I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot these days, as I finish the first year of a doctoral program that has me temporarily out of the classroom. This spring, my graduate school dean challenged my classmates and me to come up with a set of light lift, practical activities that a teacher can use in any setting to build empathy in students. In response to the challenge, I created a series of activities that put middle and high school students in the hot seat as important decision-makers. I designed the activities to be implemented as “do now’s,” the five- to 10-minute exercises that many teachers use to start class.
Here’s how it works: Over the course of a week, students grapple with a dilemma faced by someone like a judge, a school superintendent, or a politician. They hear two opposing opinions, review research, write and debate short arguments, and finally explore how the same issue was resolved in one community. In one scenario, students assume the role of a judge considering how to settle the case of a single mother arrested for shoplifting; in another, they act as a mayor debating whether to ban smoking in public housing.
Each scenario gets students thinking about real issues, while drawing on the academic skills (like writing and reasoning) that they use all day. While classes wouldn’t stay on these dilemmas for long, the impact could be lasting: they’d help students build their empathy muscles, set the tone for the day, and get them thinking like leaders.
As teachers, we typically define ourselves by what we teach — physical education, art, middle school. What if we started defining ourselves by the types of people we’re developing? No matter our content area, we are all cultivators of character, engineers of empathy — and, I hope, builders of future leaders.