crucial element to civil discourse inside and outside of the classroom. Empathy becomes a way for students “to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (31). This post is not meant to disparage O’Donnell-Allen’s wonderful work but instead to grapple with empathy and think through what happens next.
Framing empathy as a potent force for social justice is not uncommon. Last year, my district embarked on cultural competency training designed to build empathy and improve ‘educational outcomes’ for students of color. Over the course of the year, facilitators from central office led us through various workshops. We responded to YouTube videos, participated in reading groups for classic social justice texts, and interrogated our subject positions as teachers. Who are we, where did we come from, and how do these formative experiences shape our daily interactions with students?
I do not wish to discount this work. Helping our students navigate and appreciate the plurality of life is a worthwhile goal. But is it enough? For the critical pedagogue, instructional methods and political power are intertwined. If we begin with Paulo Freire’s declaration that students must read the world and the word, then the social justice classroom should prepare students to analyze, critique, and ultimately challenge society’s vectors of oppression.
In my middle school English Language Arts class, students have analyzed the diversity of my classroom library. We used a diversity wheel to explore the various ways our identities intersect. A privilege walk helped students make concrete the effects of race, class, and gender on our lived experiences. But when it comes to resisting and overturning our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I’m not convinced that empathy is enough.
As students are becoming critical readers and thinkers, O’Donnell-Allen states that “they are also learning to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (32). Then the best we can do as educators is to plan meaningful learning experiences, provide feedback, and create a space where this sort of vulnerable learning can occur. I’m reminded of education’s perennial debate over inputs, outputs, and the black box of the mind. Will the input of empathy lead to the output of liberation? Will tough talks and civil discourse create students who are ready to resist? We must be proactive. Our classrooms cannot start and stop with empathy.
Empathy does not require realignment of social relations. This is not to say that it cannot be a component of social transformation, but in our current context that conveniently confuses dialogues about diversity with material transformation, dialogue for empathy can all too easily become parking lots for emotionality and white fragility, recentering whiteness and irrationally requiring people of color to bear witness to these emotions. (83)
I have witnessed this emotionality among white students in my classes when we discussed issues of privilege and oppression. In fact, my previous blog post can be read as another indulgent display of white fragility. It’s too easy for me to think that such discussions are enough. That my only duty is help students analyze structures of domination in schooling and society.
As a white educator speaking to other white educators, it’s imperative that we guide our students beyond discussion. This coming year, my focus will be on the second part of praxis: action. Inside the classroom I must orient my pedagogy towards social justice work. Because as Patel explains, such talk “cannot be read as politically comprehensive or inherently facilitative of social change” (83). Talk and analysis must lead to student engagement with society. Otherwise,
we risk falling short of social justice’s ability to transform and liberate.
It’s the penultimate day of school and I’m staring out my classroom window. This morning, like every morning (unless it’s raining or the temperature drops below 33 degrees), a gaggle of students push and jostle each other around. One large group of popular kids dominates the corridor leading up to the double doors entrance. The abundant shade and benches make this spot prime real estate. Down a slight hill on both sides of the main strip are “the pits,” small concrete courts bordered by a series of wooden planks. The pits are dominated by boys who alternate between whacking each other with sapling twigs and tossing semi-deflated footballs at each other. Other kids, mostly girls, run messages back and forth between various groups.
Where would I have been in all of this? Not the popular group. And for sure not down in the pits. I probably would have hung out in one of the peripheral groups, the smaller masses of kids hovering in and just beyond the popular group’s center of gravity. This sort of comparison to my own middle school experience isn’t common, but isn’t unheard of, either.
“Don’t regress. Just because you’re teaching middle schoolers doesn’t mean you become one again.” This is one of the few pieces of advice I remember from my teacher training. It seems foolish, but regression is easier than you might think.
To celebrate the end of the year, my team is taking a field trip to one of those combination amusement parks/arcades that seem to exist only in industrial parks around the exurbs. After an hour on a bus, my team and I “lead” a throng of middle schoolers into Fun Place/Zone/Land. The building’s atmosphere of recycled body odor and repressed hormones is the kind of smell that’s somehow timeless.
Without thinking, I latch onto Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher. The two of us get along well, and I know I can count on him for a steady stream of Dad jokes and enjoyable silliness. He’s “fun” in a way I could never be. We spend fifteen minutes wandering through the epileptic cacophony before settling in at a Terminator arcade game. It’s fun, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong; I’m nervous. Of making a mistake, of not being funny, of saying something clumsy, of being rejected. My nerves twitch from memories of my own childhood.
After the Terminator eats our money, Mr. Carter asks if I want to play a round of laser tag with him. My response is immediate: No thanks. I was spared any noteworthy humiliation during my teenage years, but I’ve always been awkward, perfectionistic, and “eccentric”. “Okay!” he replies affably.
As Mr. Carter wanders off into the laser tag area, I sense a galumphing that can only mean teenage boys. I turn around to see Jason and Jorge in front of me. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Come do the bumper cars with us!”
“Uhm, yea, sure! Let me just check out laser tag with Mr. Carter first,” I reply unsteadily. Unfortunately, he’s scooted off and can no longer provide me with an excuse to decline the invitation. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that interacting with anyone outside of a classroom is unnerving. Within the borders of my classroom and the standard 42 minute class period, I’m unstoppable. My purpose is clear. Outside those boundaries, however, is another story. When it comes to just sort of hanging out, my brain hiccups. I don’t enjoy small talk and I prefer to chat about lessons than weekend plans.
Without a solid reason to decline, I follow Jason, Jorge, and a handful of others to the line. I let Jason explain to me how to operate the cars. Jorge already told me while we waited in the line, but Jason was visibly excited to let me know what to do. Besides, there’s something sweet in these small moments of relationship building.
“How do I get my seatbelt on?” I ask no one in particular as I flail my arms around.
“Mr. Anderson! Look!” Jason replied as he took his own seatbelt off and demonstrated the simple process. “Just lift your arms up and let it fall into place.” I’d already figured it out, but again, moments like this make my heart sing.
The operator turned the cars on and everyone immediately smashed into each other. Cackling, we spent the next five minutes caroming around the course, ricocheting off one another and weaving serpentine paths to set up sneak attacks. There was no malice or latent aggression, just fun. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Look! Spin some wheelies!” Jason shouted to me. I looked over at him and saw him spinning in place with Jorge. I cranked one lever back and pushed the other one forward, causing my bumper car to revolve around and around. In that moment we spun as one, howling together as the rest of the kids continued smashing into each other around the periphery of the track. This continued until the operator ended the ride and we poured out of our bumper cars and gave each other daps.
Jorge and Jason ran off to annoy some girls who had congregated near the photo-booth, leaving me alone and fulfilled. Buoyed by the bumper car success, I hazarded a walk past the laser tag area. “Anderson! Laser tag game. Teachers vs students. You in?” My team leader called out from the arena’s vestibule. After a split second of hesitation, I stopped and turned towards the group of teachers and students gathered together. One of my favorite things about teaching is are the endless opportunities it presents for practice and improvement.
“Come on!” Jason yells, hopping up and down.
“You gonna get CRUSHED!” Jorge hollers, aiming an invisible gun at me and firing off a few rounds.
“Absolutely,” I reply. “Let’s do this.”
During testing week at my school, students show up dressed in their finest sleeping apparel and rocking their favorite bedtime accessories. In an endearing trend I began noticing two years ago, students walk into their testing rooms loaded down with blankets and pillows of various sizes, shapes, and patterns. They use them to turn their desks into pop-up sleeping quarters when they’re finished testing. Since they can’t go anywhere, speak to anyone, or listen to anything during exams, many have taken to curling up beneath the room’s glaring fluorescence in order to nab a few Zs.
Although I suspect comfort is the primary reason for the bedtime theme, I can’t help but wonder if ornate sleeping masks and emoji pillows are also a quiet form of rebellion. When it comes to the do’s and don’t’s of testing season, student apparel is just about the only area Pearson and the state have yet to dictate.
During testing week, children and teachers are subjected to a draconian set of restrictions. Students spend roughly four hours every morning hunkered down in front of dusty laptops, clicking through absurdly boring reading passages and math problems. The monotony is crushing. They aren’t allowed to chew gum or eat food, and any trip to the restroom or a water fountain requires waiting outside the room until a hall monitor is available to escort them to a restroom. This can take a while because during testing only one student is allowed in each bathroom at a time. For teachers, our four hours are spent tracing and retracing serpentine paths up and down rows of desks. Just like the students, we aren’t allowed any distractions. There can be no reading, writing, or planning. Just continuous motion. So today, for the third day in a row, I walk and they click.
There’s something disarming about watching a student in an Eyore onesie focus intently on a high-stakes exam.
My group starts off strong. Except for an unfortunate bout of hiccups, the first two hours glide by in silence. Every kid is in the zone. Students who are allowed to use bilingual and English dictionaries during the exam put them to work, flipping between page and screen for what seems like every question.
Cracks begin to form during the third hour. Feet start to tap. Exaggerated sighs and poorly muffled coughs ping pong around the room. Students begin squirming in their chairs as if the hunks of faded plastic were covered in ants. At this age, students are 95% arms and legs, and it’s charming to watch them contort their ungainly limbs in an endless (and futile) quest for comfort.
When a kid drops his calculator and everyone whips their heads around to stare at him, I know students have hit the wall. From that point forward, sounds that would have been ignored earlier become the subject of intense scrutiny from everyone in the room. All it takes is a single automatic pencil click to cause half of the room’s heads to whip around and glare at the source. Kids are now raising their hands to go to the restroom at a fever pace.
A girl in the back of the room takes off her oversized sweatshirt and drapes it over her testing shield (a cardboard trifold blocking a student’s primary lines of sight). I watch as she tries to push herself into the plush cave. A boy in the back of the room is about to make a farting noise on his arm, but I glare him down.
With only twenty minutes until lunch, kids who haven’t finished yet begin speeding through the remaining test questions. They don’t want to consult any dictionaries or highlight any evidence, they just want to go to lunch with their friends. Because when you’re in 7th grade, the possibility of missing out on treasured, unfettered social time easily outweighs some test.
I’m not allowed to make any comments other than “Please click on the ‘submit test’ button” or “Be sure to use the pointer tool to select the correct answer,” so I simply continue pacing. Finally, the bell rings. I collect everyone’s materials (any scratch paper is collected and shredded) and dismiss them to lunch. I’m exhausted. I cannot imagine what this feels like for the kids.
And just like that, the moment is gone. Although test results begin rolling in immediately, we refrain from telling the students their scores for a few days. And even then, we only reveal whether they passed or failed (versus the common performance categories of below basic/basic/proficient/advanced).
After lunch, the schedule goes back to normal. I tell the students in my three afternoon classes that they can do pretty much whatever they want. They play Uno, take silly Snapchat pictures, and write on the whiteboards. I play a few hands with them and photobomb their snaps.
Next week we’ll be back to academic content, so on these days I try to give them as much space as possible. The summer itch is real, and I’ll need my strength to lead them through one final (and short) unit. So for now I sit on top of my desk and laugh with them, marveling at the hyperbolic existence that is life as a middle schooler.
David Foster Wallace once wrote “The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” As far as education bromides go, ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ is pretty bad. But for the most part, it turns out to be true. A teacher’s ability to form relationships with their students sets the tone for the classroom.
I sometimes like to imagine that every student has a giant padlock on their chest. This is where a student’s motivation, empathy, and trust live. The only way to access these qualities is to find the right key. Some students make it easy, entering the classroom already unlocked. Others keep their key in easy to find places; revealing its location through their words and actions. Some students keep their key hidden away, hesitant to open up for a variety of valid reasons. While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level.
While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level. Building relationships with students can be challenging. Our default collection includes our personality traits and hobbies. For me that means hyperactivity, goofy faces and voices, video games, and guitar-based music. Over time I’ve come to fashion crude keys from hip-hop, popular apps, and young adult literature. They’re never a perfect fit, but I know enough to apply pressure to a lock. Having the right key can make a big difference in building a relationship with a student.
I have a student who spent the first two quarters sleep-walking through my class. He’d never enjoyed English, he told me. It just wasn’t his thing. I tried jokes, letter-writing, and music, but nothing seemed to fit. Then, during the brainstorming phase for our last unit (critical reviews), he asked me if he could review For Honor, a recent video game. My face lit up; I had my key.
Lots of students play video games of some sort. A stroll through my school’s cafeteria during lunch reveals plenty of kids glued to their iPads, tapping away at Clash of Clans, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, or whatever app the hive mind has become obsessed with that month. But this kid asked me about For Honor, a brutal, team-based game that requires a decent gaming computer or a current generation Playstation/Xbox to play.
The switch in demeanor was immediate. The kid strutted into class the next day, eager to tell me about For Honor’s DLC and recent patch update. From that point forward, I tried to touch base with him about video games at least once every few days. Sometimes that meant willfully ignoring other students so I could ask him what he thought about the game’s declining popularity.
Now that the relationship has been established, I’ll need to spend the rest of the school year keeping it kindled. Today, for instance, I asked him what games he was looking forward to playing this year. This ends up being quite a bit of work. The nature of my job requires me to allocate every spare minute to a task, so building relationships can take some strategic planning. I’ve been known to call students to my class during other periods in order to secure a few minutes of one on one conversation. Sometimes these go well, and sometimes they end up being exercises in futility.
There are plenty of students with whom I will never form a relationship. During the beginning of the year, a student told me he likes to write fanfiction on Wattpad. As a writer who loves pop culture, I jumped at the student’s admission, demanding to read some of his writing. “Nope. I like to keep those worlds separate. School is school, and outside of school is outside of school,” he said. “No offense.” No matter how hard I tried to convince him otherwise, he wasn’t having any of it. As is his right. We get along in class just fine, but our relationship exists firmly inside the comfortable teacher/producer – student/consumer dynamic.
Plenty of students excel in school regardless of how they feel about their teachers. These hyper-students have internalized the game of formal schooling. They know the language of worksheets, assignments, and points, and simply want to be told what to do and how to do it. As is their right. But these students aren’t as fun. I like kids who make me work for it. Who make me stretch and try new strategies and get outside of my comfort zone. These are the kids who help me evolve as an educator.
I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.
As a general rule, I try to stay out of after-school clubs. This is mainly a self-management technique. My dizzying ADHD requires me to keep a pretty rigid schedule if I want to get anything done. For instance, here’s my M-F afternoon routine:
3:00 Arrive home
3:00-4:45 Write, look through books, eat lots of snacks, chew lots of gum, pet my dog
4:45-5:30 Do some form of exercise
5:30-7:00 Hang out with wife, make dinner, clean up, watch news
7:00-8:00 Mess around on the internet
Pretty intense structure, right? Today I’m ignoring that schedule and helping out one of my colleagues by hosting the Anime Club he normally runs every Tuesday afternoon (his wife just had a kid, so he’s on leave). I figured this would be a good time to get a blog post in. Ever since I started working on a couple of longer projects, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my weekly schedule. Therefore, I decided to write a slice of life post (read more about what these are here). What follows was written off the cuff with minimal editing.
A swarm of seventh-graders just poured into my classroom. I teach nearly half of the kids in here, but I barely recognize some of them. Unshackled by the boundaries of school (adult-child power hierarchies, formal language and behavior guidelines, etc.), the kids seem to be in a near-constant state of excitement. This only lasts for a few minutes, though. It’s funny how quickly the students replicate what happens in a class.
The two leaders of the club are frantically screaming at everyone to put their devices away, to sit still, and to stop talking. The language is more coarse (I quickly gave up trying to count the number of times someone told someone else to ‘shut up’), but there’s a definite method to the madness. There is an objective (pick an anime and watch it), a lesson plan (vote for an anime on Google Classroom, set up the desks, and load up the video), and group norms (try to stay seated and keep side talk to a minimum). It’s just like school! Only louder and with way more libidinal energy.
In the time it took me to write the last two paragraphs, I heard the following words and phrases: semen, nerdgasm, hentai, digs for the booty (?), boobies, and that’s what she said.
While their cultural references are obviously influenced by the current milieux (Netflix, YouTube, the internet in general), they’re also engaging in a form of adolescent identity development that’s been around since at least the 1950s. They’re feeling each other out, comparing themselves, and practicing the complex art of suburban teenagerdom. They make eyes at one another, pick up on or ignore each other’s conversational bids, and perform complex social calculations. It’s all just so interestingI think I need a shower.
At 3:30 the late bus bell rings and the students immediately disappear from my room, scampering off to various forms of transportation.
I think I need a shower.
“Today, personnel from state departments of education are about as welcome in public schools as vultures. A wake of vultures seldom attacks healthy animals but prey upon the wounded or sick,” Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby
“So, how are you differentiating for gifted learners?”
The question was recently raised to me by an administrator during one of my CLT meetings. My school has opened its doors to education consultants from the private sector and administrators from central office. I’m not entirely sure why this is happening, but to be honest the reason doesn’t matter that much to me. As a teacher, I’m used to being told what I’m not doing well enough and what techniques I should employ in order to improve. Just like students.
That said, these sorts of observations and interactions still make my stomach ache. The second the experts walk in, I feel like a kid. I wither under the scrutiny, stumbling over words, and making careless mistakes. It’s like I’m back in school and the teacher has just slapped a pop quiz down onto my desk. My training, my experience, my professional reading and writing all disappear. All that remains is the feeling of not being good enough.
In Eleven, a magnificent short story written by Sandra Cisneros, the protagonist explains how misleading a birthday can be. When you turn eleven, she says, you’re still ten. And nine, and eight, and seven, etc. Just because I turned 35 last November doesn’t mean the difficulties of youth and inexperience are completely behind me. I still carry the emotional residue and muscle memory of three decades’ worth of triumphs, disasters, and everything in between. When it comes to school, I’m used to acquiescing to anyone higher than me on the chain of command.
Returning to the administrator’s question, I had a choice in how I responded. I could have inquired about the question itself. For instance, why are so many children identified as gifted? Why do many of them come from white families with dual-earner incomes? Was that person aware of the larger history of the gifted and talented movement? Of white supremacy and colonialism and class anxiety and the various ways certain funds of knowledge are prioritized while others are denigrated? I could have engaged in a conversation about ability groupings and tracking and heterogeneity. Or about the research on the effects of race, class, gender, and family education level on student achievement. But I didn’t.
I also could have used that time picking the expert’s brain to try and figure how to improve my teaching. Maybe they had advice about finding engaging mentor texts without spending my weekends hunched over my computer. Or how I can use issues of social justice to inform my pedagogy. I could have mentioned my concerns about my district’s new remediation mandate. Or how the absence of grades and tests in my class makes family communication problematic. I didn’t say any of that, either.
Instead, I provided a rote answer to a rote question. Was I differentiating? Yes. Leveled texts, scaffolded support, and differentiated assessments.
Schools socialize. We learn which behaviors get us rewarded and which get us punished. We learn to recognize who is above us on the ladder and who is below us. For teachers and students, identities within a school are demarcated and negotiated along the familiar lines of seniority, content, and job title. As a teacher, I listen to mandates, close my door, and find a way to make it work. I don’t push back and I don’t cause a ruckus. And I don’t expect my administrators to, either. While it’d be nice to hear that the leaders of my school and district are pushing back against irresponsible and unfair mandates, I don’t count on it. It’s not part of the job description.
Maybe they do and I simply don’t hear about it. For the most part, we remain in our boxes, using the tools granted to us by historical precedent and the prevailing discourse of our profession. Administrators wield data, push down initiatives, and support teachers in reaching various technocratic goals. In return, I use the standards, measure learning, and stay up to date on instructional strategies.
This is not an anti-administration post. They’re doing what they’ve always done, and I’m doing the same. We are playing the roles bequeathed to us from the last 100 years of American public education. The central office administrators will be back with their questions, and I’ll be prepared with my answers. We’ll continue doing our jobs as if nothing happened at all.