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Empathy In Action: One Teacher’s Story, Techniques and Tips

How project-based learning and a student-centered environment promotes plenty of opportunities for applying empathy

By Eleanor Bedford

Eleanor is a teacher, coach, and founder of Learning by Design 2C, an organization development and learning strategies consulting firm. She worked in international relief and development for two decades, traveling to more than 40 countries and serving in numerous armed-conflicts, where she provided small grants to social entrepreneurs and activists designed to model positive social change and demonstrate “the art of the possible.” After years of observing business-as-usual in the international aid industry, she worked to create new paradigms, processes, and platforms for improved analysis, learning, and performance in complex crises. When it came time for her son to begin school in Washington DC, she encountered an entirely different kind of crisis closer to home, and became interested in the movement for educational equity in the United States. Today, she applies her diverse experience to empower changemakers both at home and abroad: supporting Ashoka’s Start Empathy initiative; teaching at American University's School of International Service; and providing professional coaching—and empathy—to aid workers serving overseas.

June 19, 2014

Did you ever say that you would never grow up to be like one of your parents? Then years later find that following your passion led to a similar path? Leah Anderson promised herself she would not be a teacher, like her mom. But a year of working for Youth Venture in Los Angeles changed that.  “A light bulb just went off!” she said, when she discovered that promoting entrepreneurship was all about supporting “a mindset of ownership.” The effect of supporting high school students to identify problems, develop and execute solutions, and then “seeing the impact they could have in their communities—and that they had on me—was incredibly inspiring. The mindset of ownership really fired me up!” That was the “ah-ha” moment when Leah realized that the classroom was really the front-line of creating future changemakers by empowering students.

Fast forward a few years and Leah is teaching at Voyager Academy, a public charter elementary school in Durham, North Carolina. For her, project-based learning is about more than creating a student-centered environment. It is about instilling a sense of empowerment and ownership. “We decide how we want our classroom community to be.”

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Voyager is part of a network of Ashoka Changemaker Schools recognized for teaching skills that include teamwork, empathy, critical thinking, and imaginative problem solving along side reading, writing, and arithmetic. Leah, like her students, thrives in the school’s entrepreneurial culture that is about creating “a joyful place where adults and children are growing and challenging each other…and where we are caring for ourselves, each other and our community.”

An important part of this is project-based learning. This begins, Leah explains, “when we take the social studies and science standards for each grade level and focus on ‘one strand’ each semester, developing a guiding question to lead us in whatever direction it does. As teachers, we have an idea of the path that we want to take and an end-point in mind, but the students have the ultimate ownership and real choice about where to go.” The point is to foster critical thinking and ownership about what resonates most with them. “We ask them: what is it that you want to be an expert in?” A second-grade study of the weather cycle, for example, is explored through students’ research and then writing their own books and creating their own works of art about it. This project-based learning process also provides plenty of opportunities for students to practice empathy. How? Several techniques consistently produce positive effects at multiple levels.

Constructive Critiques. Students “conference” with each other to give one another feedback on their writing and artwork. They share an “affirming” piece of feedback and then an “adjusting” piece of feedback with each other.  “As a result,” Leah says, “they get to enjoy an immediate feedback loop” since a teacher cannot provide that to every student at the same time. “They also experience a chance to feel where someone would like to see something different.” Learning to give and receive real-time feedback is a skill everyone needs.

Creative Collaboration. When students work together on projects, they practice problem solving and critical-thinking. A recent study of economics prompted Leah’s class to decide that they wanted to open and run a school snack shop. So they needed to advertise! Students worked in groups of six to create advertising campaigns. “The necessity of having to include everyone’s ideas in creating a unified vision for their campaigns was a great opportunity for practicing empathy,” Leah observed. Ensuring that everyone’s ideas were incorporated was no small task, but it worked. Brilliantly!

Taking Action. When the students realized that not all economies work as well as in the United States, Voyager Academy requested education tools from Heifer International that allowed the students “to learn about the great needs that exist outside their own community.” Leah explained, “and they wanted to do something about it!” Suddenly, their snack-shop project had a purpose. Through it, they raised $600 to support Heifer’s work in other countries.  This real-world connection inspired and motivated Leah’s students to make their commercials and their own market research better to make more money for their cause. Along the way, she and her fellow teachers may have inspired and motivated the next generation of social entrepreneurs and activists.

What has project-based learning and seeing empathy in action taught Leah? Here are her top-three tips and take-aways:

1. Never underestimate what your students are capable of.
“I used to teach sixth grade,” Leah explains, “so I never saw myself teaching seven- and eight year-olds. But it has been transformational for me to see the ways that they solve problems and think about the world. Never underestimate just how powerful they are, if given the opportunity.”

2. To help students learn, first learn what they are passionate about.
“During the first six weeks of school, we use the Responsive Classroom Model to lay the foundation for the rest of the year. It is all about getting to know your kids and what they’re most interested in and passionate about. Then we take what we know about them, what they know about us, and what they have all learned about each other,” Leah says, “to set the stage for learning throughout the year. They know what fires them up most!”

3. Seize the moment! “As a new teacher,” Leah recalls, “I wanted to stick to the plan.” But “I learned that the best learning happens when we set the plan aside and go with what the students are excited about. Of course you can’t always do this, but being flexible and open to seizing the moment makes all the difference.” This is the heart and soul of project-based teaching.

You never know where following your—or your students’—passion may lead. But plenty of opportunities for practicing empathy and supporting learning that lasts a lifetime seem guaranteed.