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Empathy is a topic that was repeatedly part of conversation at the 2017 ILA convention in Orlando, FL this weekend. It is a topic that is timely, relevant, and necessary. About a year ago, I wrote a post on Edutopia discussing how empathy and reading comprehension can intersect. Discussing and practicing empathy in the classroom is a practice that benefits both teachers and students, and it reaches into both the social-emotional and academic experiences of a classroom community. It provides a lens through which to view peers, texts, and the world at large. Take a look at this post for ideas on how to use empathy to boost comprehension. If you give any of these ideas a try, I would love to hear from you!
"I see you!"
Those are some of the most powerful words in the human language. Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be valued for who they are, without conditions or reservations. Unfortunately, in today's high-stakes testing culture, we often see everything BUT our students. We see their test scores and their formative data. We see their deficits and the gaps we need to fill. We see their impact on our school grades and our VAM scores. So often, we see their value in numbers because that is what our current political and educational culture places importance on. Even the best, most well-intentioned educators fall into this trap.
Numbers are important - there's no denying that - but students are more than numbers. If we have any hope of reaching them, we need to really see them. We need to see their strengths and their growth. We need to see their fears, frustrations, and worries. We need to see their passions and interests. We need to see THEM as humans - as individuals with value far beyond numbers. This is what will build their motivation and drive, what will make education relevant and meaningful to them, and ultimately help them learn to move themselves forward.
To counteract this tendency to be drawn into the numbers game at the expense of the humanity of our students, we need to be cognizant of the filters and lenses we use when observing and discussing students. Look for areas where instruction needs to be strengthened or restructured, but also look for areas where growth is evident. Celebrate forward movement rather than despairing over the distance yet to go...then plan the next step in the journey.
Gravity Goldberg discusses admiring students in her book Mindsets and Moves.
The very first step [to changing our relationships with students] is to learn to admire the readers with whom we work.
As reading teachers, let's spend time admiring readers. This means we see differently, noticing what is already there. We also listen differently, getting glimpses into readers' minds and process. As admirers, we find potential and imagine what could be.
This is a complete shift in a variety of ways. It forces us to look beyond the immediate (test scores) to the possible (a student's future). It asks us to set aside our own anxieties about the numbers and celebrate a little person - flaws and all - for who they are and what they bring to the table. It shifts thinking from what a student is missing to what they already have. Once you know what they have, the next step becomes clearer.
Wouldn't we all rather work for a leader who celebrates our strengths and helps us grow? It's much more motivating than working for a leader who is constantly focused on your deficits. With a deficit focus, students and teachers become discouraged because of ground to be made up, slow progress, or a sense of inadequacy. Do yourself and your students a favor and step away from the deficit lens. Use numbers to get the big picture - the direction on your compass, if you will - but look to the CHILD for next steps. Find where they are and then help them go a little further.
Talk to your students and ask them what they feel good about. Then ask them what they worry about. This can be in relation to classroom learning, current world issues, or general interests. The answers can help you tailor mini-lessons, address mindset issues, and select texts that students are genuinely invested in.
Numbers inform us. They can help chart our course, but it's the human element that steers the ship. Take the time to truly see your students. Let them know you see them. It matters.