Empathy

Last Friday we launched Jemicy’s all-school fall unit focusing on Japan. Instead of regular classes, kids paired up with buddies to participate in a variety of activities. To learn more about Japanese culture, geography, and traditions, students role-played, made holiday decorations, listened to stories, and placed themselves virtually in another country.

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As I watched the 8th graders collect their 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade buddies and head off hand in hand for the day, I heard a hum of conversation between the buddy pairs, an exchange of questions, perceptions, ideas. And, for those feeling anxious or uncertain, this: “I know how you feel.” These words of assurance came from kids who not so long ago were brand new or the youngest partners in the buddy group, now offering their experience as solace to newcomers. I wasn’t the only teacher that day moved by these interactions throughout the school. We marveled: such caring, such trust.

These scenes helped to reinforce one of my primary goals for this school year in my role as a naturalist and science teacher: cultivating empathy with the many living things around us. Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things,” asserted Helen MacDonald, author of a recent article in the New York Times. However, she continued, we can learn a great deal about ourselves from them.  I thought about this article as the new school year began, and children flooded into the science room during morning recess, clamoring to hold animals. I thought about it again during afternoon recess, when kids streamed down the hill into the woods and began searching for frogs, salamanders, and crayfish in the stream.  What is this powerful need to see and touch other creatures? I am often dismayed by this initial frenzy not only to encounter animals, but also to capture, to hold, to show others, to elicit a reaction from a creature desperate to be left alone.

I decided that this fall, I would make empathy a central theme in my teaching. Like Helen MacDonald, I have only to look back into my own childhood as an inveterate collector of animals both wild and of the pet variety to recall both how vitally important they were to me, and how poorly I understood what each of them truly needed to thrive. I can only hope that over the years I have gained insight. “The more time spent researching, watching and interacting with animals,” says MacDonald, “the more the stories they’re made of change, turning into richer stories that can alter not only what you think of the animal but also who you are.”

When I arrived at Jemicy 30 years ago, I was delighted to find a thriving culture of animal care as part of the science curriculum. I gladly embraced the role of caretaker, believing that as children closely observe the empathy  that adults show for other living things, they understand that students will be well cared for here, too. This caretaker role often requires negotiating between children’s desire to engage with animals and advocating for the animals’ needs.  “Just imagine,” I hear myself saying, when a child doesn’t understand a guinea pig’s reluctance to be held, “that you are as small as this guinea pig. You are calmly eating your hay when suddenly a giant hand comes down and grabs you. You run. It chases you. Will you ever trust that hand?” Most kids concede this point, if somewhat reluctantly. The challenge, I tell them, is to teach them that you and your hand bring something they want, rather than fear.

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MacDonald emphasizes the importance of this kind of lesson. “The only way to know what it is like to be a bat is to be a bat. But the imagining? The attempt? That is a good and important thing. It forces you to think about what you don’t know about the creature: what it eats, where it lives, how it communicates with others. The effort generates questions not just about how being a bat is different but about how different the world might be for a bat. For what an animal needs or values in a place is not always what we need, value or even notice.”

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Dozens of virtual reality products now exist for the express purpose of helping participants do just this: understand the perspective of other people, animals, and even entire ecosystems.  I welcome new tools that can enhance empathy while stimulating wonder and curiosity, but nothing can ever replace “I know how you feel.”

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