Peter Larson, a teenager from Minnesota, sleeps outside in a cardboard box from Nov. 12th to Dec. 31st each year. He has been doing this “sleep-out” since he was six years old, raising $400,000 for the homeless, in temperatures as low as minus 20. This news article struck me as I read it this week, as we just came off of our visit to the Homeless Shelter with the 7th grade. When we speak with the students in Advisory about their obligation to “change the world” or “tikkun olam,” Peter Larson's story speaks volumes. Even “kids” can make a difference. (A great teachable moment and discussion!)
Although it has become traditional to recognize the plight of the homeless around Thanksgiving and the “holiday season,” my goal in incorporating this visit into our Advisory curriculum is not to join this tradition. Rather, the goal of this most recent unit was to develop and strengthen their skill of empathy. Empathy is essential for all relationships. The ability to understand others and predict their behaviors are predicated on empathy.
“You know there's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit- to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us,” President Obama highlighted. Whether or not you agree with his politics, his observation that E.D.D. - empathy deficit disorder – is rampant has been demonstrated in the research.
Why are teens today any different? One idea, according to Dr. Gary Small, since teens are texting as their primary method of communication, their brains have been rewired and are less able to recognize and share feelings. Research has shown that today's teens and college students are more narcissistic and less empathetic.
Typically, people are more willing to experience empathy for those similar to themselves. One impediment to empathy is the inability of people to admit that another person is like himself. Dr. Stephen Snyder notes the difference between the chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzees seem to be low on the empathy scale as they deem any outsider as “them” and kill them. Bonobos' “circle of empathy” includes all of their kind. There is no “us” and “them.”
Our goal in Advisory is therefore to help our students generalize their empathy skills to those who are like them and even to those not like them. And, so in our unit we do not only train them to empathize with their peers, who are like them, but also to empathize with the homeless strangers- who have lives they could never imagine. We lead them to the moment where they can say upon their return from the shelter, “They are regular people like us.” or “People make mistakes. I see them differently now.” They are now ready to empathize.
In the Torah, Moshe Rabbeinu states 36 times, “...you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But, we have never been strangers! No Jew beyond the yotzei Mitzrayim can feel what it meant to be a slave and a stranger in Egypt. Moshe demanded a two-stepped empathy. First, imagine what it was like to be a slave in Egypt and then imagine what this stranger is going through.
In Florida, a Compassion Camp provides a 24 hour immersion experience where teens live a day in the life of a homeless person. They eat their food, have to wear their clothes and are sent into the streets to beg. When students are asked about the impact such a program has on them, the response has been, “'I definitely think it has an impact,' said 15 year old Rachel McCombs, 'especially on how nice I am.'”
Our Empathy Unit- Project Respect, led us straight to a Quality Circle in Advisory. A Quality Circle is a monthly opportunity to discuss how we treat each other in school. Is there an atmosphere of respect? Is there bullying going on? Are we as bystanders doing something to make things better? Are we “being nice”- as Rachel McCombs stated above? The Quality Circle this month clearly was impacted by our visit to the shelter. The students indicated that they will think twice and empathize before they make judgments about others. They got the message.
(See attached to my e-mail the links to two videos we showed this week in Quality Circle which connected the two units).