Can Empathy be Taught?
Students at The Providence Country Day School are counting on it.
With a desire to better understand each other and connect on an issue relevant to their world both inside and outside school, students at The Providence Country Day School selected empathy as the focus of the School’s 3rd Annual Community Curriculum.
Unique to PCD, the Community Curriculum was created to offer another learning opportunity outside traditional coursework that allows students and faculty to explore relevant and meaningful topics with special school-wide assemblies, guest speakers and small, peer-to-peer group discussions. Previously, the community has focused on identity (race and gender) and family heritage. Last spring, PCD upper schoolers seized on their perception of a global need for more empathy—in both social and political arenas—and teed up this year’s dialog.
“Both in our own school community and outside, we’ve seen conversations become more divided; people are less eager to genuinely understand where those who are different from them are coming from. As a result, conversations can become less productive and more hostile,” said Brady Wheatley, director of student life, diversity, and inclusion at Providence Country Day School. “We aim to prepare our students not just for school, but also to enter the world. They need to have the skills to understand one another and be empathetic toward people whose opinions, life experiences or identity groups are different from their own.”
Each month, students will have opportunities to explore what it means to be empathetic in their regular classes, one-on-one with their advisors, within small, peer-led discussions groups, and as an entire school community with special assemblies and speakers. The Community Curriculum is multi-disciplinary and will be enlivened in all areas of school life—from athletic team practice to art projects. Empathy is even a significant theme in the fall production, Priscilla Dreams the Answer, to be performed in late October.
PCD High School Math Teacher Brad Clarkson has already tasked his students with thinking about this year’s theme by assigning a new writing assignment— ‘How can I show empathy and respect in a math classroom this year.’ “My goal is for students to realize that we all deal with things differently and that we all face individual challenges,” said Clarkson. “Some of those challenges are shared challenges but others are uniquely personal and we need to take the time to step back, pause, and think about putting ourselves in another's shoes before trying to swoop in and help, give an answer or console.”
Juniors in Sharon Hanover’s English class have started the integration of the community curriculum by discussing their own understanding of the concept, reading a series of short stories, and writing their own stories inspired by the theme. Hanover believes the students have started the class with a mature grasp of the central ideas and she looks forward to introducing the class to literature that features a diverse set of characters and beliefs. She explains that it is only by understanding the circumstances that inform each person’s perspective that we can begin to understand those with whom we share the world.
Special guest speakers this month include Sociologist and Penn State University Professor Samuel Richards and Laurie Mulvey, co-founder of the World in Conversation Center for Public Diplomacy at Penn State University. They will lead a presentation and workshop on radical empathy and offer student leaders the opportunity to become trained in facilitating group discussions for peers.
Wheatley believes a measure of success for the community curriculum this year will be demonstrated as students continue to learn about their peer’s experiences and can better articulate different views and ideas respectfully. “The students benefit from realizing that some issues aren’t just statistics—that their friends or someone they care about is having difficulty with something. When we can personalize the conversations, it helps build our close community at school and it also helps prepare our students for entering the world outside of PCD.”