Empathy in the Classroom
To start the semester I wanted to do something that allowed my students to get to know each other but also to share their experiences in science classes previous to this one. I hoped that we could find commonalities between students experiences as a way to build empathy for the stories of others. I will explain the set up and instructions for the activity.
To start, everyone needs a 3x5 notecard and something to write with. I drew a large version of a notecard on the board filled it in as I explained to the class. First, everyone needs to put their name at the top of the card. Then they should draw a line along the middle of the notecard, dividing it into top and bottom halves.
Lead a short discussion about how many different schools and classes everyone in the room is from. Discuss how everybody is different and learns differently as well.
Ask the students to think of a time in a class of your subject (science for me) where they were frustrated or felt like they weren't good at something. I refrain from calling this a bad memory or a negative memory because I like to be able to redeem these experience later. I gave the example of having to study for my APBIO test and write it in my example notecard. Give them a minute to think of their memory before asking them to write it down in the top half of their notecard.
Next give an example of an exciting memory where they felt confident or happy or proud. Again, I don't call this a good or positive memory. I told them a story about how I really enjoy dissections in my high school biology class and write it out on the board. Give them a minute before having them jot down their memory.
Let everyone finish and call somebody up to demonstrate with you. Tell the kids that they will be pairing up and telling the partner their top and bottom stories before listening to the stories of their partner. Once they finish sharing they will "swap" by exchanging cards. After the swap cards they wander about until they find a new partner. With their new partner they share the story that they now have in their hands, the story of their previous partner. They should point out that person to their new partner so that he or she knows who is being talked about. They can cycle through for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.
After everyone is done talking and seated lead a discussion where you talk about what they heard a lot in both types of memories. I like to have them turn to a partner and talk then share with the class what they talked about in their pairs but however you do this is fine.
In my class most of the 'upper' memories had to do with some kind of hands on work or a really cool project that they were able to do. Many of the 'lower' memories dealt with late work, homework and tests. Write each common topic on the board or some document that you can refer to. On the first day of class this can lead into norms or syllabus. For my class I was able to talk about our hands on work and outline details about our late policy and homework.
I was a fan of this activity at the beginning of the year because it's an authentic way to start getting everybody's names and stories. It's a very inclusive activity as well because it is easily adaptable and no one has a more important voice than anyone else. In my experience this activity is good at bringing everyone in and making sure that everyone is heard.
It's very important to document the responses from the end of this activity. Showing the students that this conversation has consequence throughout the semester goes a long way to being serious about making their voices heard. The activity can also be adapted as a dilemma protocol or in response to a national disaster or after a holiday break.
Jan 31st 2017 edit -
I have used this to start all my classes thus far and I like it. It's a great way to start to get to know everybody and also gives me a notecard with everybody's name on it and a few things they like in school, which I use in discussions later in the year.
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Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.