A conversation with Teaching Tolerance

When we launched A Mile in Our Shoes, we decided to partner with organizations who are experts in creating resources for educators to facilitate discussions in their classrooms about gender, race, sexuality, class, and inclusivity. Part curated content, part professional development, and part reading drive, A Mile In Our Shoes gives you the tools to teach empathy in the classroom and beyond. In the conversation below, Hoyt J. Phillips III and Adrienne van der Valk from Teaching Tolerance share their insights. 

Q:  Can you tell us more about the spike in bullying and hate-related incidents in K-12 schools?
A:  We’ve surveyed our audience twice since last April, and the educators who responded reported an uptick in both number as well as the severity of bias-related bullying incidents. Many of them commented that the divisiveness they witnessed in their schools could be directly traced to the contentious language kids were hearing--from candidates and from the adults in their lives--during the presidential primary season and during the run-up to the election. We also saw indicators that, in places where school climate was a priority, educators were in a much better position to respond to these incidents and to restores peace to the school community. With that in mind, we’ve been encouraging schools to make use of our school climate resources, particularly Responding to Hate and Bias at School, which offers a clear roadmap to preparing for and responding to incidents of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. 
Q:  Why is building empathy in the classroom challenging?
A:  For many educators there are already so many demands regarding curricula and testing that it can be easy to view the idea of empathy as an “add-on” or something extra that has to be squeezed into an already packed day.  What helps is to view empathy, and social-emotional learning, as something that is embedded in current practices.  How we act, respond, and the words we use can all be models for social-emotional learning for our students.  Starting small can create noticeable changes in your students and your classroom culture.  Simply using "I" statements and being open with students about your emotions can help them know that it’s not only important to notice their feelings but that feelings can be expressed in a respectful way.  One helpful sentence frame for this is, “I feel __ when you __ because ____.  I want ____.” The overall goal is to infuse emotional awareness and its corresponding language into the everyday culture of the classroom.  So talking about emotions, expressing yourself, being direct and honest can all help students do the same.
Q:  What questions should teachers be asking in their classrooms to promote empathy and inclusivity?
A:  First, it’s hard to ask a student to be empathetic toward someone else if they haven’t been given the chance or have the skills to notice their own emotions.  So going back to the question above, it’s important that emotional intelligence is part of the everyday classroom experience for students.  They need to be encouraged to name and express their own emotional states of being.  One way to do this is right after you have given feedback to a student, academic or otherwise, ask them “How does that feel?”  This causes them to stop and think.  Your simply asking this question let’s them know that noticing our feelings is important and it’s also a great formative assessment for you to gauge how your feedback was received. Also by asking the student about their own emotional state, it focuses the conversation and learning on them and not you as a teacher.  Simply stating “I’m proud of you” right after returning a graded test, for example, turns all the attention on the teacher.  To build empathy and a self-reflecting student, the focus needs to be internal, not external.  Once this becomes part of the the classroom experience, then teachers will find it easier to ask students, “How do you think that makes her/him feel?”  This is a common question to get others to take another’s perspective.  It’s a powerful question but can be tough for students who aren’t proficient in assessing their own emotional states. The Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards offer a number of anchor standards and grade-level outcomes that address empathy directly. Embedding the standards into classroom teaching can also help educators ask relevant essential questions that will help students understand, practice and value empathy.
Q:  What strategies would you share with different grade levels to address intersectionality in the classroom?
A:  One activity that kids might enjoy is called "I Am.” Ask students to make a list of 8 things that describe them. Then, ask them to pare it down to 4, then to 2, then 1. Most kids will find it very difficult because, obviously, we are all so much more than just a single descriptor. When selecting texts to read or films to show, select titles that feature complex, intersectional characters. Ask them why characters who share certain identities might feel very different about an issue or a situation. The TT Social Justice Standards also include anchor standards that address intersectionality and can provide guidance for incorporating this concept in the classroom. Another resource is this kid-friendly film we created to help break down the concept. 


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