Creating A Compassionate Community

Mindfulness and compassion practices are extremely important to teach to students, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school. Schools must make it a priority that students and staff, instead of feeling distant from others or powerless, care for others and feel that others care for them. They feel responsible for what happens at the school and even what it looks like. They have a sense of justice and power to make changes.

 

Schools could consider institutionalizing empathy into graduation or promotion requirements. In my old school, the Lehman Alternative Community School, for example, there is a sixty hour community service requirement. It was originally 30 hours but students voted to expand it. Service in this case means taking action with the intent to directly learn from and thus be able to help others. It must be mutual; they not only help but are helped in the process. Students work in kindergarten and elementary schools, senior centers, animal rescue shelters, and juvenile detention centers. The emphasis is on long term commitments so trust and empathy can develop over time. For example, the school has worked with the Akwesasne Freedom School for around twenty years. The teacher who administers the program, Jon Raimon, leads by example, caring for the welfare of his students so they, in turn, will care for others. He spends half of his day arranging, supervising, problem-solving. Combine that with teaching three different courses and he’s always busy.

 

Community service is often cited by students as one of the most meaningful parts of their education. One student made a video about the importance of service and the lasting impact it had in his life. He spoke about a week long trip he took with other students to work in the 7th Ward in New Orleans. They repaired houses of people neglected by different government agencies after Katrina. He spoke about service turning him into a self-motivated learner, excited about his own education and committed to standing up in the face of a wrong.

 

Another unusual graduation requirement is analyzing and taking action to end some form of bias. The student can choose the bias. It can be racism or sexism or anti-semitism. It can be countering an obvious bias, such as about gender, or more intellectual, such as scientific materialism (the view that only what we can touch, feel and measure can cause things to happen in the world).

 

The school is relatively small (about 310 students) and democratic. There are three major aspects to this democracy: The All School Meeting, a committee system, and family group. Once a week, the whole school, students and staff, meet to discuss and vote on proposals introduced by anyone in the school community. Instead of simply taking an academic course on democracy, students get to actually practice it. Students get to help figure out and vote on meaningful issues, like graduation requirements, school trips, how to spend fundraised monies. This develops a sense of commitment and responsibility– and some patience with the fact that a community is made of many individuals with diverse ways of perceiving and thinking. Of course, there are days students couldn’t care less about the meeting and spend their time whispering to friends or secretly texting. However, I remember meetings where sixth graders stood up to defend a position even in the face of twelfth grader opposition. I remember a meeting where a student with autism took a period and a half to describe how his condition influenced his life and perceptions. Everyone was attentive, sometimes laughing with him, sometimes crying. At the end, the entire school gave him a standing ovation. Such learning experiences are priceless and no single teacher can create them. It takes a community. These meetings are a powerful lesson on the transformative power of giving students a voice.

 

Students meet twice a week to serve on one of twenty committees which help run and maintain the school. There are committees to welcome and mentor new students, to help clean the school, plan all school meetings, learn about and plan environmental actions, and a student court. The court is not only about getting a student perspective on how other student’s actions affect them and the community; it is about restorative justice replacing automatic punishment. If an action disturbs or harms the community, the court tries to figure out what could be done to restore the sense of safety and trust.

 

What’s crucial in developing empathy and compassion is the relationship between staff and students. To develop a caring relationship, it is helpful that students and staff learn about each other in contexts other than classes, so teachers are not only “teachers” and students are not only “students.” One way to facilitate this is to give each student an in-school family group led by one or two staff members. The family group acts as a support group and an intermediary between home and school. If a problem occurs, it is the family group leader who often contacts the parents or caregivers. The group helps plan a student’s schedule, do check-ins and discuss school issues. They go on trips, fundraise and, on occasion, eat meals together.

 

The aim is to create a true community, a community of learners where people know and care about each other. The school is not always successful. No school is perfect for everyone. But this one tries. It is a second home to most. This sense of a second home extends way beyond graduation. Students often stay in touch with friends—and staff. Because the school acts as a compassionate second home for students, they take that home out into the rest of the world with them. They work to make the world a safer and more compassionate place.

 

 

A great video that I recommend is called My Teacher Is My Hero, by Devin Bokaer. Many teachers all through the world are heroes of compassion. Here are suggestions on how to do it.

 

Thanks to LACS staff and students, Sarah Jane Bokaer, Sam Frumkin, Hayya Mintz, Tommy Murphy, Jon Raimon, and Chris Sperry for giving suggestions for this blog.

Teaching Drama, Identity, and Interdependence

When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I once got the chance to witness spirit beings emerge from the jungle to dance a story about the origin of creativity. The spirits were also people wearing carved wood masks and raffia from their neck down to their feet. After the dance, the spirits walked amongst us and then returned to the jungle. I didn’t realize then that I was seeing an early form of theatre.

 

In Ancient Greece, the legendary poet Thespis was supposedly the first to have an actor step on a stage and turn choral recitation into drama. The first dramas told mythical stories. In fact, they were enacted myths, so drama emerged from a religious ceremony. Actors, just like the spirit dancers, were those who could take in and express the power of a myth or spiritual story. In fact, Thespis also introduced masks so actors could play different roles and genders. This was not just putting on a costume. It was putting on an identity, often an identity much bigger than one’s own.

 

When students today take on a role they are partaking in a very old tradition. They are taking on someone else’s character and history. To do the job well, the actor must let go of their own ego border enough so they can feel the feelings of the role, of the other person. The student standing in the shining lights of a theatre illuminates the question of identity which all of us, certainly teenagers, face. Who is it standing in those lights? And who are you when the show is over?

 

The actor makes himself vulnerable, open to the community’s judgment. It is almost sacrificial. If the actor fails, forgets a word, loses connection to the dramatic reality, they often feel devastated. In this way, an actor is heroic. This is extremely powerful. To be seen in stage lights is to be seen in a heightened light, in a way you can’t be seen in ordinary life.

 

Just imagine the effects acting can have on a student. A shy student, a student unsure of her identity, or a student who is disenfranchised or ignored by others can, with drama, become a hero. The intensity, creativity and sheer amount of work that goes into a production can also bring students closely together, make them feel cared for, part of a group, part of something larger than themselves.

 

But this power can work on people in many ways. The actor, feeling the vulnerability on stage, can either carry that openness over to their daily life or build walls around it to be opened only in the lights. They can let themselves think their special status onstage is their due offstage. They can so identify with being in the lights that they mistake the mythical power of the stage as their own. Our culture worships stars and this worship can either fuel or distort the creative process—and one’s own sense of oneself.

 

This worship and the dreams it inspires in students made casting our annual big production the most difficult time of the year for me. There were always disappointed students, always tears. Some schools just thought of putting the “best” singer or strongest actor in the lead role. I wanted not only a great performance but a great learning experience for everyone in the group. Sometimes it was not the lead who carried the play, but one of the supporting roles. Sometimes, I had the students cast the show themselves. This practically always worked out well, with few complaints.

 

Students must learn the historical background out of which modern theatre emerges. They must learn how to take on and then let go of the power of the stage. The power is not only one’s own but derives from one’s engagement with the role. The role is part of a whole play. It is dependent on the rest of the cast, the tech crew, and the process of rehearsal. It is dependent on the audience. The actor must learn that identity arises in a situation. It is not formed once and forever, but moment by moment. You don’t do something wild, like play Romeo or Juliet, and for all time you are a romantic hero or heroine.  For one glorious moment you enact that role, you give people that example of how to live. Then, a new moment arises, a new situation. What role will you then play?

 

I clearly did not always succeed in getting across these lessons. The pressures that develop during a production can be enormous. In order to help both the educational and creative process, it is important to get students to take on roles not only on stage but off. Students can help in casting and in researching and choosing the play. They can be assistant directors and choreographers. Almost all schools have student costume designers, stage managers, and tech crew. It is important to choose plays and even musicals that have several good parts, so as many people as possible can be stars. I did a series of one act and short plays each fall. This enabled almost everyone to get a decent sized part and one that they wanted to play. Each spring, we did a larger production. We did shorter runs, of one to three shows, in order to not get overloaded—and to emphasize that the whole process was important, not only the show itself. We used meaningful rituals to get everyone engaged, loosened up, energized, and to have fun. One of our most important rituals was doing the Hokey Pokey very loudly before each performance. Instead of me deciding on all the stage action, as much as possible I had the actors improvise stage action during rehearsal. And, on the first school day after the show was over, we always had a check-in session, to discuss people’s feelings, reflect on how the show went, put audience feedback in perspective, and say farewell to what was hopefully a great experience.

 

The cultural and personal expectations, as well as the sheer effort required by a performance, made drama the most difficult class I ever taught.  It also provided the most amazing highlights.

Embedding Compassion In The Curriculum Part C: The Arts, Drama

Arts education is being cut in school districts throughout the country. This is extremely shortsighted. For many children, the arts provide a doorway into learning itself and the motivation needed to graduate. It makes school something more than mere work, but a place where students can come alive and see their lives reflected in the curriculum.

 

The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about the experience of others than any other discipline. The arts provide unique lessons about personal identity and the power to affect others. As such, the arts provide one of the best ways to embed compassion into the curriculum.

 

The arts, whether it be the ancient dramas of the Greeks or our movies today, teach us about facing our world. For the ancient Athenians, the role of the arts, particularly drama, was clearly recognized. They led a life amazingly social and public. Unlike us, who view our emotions as individual, personal and essentially hidden, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that for the Greeks, “moods were public and shared.” Emotions were visitations by the gods of the community. Being so social, they needed a way to purge those emotions (other than going to war). They lived in a violent time. So, at the height of the Athenian democracy, citizens were paid to go to the theatre. ‘Catharsis’ comes from the Greek ‘katharis’ meaning purification or cleansing. In fact, according to Thomas Cahill, in earlier times in Greece, when drama was developing from a choral performance to staged action, there were only two parts in a play: the soloist, often in a costume and sometimes with a mask who stepped onto the stage to tell a story, and the chorus itself, which would comment on the story and play the role of the community. The audience would listen reverently to the soloist but join in the choral responses, which they often memorized. It was a ritual. ‘Leitourgia’ (meaning “work of the public”) was the ancient Greek word for this audience-choral interaction and the origin of our modern word ‘liturgy.’ Through feeling the emotions evoked through the play, the audience was educated about how to live, and stored up collective emotions were purged and social tensions relieved.

 

In an earlier blog I talked about how communication is not just about expressing ourselves but connecting with others. A conversation takes at least two; to speak with another person, I have to imagine or feel who the other person is or I can’t speak to them. When we try to speak and only hear our own voice, we are hearing the voice of disconnection, and the hunger for connection. The Greeks joined with others in liturgy. Today, we have different practices.

 

In my school, in the fall, we always did a series of short or one act plays. The show became a greatly anticipated community event that lasted only one night and was coordinated with a fundraising spaghetti dinner. The theatre would often be full, standing room only. Student MCs would develop their own routines to introduce each play and whip up the enthusiasm of the audience. To the degree that the actors would feel and speak the part, the audience would live the story along with them. The energy was heightened for the audience by the fact that many knew the cast members personally. I remember one night. One actor was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke up. During the show he seemed to break free from some inner restraint and fully inhabited his role. He strode boldly across the stage and the audience cheered on each step that he took.  That was connection.

 

Keith Oatley takes this analysis a step further. Art allows us to not only feel what others feel, but feel without a layer of self-interest. When we watch a drama or movie or read a novel, we can identify with the protagonist, feel her feelings, yet also, in a more developed work of art, also feel for the antagonist. We can be interested yet impartial and thus have the opportunity to study the affects and moral dimensions of our emotions. In this way, the arts are a school for citizenship where we refine and enhance our capacity for empathy. Cut the arts and you cut one of our greatest tools for teaching students how to be moral, responsible, hopefully compassionate members of a community.

Embedding Compassion Part B: Teaching With Joy

To Teach Critical Thinking or Compassion, Mindfully Teach About Emotion:

 

When our minds are filled with emotions like fear, hate, anger, or greed it can be difficult to think clearly. When we feel we are boxed in, for example, the walls of the box are our own anger and fear. Certain emotions scream at us. Because of this, it is easy to assume that emotion interferes with critical or at least clear thinking.

 

But consider this: what happens if you try to read a book that you don’t care about? Or solve a tough math problem when you think the problem has no connection to your life? It is excruciating. Engagement and connection are emotion. Care is emotion. We all know the value of being engaged with what we are doing. Reading, writing, solving problems all take energy, emotional energy to create meaning.

 

Emotion is not just feeling. One purpose of emotion is to give value to things so we know how to think and act. Daniel Siegel describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting the system to pay attention, what he calls the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes labeling stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning, assign value, and then prepare for action, to either approach or avoid something. The first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase, what we normally call emotion develops. Emotions like fear, sadness, joy integrate seemingly diverse realms of experience. For example, attention, value, meaning are integrated with ideas of how things work, with physiological changes in our body and with perceiving and communicating social signals. In other words, body, mind, and relationships can link together, so we need to be attentive to what and how we link. Without the initial “emotional” energy to pay attention and to approach a task, learning is nearly impossible. Teaching about emotion, its uses and how it’s constructed, is one of the most important subjects we could teach our students. It takes up most of my book on teaching.

 

Awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of feelings, thoughts, beliefs and images allows us to notice, recognize and thus let go of any of these. In previous blogs, we talked about the fact that if we don’t become aware of what is going on inside us, we can’t do anything about it. The earlier in the emotion process we do this, the more we can monitor and alter it. That is not controversial. What is harder to understand is that the focus created by mindfulness can create a different sort of emotion that supports learning and thinking. First, the mind stops screaming. Then it quiets. A focused and flexible attention ensues. You feel a sense of silent presence which says “pay attention” and “feel your way into this.” You can find a similar attention in the absorption of a writer in creating a story or an athlete with their sport. Focus feels good. Insight feels good. Solving a problem that arises from your own heart feels good. Even if what you learn is also painful in some way, there is this good feeling inside the learning. Thinking deeply might be difficult, but when you do it, it is greatly satisfying. This good feeling is not a distraction but part of the essential component of creating meaning. It is an essential part of an undistracted experience of living and breathing.

 

In fact, this feeling of joy is an extremely subtle guide that we don’t always recognize. To cut ourselves off from our emotions and our bodily response is to cut us off from our full ability to think. When we experience the difficulty of thinking deeply, this can be our body and mind giving us direction. The difficulty is telling us that we are not fully energized or there is something that needs our attention. Go directly into that feeling of not being energized. A narrative will come up with feelings and images attached. Instead of inhabiting that narrative, we need to shift attention to our responses to it. Notice what’s there without getting caught up in the storyline. There we will find the needed energy.  Notice and move on.

 

There are moments when you mentally stop, let go of whatever is on your mind, and just look around you. In the early morning before a school day, I would feel the anticipation and anxiety of a school day as I walked from the parking lot to the school. I would repeat in my mind stories and dialogues involving my plans and hopes for the day. These plans cut me off from my feelings. Then I would stop and look around me. I would look at the trees, the building and people rushing to get inside. And I’d feel, “Ah, it is only this that I have to do. I only have to take this in and I’ll be fine.” And then it was fine.

 

This is an example of what we need to help students learn. Students sometimes express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “If I let go of my emotions, what would be left of me? My emotions are me. They are the most authentic part of me.” This fear might be partly from an uncertainty or shakiness with their identity. They identify not with the total experience of their life but with specific images, thoughts, memories or emotions. So ask them, “When you have a new emotion, does your old you disappear? Are you any one emotion, or all emotion?” When you mindfully let go of an emotion, awareness remains. You let go of separation. In that awareness, there is an even more authentic you. Compassion for yourself and others awaits you. What is left is a deeper realm of feeling, a clearer realm of thinking.

Teaching Compassion With Our Choices: Are We Engaged in a Milgram Obedience Experiment Right Now in Our Schools?

I just realized two startling parallels, one between two psychology experiments, one between these experiments and so-called educational reform in the United States. The realizations started last week, when I introduced in my blog the possibility of discussing, in a secondary school classroom, the question: If humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?

 

Maybe you have heard of the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was tasked to play a teacher to help educate a student learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” gave him negative feedback in the form of an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer. The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into another room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream and later dropped over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued with the shocks. The student was an actor; the  shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the effect on the “teacher” was real.

 

It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” actually continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But according to researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represents only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority.

 

The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed and under further questioning couldn’t let himself comprehend what he had done. He couldn’t comprehend his own feelings or allow himself to feel what the “student” might have felt.

 

A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Daniel Batson who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering.  In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was then told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. The subject was given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects who later reported they felt compassion for the other person volunteered to take on their pain.

 

What is the message of these experiments? The first is often considered a revelation of the potential for evil in all of us. It is argued that the evil arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act. I question that interpretation to some degree. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about the “fundamental attribution error” which is a failure to recognize just how much other people and the context influence our behavior. He says that we tend to overestimate the role played by people’s disposition or personality and underestimate the power of a situation. It is not just the authority figure that people follow but the whole situation. Our understanding of who we are and what is real and possible is formed in tandem with our understanding of our situation with others. If other people, in this case the experimenter, act as if the only important factor in the situation is whether the “student” answers correctly, not their physical well being, then it is less likely that the “teacher” would act compassionately. The second experiment demonstrates that even one biographical detail can allow us to identify with another person and act compassionately toward them.

 

I think we all need to consider that we are possibly participating in a form of these experiments right now. We teachers are being asked to give standardized tests to students. (In fact, such tests began last week.) The state and federal government and local school boards are saying to us that these tests serve valuable educational purposes. They supposedly improve education and make it more equitable by revealing poor schools and poor teachers. But these claims are highly questionable. As I documented in an earlier blog, no standardized test has ever helped create equity. There is no research to show that a student from a school who undergoes standardized testing will do better in college or in a job than one who never took a standardized test. Teachers can see in their classrooms the negative shocks administered by the tests. The tests and test preparation take time from valuable instruction and cause anxiety. They undermine the trusting relationship between teachers and students by turning the motivation to learn from a natural joy in learning to a fear of negative judgment.

 

So, what will any of us do? Will teachers and administrators obey the authority and administer the “shocks”? Or refuse? Parents can “opt out” and not allow their children to be tested. However, if teachers “opt out” they can face the possible loss of their jobs. What else can be done? What will you do?