I finished the work for my Masters Degree in March. Yesterday, my friends walked across a stage, and instead of joining them, I saved about a hundred dollars by not buying a cap and gown and enjoyed the freedom of dropping the kids off at school, being there to dance on campus to “Celebrate Good Times”, and spending the first hours of summer vacation eating ice cream followed by an outdoor movie night. Bliss.
I chose not to walk across an academic stage for quite a few reasons, but the main one is this: I hate being the center of attention. I do understand that graduating with many other people means I am by no means the real center of attention, I still know that my own people would be there to celebrate me; and as much as I try to be okay with that, I’m much more comfortable receiving congratulations on an individual and informal basis. That explanation begin given, I do have some formalities to attend to. So, because I have not done so formally – Thank you all! Thank you friends and family for being my support system. Thank you for making these last crazy years possible for me – it’s been very hard for me, but I know it’s been hard for you too. Thank you for supporting my kids, my husband, and me – for providing words and meals of encouragement, for sometimes picking up kids, sometimes answering random questions, sometimes listening to me babble on about my own comings and goings, and thank you too for forgiving my absences to events in your own life for missing birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and for missing out on knowing the details of your life in this moment. Thank you for understanding that I’m human and have not kept up well with human relationships while I sought to complete the work necessary to obtain this degree.
It is a bit silly to me that while I have not been able to be present, I have been studying and writing about how I should be – how we all should be. My entire Master’s project is centered around creating a classroom space which encourages empathy and connection between teachers and students, and students and students. When I first chose this topic, I thought it would be too big to cover in a one year Masters inquiry – and I was right. I did what I could in my classroom, but this work has just begun and I think that it’s something that will continue to infiltrate my teaching, parenting, and just overall living. Figures.
In my classroom, I failed to detect what I had hoped the outcome of my inquiry would be. I had hoped to show that through cultural and socially responsive pedagogy (ie: teaching curriculum that the students find relevant and relate-able to their own lives), my students would be able to express in writing and speech, empathy to characters in the stories we read, and ultimately empathy toward their peers with whom they interact each day. What did I learn? 7th graders are mean. They find ways to make each other feel bad. Sometimes this is done under the guise of teasing or joking around, sometimes because they’ve realized how much weight their words carry and how badly they can wound their peers: break someone else down = build themselves up….. When 7th graders write about characters in novels or films, they are unable to connect to the stories – no empathy. However, when 7th graders become vulnerable to one another, they are able not only able to express empathy through connecting their own stories, but to also extend that connection to the actions they choose to carry out – actions meant to NOT harm someone else.
What?! Didn’t she just say that 7th graders were mean and incapable of being empathetic?! That they are intentionally mean to one another?
I know. Those two sentences seem to completely contradict each other and right now you are probably thinking that my entire Masters inquiry is a sham and I’m some sort of idiot – well – you are entitled to your own opinion, but I do not accept it. The deal is this. Students are not usually able to be honesty vulnerable with one another. The only measurement that I was able to create in a classroom situation which actually resulted in empathy, was one in which the students participated in a “Post Secret” activity. In this activity, students anonymously write their biggest fears and secrets on index cards. I created classroom rules that required the students to listen to the index cards as I read them out loud – without verbally responding, calling out peers, or making any motion to laugh. I encouraged students to put their heads on their desks while I read the index cards and to keep track of how many other fears/secrets they shared with people in the classroom. This again was completely anonymous. At the end of the activity, students were given ten minutes to reflect on the activity in their journals. They wrote about connecting with their peers – about understanding the situations on the cards – situations like loss of parents, fear of being cast out of a clique, depression, anxiety, moving schools, homelessness, fear – vulnerable situations. They wrote about how they wanted to cry and how they made sure they didn’t laugh because they didn’t want another student to feel bad for what he/she wrote. It was beautiful. In one class period (probably the only one all year), each student knew that within the boundaries of one classroom they had people who knew what they were going through – people who shared their experiences.
Why do I claim then that my original inquiry was unsuccessful? Well, the outcome was not a higher level of empathy, but situational empathy. Students were still unable to display empathy and connected-ness to peers within a normal class. Students were equally unable to make clear and empathetic connections to characters or situations represented in classroom texts – situations not directly, physically, involving the students. Basically, I added some more proof to Vygotsky and Piaget and placed my students directly in the flux between Concrete Operational and Formal Operational stages in which students are beginning to be empathetic, but still retain the egocentricity that disallows connection to imagined or not explicitly connected situations.
There you go – Inquiry in a nutshell.
Does this mean I give up and settle on the idea that adolescent students are unwilling to be vulnerable and therefore incapable of empathy and connection? Heck no. This means I jump down some reading rabbit holes which have been recommended by friends who knew what I was studying, and who also know my penchant for trying to connect all of the people (this may go beyond my classroom, it’s just what I do). It means that I attempt to find more about empathy in education and in life, to study how connection to people creates communities that thrive – whether within the small community of a classroom, a school, church, town, family….you get the idea.
Therefore, this last month and a half I have seeped myself in the research of Brene’ Brown who is a self-proclaimed shame and vulnerability researcher. I started with her book Daring Greatly and am now in the throws of The Gifts of Imperfection. I have learned through this reading that I am not near as vulnerable or shame resilient as I thought I was. I have simultaneously begun reading, with my church leadership team, the new book by James K.A. Smith: You are What you Love which discusses how habits and practices of our daily life reflect and shape what we worship and love. This book is helping me reflect on my actions – the living by example, habit, and practice which will shape not only how I live my life, but how my students and family will perceive what it is I love, what it is I worship – what is important to me.
I have learned that this summer, I am going to continue reading about vulnerability, shame, empathy, and connection; and I am going to rethink and rebuild my home, daily practices, life and my classroom to reflect what I learn. Yikes. Now you know.
In any case, I began writing this post because I was going to write about the necessity of creativity that comes with economic hardship and the lack of creativity that follows economic security (which Brown touches on on page 94 of The Gifts of Imperfection). Seeing as I have completely written a tangential post, I will save those thoughts for later.
Happy summer friends! What are you reading? What are your summer plans? practices?