How to create empathy with your community

Meet the Compassionate Faces of the Shires

community-based learning the humans of burkeHow do your students recognize compassion? Do they recognize it in the faces of your community?

In Manchester VT, one educator set about teaching her students to recognize and honor compassion in community members.

Music plays as students, staff, and community members enter the gym for the all-school morning meeting. Fifth-grade students hold compassionate poses on the gym floor as the crowd assembles: a boy lends a hand to two friends, two girls comfort a crying friend, a boy listens to a friend in pain.

There is an energy in the air, a vibe of kindness and celebration.

Fifth-grade teacher Anna Nicholson kicks off the festivities. With the help of her students, Nicholson recognizes members of the MEMS community for their accomplishments, highlights top fundraisers for a campaign to raise money for mosquito nets, and recognizes April birthdays. All the while a row of community members sits in places of honor at the front of the room. They are the Compassionate Faces of the Shires.

Each fifth-grade student stands and introduces the compassionate community member they have chosen to honor. They share examples of their compassion and quotes from their interviews:

I think compassion can change the world

I can give back to the community

“Every little thing helps”

“When someone is in need, it’s nice to know that I can be there to help them”

The whole school celebrates each compassionate community member with the ASL sign for applause by waving their hands in the air, but sometimes they can’t resist and they break out in loud applause anyway.

Kindness, it seems, is contagious.

What is compassion anyway?

This celebration was the culminating event of a six week long project-based learning unit on compassion.  Nicholson’s class began at the beginning: by defining compassion and empathy.

Once they knew what they were looking for, they began to search for examples of compassion and empathy.  Enter books and media! Nicholson started with a read aloud: Come With Me by Holly M. McGhee.  Students worked together as a class to identify messages and evidence of compassion from the story.  Then they broke into smaller groups to explore books of their choice, looking for further examples of compassion in practice.

Compassionate Faces of History Humanity

Once they have practiced identifying compassion together, it was time for them to practice doing it on their own.  Nicholson charged them to select a historical figure who demonstrated compassion. Students pushed back: what about more contemporary examples of compassion: athletes, movie stars, religious figures, talk show hosts, and musicians?  Nicholson agreed: students could choose anyone, but they had to show evidence of compassion.

The result?  Increased student motivation and engagement!  One student confided that fifth graders loved the project!  When Nicholson asked why, he responded: “I think it’s that there is so much choice.”

Their choices were diverse: Malala Yousafzai, Albert Einstein, Ellen Degeneres, Simon Biles, Drake, and Nelson Mandela to name a few.  Ms. Nicholson planned to assess students final projects using three criteria. Specifically, “I can”:

  1. Use evidence and logic appropriately in communication.
  2. Integrate information gathered from active speaking and listening.
  3. Produce clear writing that is developed and organized.

She used a single-point rubric to give students feedback on these formative pieces, encouraging them to revise and grow, and providing additional instruction as they worked on these skills. Some students were so excited by these profiles of compassion that they created more than one.

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Compassionate Faces of the Shires

There is always that point in project-based learning that gets a little messy. For Nicholson’s class, that moment came as they began to identify members of the community to interview.

Students worked together to brainstorm questions to ask, but interviewing is a complex skill. Follow up questions are necessary! Most compassionate people do not like to brag about their compassionate acts. Nicholson and her class realized that they needed to work on the skill of drawing out more details. A class role-play provided the opportunity for “thinking out loud” about the kinds of questions that would get interviewees to open up and share more details about their service.

Students were encouraged to record the audio from their interviews so that they could re-play them and search for evidence of compassion and interesting quotes. This also allowed them to focus on the interview, rather than on note-taking.

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The results: profiles of compassion from the community they live in.

These were featured at the Caring Day Celebration, and went on display at the Manchester Community Library. Following the event, students invited their honored guests back to their classroom for breakfast and presented them with a copy of their profile and a token of their appreciation for their time, but especially for their compassion.


Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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