Tag Archives: empathy

Volunteering and School Credit

I blogged a few weeks ago about how important it is to give back to a community, and with students in High School requiring a minimum of forty volunteer hours to graduate, know that many wait until their final year to grab the credit while others get “hooked on volunteering” from their grade nine year.

Students please be aware that mockery is a form of bullying.  It shouldn’t need to be said but indeed some students are so disturbed by what they see when they go to volunteer, they later adopt a bravado and can be heard joking about the very people who only a few hours earlier they were meant to be helping!  Empathy is aparently not as natural an emotion as we would like to believe.  In fact volunteering itself becomes a skill, and each station or space where one offers to be of service will have its own guidelines or rules for new volunteers to first apply, then with commitment and practiced observation skills, share their own techniques and what might further the organization.

It is important though to think carefully before signing on to volunteer, even if only to gain those needed High School credits.  Are you a behind the scenes or front line person? have you an actual interest in learning more about the particular situation? Can you do the work as it is described?

Agencies in the service industry might also appreciate office help and provide a solid reference for the needed first job. When the sign goes up to volunteer consider the following:

  • have I patience?
  • will I be comfortable in an unusual setting (as in some place of worship, or community hall where one might not regularly attend)?
  • is there a language requirement?
  • is there any minimum amount of hours for the training which could require more than the school demands?
  • am I comfortable in a crowd?
  • is it a hands on position ( hospital help, working with children or adults…)?
  • is it one to one after the training or will I always be part of a team?
  • will I have a chance to learn something new? ( always one is learning-here perhaps a new skill)
  • if athletic could I share these skills and help others?
  • if academic could I share these skills and help others?
  • have I a particular interest in any field where volunteers will be welcomed (could range from gardening, to robotics, or museum work, or learning a trade and shadowing a skilled worker, apprentice style, while helping as required)
  • have I truly considered trying something new and where my skills might be most useful?

Having worked with volunteers who ranged from High School age to seniors I have learned some come with high anticipation to simply “begin” and others shyly wait at a door pondering the fit.  Both are extremely useful once shown the ropes and allowed to choose where and how they feel they may contribute most.

Please do take it seriously and recognize that whichever place you decide to help with your time, energy, and enthusiasm will begin to count on you- and be respectful as if it were a paying position.  Some organizations are only able to do the work they provide due to the help of caring volunteers.  And don’t be frightened to try something “unusual” as you may learn something about yourself in the process.

2015-2016- a year to explore!

After Volunteering at a Food Bank – and why you should too…

Allowing FOCUS:

 

When I have food in the house I can eat

 

When I eat I can breathe as in meditate and think clearly

 

When I can think I can communicate

 

When I can communicate I can get others to care

 

When I can get others to care the sharing begins

 

When we all learn how to share, the caring grows

 

It all begins with nourishment…

 

Written by me today, August 6, 2015

As as educator I see first hand the effects of poverty, ignorance, and marginalization.  Before we open doors in the hopes of opening minds this upcoming 2015-2016 school year, let’s make sure that our students actually do have the basics- they can continue to grow only with these necessities covered.

Fiction-Literacy and Action

Considering my own book shelves  makes it clear that the concept of telling a story in pieces has a longer history- much pre-dating the blogging period.

Harriet Beecher Stowe so famous for the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in March 1852, first attracted readers when she published her pieces in an abolitionist newspaper- apparently as a 45 part seriesimagine (!) the excitement for readers when the whole collection was bound and then shared as a complete volume  – actually a two volume book.  Today she is credited with helping to change public opinion globally about slavery– the books having been sold and translated and shipped across the world.  Charles Dickens is another author whose concerns about (1836 and on) social conditions also managed to attract a large audience through the newspapers- publishing his stories in serial installments and generating what today we refer to as  a “buzz” or word of mouth excitement – we tweet about our favorite tv shows/movie character/ musicians, references to the character’s exploits, and -perhaps- consider the situations in reference to contemporary social issues.  Both Dickens and Stowe knew that their stories would only work if readers could recognize the “truth” within the stereotype and character.  And today?  we bemoan the retirement of a TV personality like John Stewart whose regular satire allowed us as viewers to poke a bit of fun at ourselves, while being made aware of very real social issues. And in installments, with each episode capable of illustrating a current concern while the big picture “story” of recognizing social justice/injustice was never far from the scene. 

Perhaps news as “NEWS” – social issues horrific and frightening at times not only have become almost commonplace but require the distilling through a commercial lens.  Can we laugh at the horror? ought we too? and if not laugh, can we empathize with the struggles of others?  Dicken’s famous character Scrooge, epitomizes to many what may have been lost in terms of charitable feelings when people became commodities /objects at a factory and as dispensable or replaceable as any part in a machine – but the story holds sway and stays in people’s minds because we are presented with the three ghosts and the ideal of being able to change the future through present action.  Scrooge actually changes and while not a fairy tale, Dicken’s story provided for this awakening, this way to merge owner and worker, in this space we call humanity.  Harriet Beecher Stowe not only united many in the fight to end slavery, she also united women in an amazing cross cultural and cross economic fashion, when women signed a petition to become vocal on a political level, expressing their outrage at the continuation of practices that set one group of people against another.  Fiction then can change lives when readers have access to the story, and opportunity to care deeply, passionately about others.

But the books and authors mentioned also brought together their personal experiences and their ability to craft a story through researching the lived experiences of others- when teaching and analyzing novels with students it seems imperative to make clear that imagination isn’t either “out there” as a thing itself, or solely inside as a personality trait but is indeed an action, practiced, encouraged, developed and extended which each student is capable  of accessing within him or her self.  Some become better at the craft of sharing this trait- the ability to design in any fashion demands imagination what ever field- the ability to care? I would like to think it is innate if not always encouraged.

Modern Women of Influence

Too often it seems the “classic” women of influence are early suffragettes and women who made a difference as “sidekick” to the men who in their time received the accolades.  So classes of students may “discover” that in addition to Watson and Crick and the DNA model there was Rosalind Elsie Franklin, molecular biologist, and then students may question what is meant by the term”sexism”.  My problem with any learning that appears to polarize rather than to unite is that reductive and reactive stance; men were credited- women were ignored.  Perhaps a change of pace would have some looking into the “men behind the women”, noting for example that although a writer like George Sand had to take on a pseudonym to first be seen as an independent author (and then read) being a ‘special friend’ to Chopin didn’t hurt her creativity or her career.  Or take George Elliot ( George appears to have been a popular choice of male name for female writers !) born Mary Ann (Marian) Evans, her biography reminds one that her positive relationship with philosopher and critic George (actual name- male) Henry Lewis may have contributed to her prolific writing and the novel Middlemarch.   

When we share stories of strong females, we have an opportunity to also speak about social change over time, to note where and when women had influence: ancient Egypt had a female Pharaoh, China an Empress dowager, and Britain (today and) in its history many a powerful Queen.

Fast forward to Madonna and Beyonce– female powerhouse singers, dancers, entertainers, breaking the financial barriers too!  Beyonce’s start was as lead singer with the musical group Destiny’s Child– a group managed by her dad – who apparently resigned from his job to manage the  group.  Madonna remains unique in her determination, and her quote: In 1996* she said: “I came to the realization that a strong female is frightening to everybody, because all societies are male-dominated – black societies, poor people, rich people, any racial group, they’re all dominated by men. A strong female is going to threaten everybody across the board.” ( *amybrown.net)

The quote in itself opens discussion.  Why should strength on the part of a female be threatening? When and where have societies embraced rather than obscured female talent? How do politics/economics/education and opportunity inter-mesh, and in what ways can history enlighten girls of today – offering both a form of mentoring (they did it!) and a timeline with potential for further changes. Of course not only history: sports, the arts, politics, economics, current leaders, modern technology; examples abound and females of influence may be found in each sphere. Please remember though- women and men make up the whole, and society benefits when both genders are open to communication; to fully celebrate women of influence let’s not create a further polemic and instead encourage mutual appreciation, and keep the whole class curious about invoking positive social change.

Multi-culturalism and learning

Young student to his teacher, ” Why do they call it ‘Chinese New Year’? I’m from Vietnam and I celebrate it too!”

Maps, look at population charts, find some of the history for both countries, discuss foods, customs, language, and what it means to celebrate in a “home country” versus in an adopted country.

Recall and share a comment from another student “Russia is part of Asia too!” – once again maps, populations charts, history…

What it really means to teach a “diverse group of students”.  It means to be aware, to be open, to respect cultural differences, to recognize family practices versus “global” ideals.  And to learn with one’s students.  When we learn together, we give each other “voice” and when we listen we move beyond words and expected understanding of the words to the personal and how each student may or may not “relate” to a concept.

Kindergarten through grade 12 and for many – a number of years in post secondary- that is really a lot of time in the places we label “school”.  As educators we need to be aware of how our own understanding of vulnerability is affected when children voice their confusion, and to join the students in their research and review of concepts that adults may be “taking for granted”.  Our purpose after all is to encourage their thinking skills, their curiousity, and their desire to learn more.  But first we do have to create a safe space wherein they may question us.  And if we do not have the immediate answer- or better yet if we ignore the immediate answer and instead join with our students in the search for answers, we just may be modelling what inquiry – makers, and doers, is all about.

To all who may be celebrating the Lunar New Year Festivities- Enjoy!

Not Censored

An adult student shared with me the other day the existence of a website that features racist jokes! Now I am a believer in Freedom of Speech, and the need to not censor material- to put one’s effort instead towards educating people about the difference between funny and mean.  Yet I wished I could shut down such a website – initially I had thought how to interpret the joke- then realized it ought not to be explained.  We live in a world that is increasingly censored- and this too is bad for too much “protection” from the way some people may be raised, the ones who were taught intolerance instead of understanding and who become frightened of the “other” members of society and therefore resort to mean- in the form of jokes, in the form of actual violent actions, in the form of joining groups that encourage violence towards others- in short, bullying on a grand scale- may result in a generation that is unprepared to fight the “bully” either in a formal fashion (voting down any bigot who chose to run for power) or in an informal fashion by declaring such “jokes” not funny.

Yes I too had moments when my children were little when I wished I could simply wrap them up in bubble paper and coat them with some type of protective shield.  And teaching is a strong reminder that thinking and doing are symbiotic, and that we must expose our children to the underside of society as well as to “all things positive” if we are to be raising thinking, feeling, adults who will participate fully in society.  So in spite of truly wishing that such websites as the one mentioned didn’t exist,  I recognize that not only does the promise of “Freedom of Speech” allow for anyone to say anything, I am going to also be aware that when selecting and suggesting books for the YA set, that we look at what the act of censorship has over time restricted- for example why or how a book might have “enraged” a community or an individual enough to request that schools pull it off their shelves, or that libraries not feature a copy.  What was in the story, the writing, the setting? what actions did the characters ask us as readers to consider?

A simple example are the writings of Samuel Clemens- aka Mark Twain.  When one recognizes that Twain was asking readers to see the wrong in racism, and doing so by giving a reader a child’s insight into the adult society of his time*; or that a reading of Wuthering Heights** suggests that education and upbringing might not only challenge the status quo, but also challenges us as readers to consider in what ways social status continues to affect individual actions, then we are giving students a chance to consider for themselves what makes a book a “classic”; what messages resound across both time and space and continue to be questions that people have yet to answer fully.  We may strive for a  Utopian society, and may enjoy along with students the action adventure that went into a series such as  The Hunger Games, while secretly breathing a sigh of relief that today’s world is not the one depicted in the dystopian*** novel.  But how to continue to improve; to encourage the best in others? Reading continues to be a strong means of encouraging dialogue- and through dialogue- real freedom of speech- as in genuine communication, perhaps we are taking one step forward- I continue to hope so.   

*Huckleberry Finn

**Wuthering Heights – by Emily Bronte- the blurb for the novel states “Wuthering Heights was initially thought to be such a publishing risk that its author, Emily Brontë, was asked to pay some of the publication costs”

For a list of Dystopian literature see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_literature

Remembering “why”.

The things we remember:

today is November 11, officially Armistice day, and across the globe many communities are paying respects to soldiers – be it the soldiers recalled from the events of WW1 or soldiers who still must fight in a military in 2014.

In Ontario much talk is going back and forth over the value of making the day a National event- since some Canadian provinces already observe the day as a full day of remembrance and use the time up to November 11 to teach about not only the horrors of World Wars but also the hopes that are generated by activists for peace- Planting seeds of peace, encouraging inquiry, focusing on the present generation and all that it may accomplish is an act of doing and making- combining two terms in popular usage today, and sharing that basic desire – that somehow, horrific events are not only not forgotten, but that the meaning of words like “freedom”, “citizenship” and “rights and responsibilities” aren’t just words to be matched up on a test but words that have value, that carry promise, that offer a lifestyle within an ideology of purpose.  Not everyone will grow up to be prime minister, or president, or even interested in the political forum.  But everyone growing up in a world where there may still be a threat of global violence ought to be made aware of how many people have -over generations- risked everything, in the hopes of building ( making and doing ) places where the opportunity to attempt harmonious living will be a mandate for social action.

We memorized poems when I was in school, and the Remembrance Day full school assembly meant total involvement- K-6th grade for at least a month before – from the Canadian Thanksgiving in October, through to the November event.  And through these activities we built up a variety of skills-  plugging a sentence from a poem into Google pulled up the full piece; imagine being nine years old and able to use the word “damn” in front of the whole school because it was central to the poem being recited-  “Men who could stand before a demagogue and damn his treacherous flatteries without winking…”  demagogue- vocabulary building, poem credit goes to Josiah Gilbert Holland, author,  time: American Civil War- linking then the concept of Remembrance to beyond one specific point in time and beyond one specific place.  English Literature, social studies, geography, history, public speaking and drama class rolled into one action.  Granted, as an adult I know now that my elementary school (public) would have been labelled “progressive” ; and I am aware of how much design went into encouraging us to become makers and doers, to question as well as observe, to participate in the lesson by moving beyond the rote aspect of committing to memory, and to attempt ourselves to evoke the need to care within our listeners- the majority of whom were peers.  “Lest we forget” always meant much more than wearing a poppy- it included actively collaborating on projects designed to encourage respect for ourselves, for each other, and for our world. 

Yesterday, at the library…

or why I still love Ghostbusters the original movie.   There are simply some spots which on the surface suggest stuffy or sterile yet enter and-

do the 4:00 p.m. hustle.  Hardly a seat vacant on a Tuesday evening- my local library was booming, and representative of the multinational cultures in this city could be seen people of various backgrounds congregating in a single spot; children/seniors/nannies/parents/elementary through post secondary students/tutors/ readers/writers/ moving, shuffling, whispering and laughing- and at the odd table a little bit of pontificating too! Plus now that the regulations have changed, chomping and slurping and being careful to avoid spilling; the books, newspapers, and magazines placed just out of harm from the liquids-patrons being careful to value the space and its contents.

I sat and listened enjoying the hum; Libraries to me epitomizing the concept of “Democracy” – a public reminder that a community cares about learning, growing and changing,  this location reflecting both ties to its past and the upgrades any institution requires to continue to be relevant.  I remembered a post graduate course in which we as students were encouraged to “eavesdrop” and then to write a mini story  -the difference becoming real between actual participant observation and creative fiction  (what we produced was “fiction” not ethnography).  Actual participant observation involves the “other” ; rather than suggesting meaning, it questions meaning, and encourages communication; a give and take to produce a shared respectful evaluation of a process.  And I realized it was just this shared evaluation which I had been listening for, but unfortunately still discovered to be lacking.

I put the word “together’ in my company’s mandate before the word itself had become the latest buzzword; years of training, rigor and thought provoking examples of good teaching coming together to be expressed in the concise, yet boundless way a lesson will both contain a single purpose while opening the mind to entertain further ideas.  Good books do this- taking us out of ourselves for an instant, allowing us to enter into another’s space; strong readers know this and read for the combination of entertainment and lessons being shared which the novelist has offered.  When we “teach” reading skills we must ( me- offering a prescriptive!) – yes must remember how we as readers automatically make comparisons; almost instinctively comparing a new text to one read before, a character or plot problem to another story, a joke to a similar situation; it is the combination of novel and expected that we are searching for- the familiarity of a parallel universe- the one inside the story; the one inside our heads.  And we must (that word again!) recognize that the students we are working with may not have either the same experiences or any referents at all-

I began this blog entry with a mention of a movie- part of popular culture? perhaps…but I could wager and probably win a bet that not everyone has seen Ghostbusters the original, or would automatically recall the inside the library scene of books floating … do watch the whole movie – it may be hard for you afterwards to consider a library as a “static” space!

Talking and Walking- in another’s shoes…

A wonderful on-going project in Toronto involves encouraging immigrant women to share their stories via a pair of shoes, reminiscent of “if these walls could talk…” only with the shoes actually becoming the focal point for the story telling.  What a lovely reminder for what really is the concept of empathy– the ability to not only give someone the opportunity to share stories, but for others to take a moment and attempt to understand the stories, and then, to grasp at the significance of the stories being told.   Like many a person, I too have a “junk drawer”, one of those places that collects what a person is not yet ready to throw out.  Objects in that drawer hold little significance for anyone else, but like the shoes on display, (see: http://www.batashoemuseum.ca/snapshot_exhibits/theshoeproject/index.shtml   to read each of the short stories gathered over the three years of the project), may remind me of events, people, and life’s changes.  With the school year coming to a close, it seems a lovely idea to have students write about something that they might have found when cleaning out desks, lockers, or even helping in the lunch room or gym.  Over the years I have used a beautiful book by Sherri Fitch – If You Could Wear My Sneakers – main poem found here: http://www.edu.pe.ca/vrcs/resources/poetry/text/poems/what%27s%20fair/ifyoucould.html , to discuss children’s rights and matched this set of rhyming tales to other courses, political science and social science, not only the writing lesson of a language arts class, and not only with younger students.  Sometimes a little bit of nonsense rhyme allows the older student to relax about what is really a very complex topic.  For how difficult it truly can be to move beyond labels, stereotypes, cliques (think school- really), professional titles (think work and socializing, please), and other inscribed role playing that individuals are expected to comply with.  To shake it up a bit, and if the students don’t object, objects could be placed in a giant container and then redistributed- two stories per object, one by the original owner and one made-up tale by whomever pulled it out of the “hat”. With one overriding rule prior to the sharing of the stories- no criticisms of the tales.  Respect being tantamount to encouraging empathy, beginning as young as possible sounds like a plan. 

 

to read the Toronto Star write up go here:http://www.thestar.com/news/immigration/2014/06/03/the_shoe_project_lets_listeners_walk_a_mile_in_an_immigrants_shoes.html

 

 

 

 

 

Recipe for Readers? Relax- and share

This weekend is all about remembering and caring- Memorial Day in the States, and a beautiful regular Spring weekend here in Toronto.

Through Social Media, there is the wonderful opportunity to connect with others and to share the good work in an even broader perspective.

An excellent post: http://www.shapingyouth.org/invisible-boy-kids-storybook-taps-universal-nerve/ 

          details the insides of a story book that one hopes to find in school libraries and private homes- More on the above website to highlight how to encourage empathy, and a reminder that “children’s books” contain information for the adults amongst us too.

If your child is familiar with Pixar and the movies this company has produced, he or she may wish to try the “formula” that is suggested for writing a story board: http://www.whattodowhenbored.ca/2014/05/22-rules-of-storytelling-from-pixar.html

Not really a believer that girls are more likely to be readers, as have found readers across the gender divide, and writers too! However, it seems many parents do worry about encouraging their younger boys to take time to read.  Please do remember that reading, and Literacy in general, refers to the ability to decipher the written squiggles on a page ( or a kindle etc.) and to read drawings too- plus to connect ideas.  Reading for pleasure is a type of “sport”, a mental gymnastics exercise, and like all exercises, improves with practice.  Reading to understand, or reading because it is expected, is an entirely different activity.  When they combine, one becomes a “reader”, other wise, reading is purely a function related to academics at best, at worst – a chore.  If an adult notes that very real sense of struggle that some students early on exhibit, please speak with your student’s teacher, and question if the struggle appears to be with deciphering the sounds or the result of a limited vocabulary.  Vocabulary can be extended in a natural fashion through gradually increasing word usage, and specific books chosen; when the issue is phonemic awareness, there might be other reasons for a disjunction between the student’s awareness and communication and his/her ability to process this information in a formal sense.  Schooling involves a great deal of visual and auditory perception; we both see and hear words as we read.  For our brains to make sense of the words on the page we have to give them an audio component, actually sounding out the writing, slowly or more quickly, in context of the story.  Many a good reader will be absorbing vocabulary in a text without pausing to question the meaning of an individual word- slower readers often get “stumped” as soon as they encounter a new word or phrase and believe they must look it up or discard the reading.  Fluency however requires a reader to push on, moving through and beyond the new term, until the meaning in context appears.  Note your child’s learning techniques; the child who quickly absorbs games is connecting ideas, what was known before, what is expected now …and “reading” in another fashion.  Also try to sense if there is a great effort made at memorizing words, over sounding them out. While early readers will love to memorize a favorite book and “read” an adult a story, by grade three (3) it will become clearer if the student is actually reading the word, or slurring sounds and guessing at pronunciation. 

For younger boys PBS suggests the following readers:

           http://www.pbs.org/parents/best-books-for-boys/beginning-reader-books-for-boys.html   

many children, boys in particular also go through a stage where they are curious how things work: this is a great time to introduce all the picture encyclopedias, found in libraries, and leave a stack around the home reading area- let the young reader reach for the “facts” and become more curious.

And for the sports enthusiast: there are as many readers as there are sports- a trip to a Bookstore can become a surprisingly pleasant morning or afternoon, with options to browse as well as buy.

A modern tendency is to separate books by gender- here is a thought, do encourage biographical readings that allow for heroes and heroines, and note “stars” from a variety of backgrounds.  Girls are as likely to enjoy the Percy series as boys, though boys may not get enthusiastic about The Dork Diaries, preferring Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but when it comes to say Olympic champions, or political leaders, the grades five  (5) through eight (8)  middle school crowd will respond as quickly to a female as a male protagonist, be it in an action adventure involving a variety of characters or a story of courage and diligence. 

 SEE:  http://www.pinterest.com/alibayer/academic-and-practical-readings-musings-and-links/ 

Here are posted a number of lists, suggesting readers for all ages/grades and interests including the “Great girl’s your daughter should know” list that tends to list classics and modern classics- the L.M. Montgomery series featuring Anne, and the Little house on the Prairie Series- but the wonderful explosion of excitement for Katniss and the Hunger Games knew no gender boundaries- the story appeals to boys and girls, and when initially published, the Anne series were not relegated to young adult, but were popular adult fiction.  Bottom line, browse, online, in a Bookstore, in the library, at magazine stands, wherever reading material is to be found and don’t discount the reading of a recipe, or a “how to” book- or the hands on activity of creating with blocks, puzzles, art materials, paper, and clay.  Learning, the real kind, allows for personal development; growth is rarely as linear as traditional schooling might suggest.