Category Archives: empathy

open a door for empathy

 

The following paragraph comes from a high school sophomore girl’s reflection on a poem she recently wrote.  Below her paragraph is my comment.

When I started writing [the poem], I wanted to write about the same type of refugee and what their refuge would be for all lines, but as I wrote I discovered that it was hard to know what their refuge would be. As I have never been a refugee or needed refuge, I do not know their struggles.  I can’t assume what it’s like to flee religious oppression or natural disaster or receiving pain from someone who loves me.  So as I wrote I thought of all the types of pain a person could go through and what would help them.  It was extraordinarily hard and made me upset but it made me think about how I could help these people.

After reading the girl’s entire reflection, I shared this paragraph with all of my sophomore classes because I wanted them to see her problem and solution.  I pointed out that by generalizing, she opened the door for empathy.  Her adept conceptual adjustment is impressive, and I was excited to explain it to her classmates.

The poem assignment grew out of our study of Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari.”  Afterwards, each student was asked to write a reflection, which I call a PDF.  (Click here to see the instructions.)  The above excerpt comes from the student’s PDF–the Discovery section.

A short while later, after we had studied several more short stories, they each wrote an essay ranking three of the stories according to how effectively they evoke empathy.  Their analysis was expected to include one or more of these basic fictional elements: setting, character, plot, and teller’s position.  The student excerpt below comes from a boy’s essay draft that shows at least one case where a student applies an idea learned from a classmate.  Personally, I think the lesson he learned is valuable not just for the study of imaginative literature.

“The Ultimate Safari” evokes the most empathy of these three stories in readers because of the lengthy journey the characters endure, dangerous setting, and the ending to the plot that leaves us with more questions than answers. The characters in “The Ultimate Safari” are forced to go on a long and treacherous journey to reach safety: “I don’t know which day it was- because we were walking, walking, any time, all the time” (Gordimer 15). Though we may not all know what it is like to be starving in the jungle, everybody has had a task before in their life that seemed impossible and never-ending. It is easy to empathize with what the characters were forced to go through.          [edited for clarity; emphasis added]

The underlined sentence strongly suggests that this boy had heard, absorbed, and applied my explanation of his classmate’s solution.

Therefore, giving high school sophomores meaningful and manageable challenges  produces insights phrased in their own language, which makes the dissemination of those insights more likely.  When I first read that girl’s paragraph, it was a wonderful day.  The wonder grew, when I showed it to her classmates, and as some of them used the insight in their own writing.  Naturally, I wanted to share this whole story outside the classroom walls.

In closing, let me ask what value such skills have for US citizens, as we hear stories about walls between people.  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote Robert Frost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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students advise aspiring leaders

go extra mile when things not going well; take initiative, guide group through task; lead the effort; take control, give honest feedback–without anger, be trustworthy

give voice to voiceless; communicate appreciation; think of others first, help them be better; guide, support, be an example; be a leader, which is different from being a boss; take care of others, take responsibility

trust others; want what’s best for majority; unite the group, be one of them, be experienced

These are my notes from conversations with teenagers (high school juniors).  I asked them what makes a good leader, or what does the word “leadership” mean to them.  My notes record the gist of their answers.  Personally and professionally, I feel grateful to see the patterns in their thinking.

First, these students, who have been my advisees for two and half years, see leaders as people who make the extra effort.  They push themselves forward in some way, in order to guide the group.  Even, or maybe especially, when things are not going well, leaders are the ones who step forward to help improve the situation.  They take control, perhaps giving feedback to the group or to individuals about what actions would make the group stronger and more productive.  According to the students, leaders do all of this in a way that can be trusted, in part because they guide and provide without anger.

The second constellation of comments shows these students see leaders as people who think of others before themselves.  They want to help everyone become a better person, or better at their particular task or role.  A leader takes care of other people–for example, by giving voice to the voiceless.  Though a leader needs the ability to step forward when necessary, he or she also needs to step back, in order to hear and appreciate other voices.  The strongest leaders also communicate that appreciation, so that people feel supported by someone with experience and empathy.  In short, being a leader is different from just being a boss.

Finally, leaders of groups truly trust the other members of that group.  They don’t pretend to trust, or simply say they do, but actually demonstrate trust–for example, by giving others significant responsibilities.  Motivated by wanting what’s best for the majority, a good leader unites the group.  And uniting the group means the leader is part of it, not just in charge of it.  When the leader speaks and acts from experience, the other members of the group can trust her or him.

Again, I am grateful for and excited by the students who shared these thoughts.  As an elder, I am encouraged by the solid ideas  they have about effective leadership.  Their ideas help me consider the leader roles I take on.  Their thoughts also convince me that leaders appear in many arenas in many ways.  Just because you are in a position of public authority or responsibility does not mean you are a leader.  By the same token, you do not have to be in such a position to lead.

Thank you, Advisees!  Feel free to leave a comment.

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Why do people read fiction?

bookshelves556

“Why do people read fiction?” my father once asked me.  Throughout my career as a teacher, I have been trying to answer this question–for him, for colleagues, for students and myself.  Ten years ago, I had to propose an answer for colleagues with whom I taught Humanities.  Students in this course studied History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy and Art.  I found myself asking, “What’s the big deal about imaginative literature?  What does it bring to the table?”  Eventually, I boiled my answer down to three elements: imagination, empathy and expression.   The study of literature exercises these elements in ways other traditional disciplines do not.  More recently, I have asked my father’s question of students.  For example, they write about what is found in a short story like Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” that does not appear in news articles about families fleeing Syria.  This exercise grows out of lines from a William Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What can we possibly gain from a fictional story on this topic?  Somewhere in Gordimer’s story we find something of value. Lastly, we also study fiction by writing some. This week, while visiting an Engineering Concepts class, I was reminded of what we do in “English” class.  The engineering students faced a design challenge, and the instructions observed that “this problem has many solutions.”  Students had to build a robot that does not “flip over or fall apart.”  These instructions made me wonder how I help students express themselves in a piece of writing that stays upright and cohesive. That’s what the best fiction writers do.  They imagine worlds and invite readers in–far enough in that we can empathize with the characters, struggle with them, experience their elations and deflations.  As I reflect on my father’s question, I am grateful–for two reasons.  First, he showed me that he didn’t know something and wanted to understand it.  Second, the thing he wanted to understand was my experience–in fact, a core part of my life’s work as an “English” teacher.  His question by the bookshelves in our den has stayed with me all these years, and I still wrestle with it.

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On Being a Student: Still Reflecting

long mtn pond

This picture reminds me that reflections are more true when the water is still.  Or maybe, I trust such reflections more than those blowing across a windy surface.  Windy waters also reflect their shores, but maybe I trust the quiet pond’s images more because they show me the leaves more precisely, more clearly.  In the quiet environments, I can devote energy to what’s being reflected rather than to how the reproduction is happening.  The still pond lets the reflection happen–by being central to the process without inserting itself.  It is both the medium and the background at the same time.

When reflecting on being a student, I’d like to stay still long enough to notice details of my experience–so that I am better equipped to appreciate the students’ learning experiences.  Time will tell.

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On Being a Student: How did I get here?

Age gap

Age gap

Reflections on taking a summer course–i.e., NEH Summer Institute called “A Reverence for Words: Understanding Muslim Cultures through Poetry and Song.”

I hope to write a series of reflections on my work for this course.  Why?  Because my job is to guide students who find themselves in my “classroom”–as well as in a number of others.  When teachers remind themselves–first hand–of what it feels like to be a student in a formal course, they are better equipped to help their charges with a similar experience.

First of all, I need to ask “How did I get here?”  How did I end up in this course?  In this particular case, a colleague identified the NEH summer opportunities.  After reviewing the options, I applied to the one that best fit my current interests and personal needs.  Once I was accepted, the coordinators–call them teachers–began sending course materials.

Immediately, we see the difference between this experience and that of most high school students.  I chose this course from a rich variety of options.  I explained to the coordinators and myself the source of my interest.  In short, I am ready to learn this material and understand why.  Most teenagers in traditional formal settings–call them schools–discover the curriculum when handed the course syllabus.  

The accompanying chart, called “Age Gap,” reminds me of the age difference between me and my students.  The red line (S) shows the age of my students over the years of my career, while the black line (T) shows my age.  Lo and behold, I grow older as they stay put.  As the gap enlarges so does my responsibility to mind the difference.  In terms of my NEH course this summer, aside from practical matters like single summer course vs. regular academic year high school schedules, I have years of interest in poetry.  I have taught Humanities courses with Muslim units in them.  I chose this summer course because it represents my personal and professional history and affinities.

Underpinning these reflections on being a student is the difference in age and experience between me and my students.  It’s as if the reflections constitute a scene from a stage play being performed behind a scrim on which is projected the “Age gap.”  We can only see the action by looking through this image of the graph.

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flying kites and writing essays

This morning my wife told me about the upcoming exhibit of Seamus Heaney materials at Emory University.  A kite will fly above the spiral staircase near the exhibit because the last poem in his last published book (Human Chain) features a kite.  The poem reminds me  of students who are learning to write for themselves, from themselves.  On their behalf, I have copied Heaney’s poem below.

A KITE FOR AIBHIN

After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,

Pale blue heavenly air is supporting

A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon

All of us there trooped out

Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite

Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,

Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,

Lifts itself, goes with the wind until

It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle

Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower

climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet

And gazing face and heart of the kite flier

Until string breaks and–separate, elate–

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

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homegrown haiku 3

Window PanelA close friend looks in

              From outside the window pane

                             Wishing to see love

This haiku comes from a dream–a dream of some substance because it arrived just three nights before my parents’ anniversary dinner.  In this vision, a man stood outside a set of patio doors.  He peered through the sheer curtains that covered each door’s two columns of six panes, from the inside.  As I watched him wish he could pull the curtains gently apart, I saw that he was a close friend of parents, especially of my father because he and his twin brother had been born on the same day as my father and his identical twin.  My parents had known this friend for a long time; they loved to laugh with him.  I remember laughing with him, too; he always worked to include me and other children nearby.  If I had ever dreamed of David before, I didn’t remember it.  So, he, effectively for the first time in my life, appears in a dream.  He wants to be part of my parents’ celebration, but can’t.

The feeling of David’s longing lies at the heart of the dream and therefore fuels the haiku.  My initial impulse was to write a poem that brought my parents’ friend to the table.  As I wrote, though, I began to see not only that David wanted to join the celebration, and thereby be connected to old friends and the experience of love, but also that everyone else at the table had some relationship to his feelings.  All of us, for various reasons and to different degrees, have experienced and desired love–love for a companion and love from such another.

The poem’s middle line, by referring to a “window pane,” echoes the hurt that comes from feeling outside the experience of love.  Many of us around the table have known, either first-hand or second-hand, directly or empathetically, the feeling of being  outside of the patio window looking in.

And this feeling helps explain my choice of “wishing” in the last line.  I may have tried “wanting” or a similar two-syllable verb, but “wishing” captures the  spirit of David’s longing.  A wish is a kind of dream.  What I wish for is what I dream of.  So then, David’s wishing to be part of the marriage celebration becomes my dream, too.  In this way, what he wants is what I want.  As it happens, then, he does join the table–in a real sense, a sense that began with a dream but became more than that.

photo credit: http://www.eichlerforsale.com/xsites/Agents/eichlerforsale/content/uploadedFiles/Window%20Panel.JPG

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two simple stories: Glock and Bach

Without judgment, I offer two personal stories from this past week.  They occurred within a day of each other.

First story: At lunch–during a discussion of guns, death and violence–a colleague described his neighbor’s reaction to the death of Sandy Hook students and teachers, as well as to the possibility of additional regulation of guns and ammunition.  According to the colleague’s reasonable, and in my judgment sympathetic, report, his neighbor already owned an AR-15, and since the Sandy Hook deaths has purchased several more.  When asked why he had purchased these additional guns, the neighbor responded that he wanted to be ready when they, the government, came to his house.

Second story: At our high school’s weekly chapel service, two senior boys played a concert to benefit the Youth and Family Services of Newtown, Connecticut.  The seniors themselves requested the opportunity, chose the music and provided the commentary between pieces.  During their performance, which they entitled “Reflection and Outreach,” they explained that it can be hard to find words at such times, and that music can express emotions in these situations.  When I asked one of the boys about why they asked to do this concert, he said that the feelings expressed in the music could serve as one way to empathize with the Sandy Hook community.

To me, these two stories represent significantly different ways of seeing the present and future worlds.  I am also reminded of the two essential questions that guide my work with high school sophomore classes:  Who am I?  What are my primary responsibilities to myself and to the communities in which I live?  Most of our reading and writing focus on a student’s, character’s or author’s answer to these two questions.  I wonder how the neighbor and senior boys would answer these questions.  And I wonder what those answers mean for us–today and tomorrow?  Finally, I wonder how my responses to the colleague and the students defines my answer to these essential questions.

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F F F

These three letters represent a course I have been considering for some time: “Farms, Factories and Facebook.”  In this course, students read literature, mostly fiction, that conveys the rhythms and mindsets of three ages in human history: agricultural, industrial and digital.  We might call the third “informational,” but for now I am simply collecting titles and ideas.  For the most part, this collecting has been happening privately.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts.  Feel free to launch such a course yourself.  I trust we will acknowledge each other, when occasion calls for that.

Meanwhile, an article in yesterday’s New York Times profiles a Korean writer whose work fits my picture of this FFF course.  Shin Kyung-Sook’s novel, Please Look After Mom, has made a lasting impression on my wife, since she read it  about a year ago.  When yesterday’s article appeared, we both said we want to read her other novels, I Will Be Right There and A Lone Room.  The Times article describes the  traumatic change in South Korea from an agrarian to industrial society–within just one generation.  Ms. Kyung-Sook’s stories reveal what this dramatic disruption means to Korean families.  The conflicts at the heart of the society reveal the distinct rhythms and mindsets of both eras. Therefore, one of these novels may suit the course I am imagining.

Other literature I have considered defines an era’s worldview from within–think Tess of the D’Urbevilles or Hard Times, for example–rather than across the “time zones.”  Given my experience with home-grown courses like this, I want to find good stories– ones that engage students initially and years later, for their emotional and intellectual impact.  Stories they carry with them.  Analyzing the eras we humans have navigated is part of the course, but I have learned not to impose too much of my own historical ruminations on high school juniors and seniors.  Those ideas provide a sturdy infrastructure, but individual students need to shape their own conclusions in their own way, largely through induction while reading these stories.

That’s it for now. Concerning this course, the time has apparently come to widen what Seamus Heaney calls the “circumference of understanding.”  If you want to see and/or comment on the google doc of ideas and titles, complete the following form.  Thank you.

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signifying nothing 5.5.23

This week, the seniors and I have been working on the difference between a poem’s speaker and author.  The following sequence of ideas arose this morning, while my wife and I drank coffee and talked on the deck,  and while the sunlight  touched the tops of our neighbor’s seventy-foot pine trees.

We saw his pine trees, as well as what used to be an equally tall oak, until a July storm dropped its top half.  During this morning’s coffee talk, I recalled that our neighbor, let’s call him Paul Bunyan, finally began cutting the fallen limbs with his chain saw last night.  Mention of the chain saw reminded me of Frost’s poem, “Out, Out,” which the seniors had recently read.  In fact, some seniors may be using that poem for their first essay about tone; I hope I steal none of their thunder with this post.  (Ssshh, don’t tell any  of them about this post, yet.)

Naturally, at least for us two career literature teachers, Shakespeare entered the conversation–in the form of Macbeth, whose speech after Lady Macbeth’s death includes the phrase “Out, out, [brief candle].”  When I repeated Frost’s title, my wife gave Macbeth’s next thought, “Life’s but a walking shadow” (5.5.23).  At this point, my mind returned to this week’s work with seniors; I often find my mind going there.

Here, I thought, is a fine example of the energy created by the difference between speaker and author.  My first thought on remembering Macbeth’s speech was that I disagree with his final claim that life is a “tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”–especially as I sat with my wife during this morning’s sunrise.  Then I realized, perhaps in a freshly rich way, that so does Shakespeare.  If he agrees with Macbeth, why bother writing all of these plays?  At this point in the Scottish play, Macbeth has reached the very bottom of his despair and hopelessness.   Ever since he has told himself that he is in bloody murders too steeped to turn back, he has been pursuing an untenable human course.  He has separated himself from his most worthy being, as well as from other people.  His moral coherence, his ethical integrity has been dissolving, unlike the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands, which she cannot remove with her bootless cry, “Out, out, damned spot.”

Shakespeare, the author of Macbeth’s final desperate words, does see human life as signifying something, even while imagining a character who does not.  In fact, through his art, the author tries to lead us away from such despair by enacting the journey that led to it.  He wants to bring the lesson alive on stage.

And here, at this junction of  speaker and author, I am reminded of a critical thinking skill that appeared on my recent blog post’s list of such skills.  In this case, I am thinking of “shape meaningful schema.”  Students who understand the play’s plot, Macbeth’s decline and the speech’s words are ready to combine these understandings with the author/speaker distinction, in order to shape in their minds a pattern that makes sense, that means something, that signifies something.  With all due respect to Mr. Macbeth, I will keep making meaning–even out of his story.  I will keep helping students do the same.

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