Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fifty Shades of Empathy.

It's the day after Valentine's Day.  My Facebook feed is filled with pictures of cards, flowers, and both positive and negative commentary on the release of Fifty Shades of Grey.  I read the first book, didn't need to read the second or third, and I definitely don't need to see the movie.  

I'm not on a soapbox about this, I just know that every movie fails to do its book justice, and the book itself was anything but the "love story" the author claims it to be:  "... But you guys, the media, are all about the sex. The fact is, it's a love story, and women respond to the love story."  

Don't go writing to me to change my mind.  I gave it a chance, and I have the right to spend my reading and movie-watching time in the entertainment manner of my choice, and I choose something else.  

I choose empathy.

Compassion?  Empathy?  Have You Ever Really Thought About the Difference?

Recently I stumbled upon a book in my local Barnes and Noble.  The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion,  puts the concept of love squarely in its crosshairs as Asperger's Syndrome sufferer, Don, attempts to find the perfect woman.  I finished the book over a week ago, and it still resonates with me, because I see gifted/Asperger's kids on a daily basis attempting to navigate the perils of relationships.  Aside from a couple of days talking about autism and intelligence during the "Freaks, Geeks and Nerds" study last year, there isn't a lot of focus in my classroom on the difficulties faced by the socially-challenged.  

In reality, we're all a bit socially inept.

This morning I discovered a wonderful article from the folks at Edutopia.  Teaching Empathy:  Are We Teaching Content or Students?   It got me thinking about the difference between sympathy and compassion and  empathy.  The author argues that sympathy and compassion are a choice -- we choose to relate, and feel compassion, based upon the facts of any situation.   Empathy, on the other hand, is a learned behavior.  To be empathetic, one must actually be able to step into the shoes, or heart, of another to truly understand the situation.

Sure, it's easy to accept the difference in the two words based upon definition, if you buy in to that argument.  It's another thing, entirely, to consider the value of empathy in the classroom.  Is it possible to explicitly, or implicitly, teach empathy?  And does society truly value empathy at all?

One of my colleagues recently asked me whether I thought that there would be repercussions if she taught some basic meditation strategies to her English classes.  She has been reading a lot of the same research that I have been reading, and we both agree that education has become such an automated and mechanical process, that the idea of fuzzy-wuzzy appears suspect.  The reality is that empathy is exactly what we do need to do to connect with our students, and intentional personal reflection or meditation leads to successful learning.   (And, on a more global scale, people in the community and the world.  Imagine what would happen if customer service agents were treated with human compassion, instead of wrath, when we called or confronted them instead of accusing or berating them for something that most likely is a result of a decision by someone in their company making ten times their salary with little consideration for the effects on anything but the bottom line?)  In Habits of Mind language, this is Listening with Understanding and Empathy.  It's brain-based research.

Let's take a breath.  Let's encourage others to do so as well; especially our students.  Let's not leave "reflection" for the last two minutes of class, hoping that the new concepts taught are suddenly cemented into long-term memory just because we "scheduled time" for that to happen.  Certainly educators are discouraged from hugging or patting students on the back,  but that same sort of empathy can happen in allowing for understanding, making connections, and demonstrating genuine caring for given situations, all while the assembly line that is education today continues to chug along.  

We should all be thinking about thinking.  There it is, again, METACOGNITION.  When was the last time you took a breath and thought about your own?

This week, I challenge you to set aside TEN MINUTES for five days.  Reflect on the people in your lives that might need a bit more empathy.  Maybe extend a random act of kindness, maybe shoot an email of appreciation.  Practice empathy, implicitly and explicitly.

Oh, and ten minutes, for five days?    Do the math.  There's your Fifty Shades.

Go Change the World.