by Emma Thomas, 5th Grade Teacher
Spend five minutes on the playground during recess at Friends School, and you’ll see kids learning and practicing empathy. A child gets hurt in a game on the field; two friends run over to him and check in to make sure he’s okay. Preschoolers practice saying “stop” with their voices and their hands; their friends practice respecting their boundaries. Two third graders, deep in a dispute about the rules of their game, practice listening to each other’s perspectives even through tears.
Friends School actively teaches empathy from preschool all the way through eighth grade; it is core to the social-emotional heart of our school. Each day, our school helps to raise children who are able to imagine their peers’ feelings, step into their friends’ perspectives, and act from that place. But what does it look like to raise critical thinkers and changemakers who are able to take that empathy off the playground and into the wider world? Each day at Friends School, in many different ways, we ask children to think about, Who has the power? How did they get that power? How do you think that might have felt? What do you think might have caused the differences in those two groups’ experiences? What will YOU do with your power?
Those questions guided our most recent social studies unit in 4th and 5th grade: a study of migration over time. We began by taking a “gallery walk” through pictures of humans and animals migrating over time; maps of the monarch butterfly migration from Canada to Mexico sat next to pictures of families smiling next to docked boats and mothers carrying their children on their backs next to train tracks. Fourth and fifth graders generated as many questions as they could about these pictures: why do people and animals migrate? What does it feel like to migrate? What happens when you get where you’re going? Is it harder to migrate for some people and animals than others?
From there, children worked in pairs to research the migration patterns of one particular species. They mapped out that animal’s stages of migration, their reasons for migrating, and their obstacles to successful migration. Our goal was to set the stage for studying human migration by helping children compare the many ways that animals migrate.
Next, we dove into a study of “push” and “pull” factors. What might force someone to leave where they are from, and what might entice them? We read individual family stories of migration and worked to identify the push and pull factors present for them, wondering together, what would it feel like to pack a bag with your most important belongings and leave Boulder, heading to an unknown country where you didn’t speak the language? Students asked each other what they would bring if they were forced to pack only a small bag, and we watched their empathy grow.
But empathy, so foundational to justice, can only create change when it is paired with critical thinking. So we moved into a comparison of the immigration experiences of people immigrating to the US through Ellis Island and through Angel Island. We studied the Chinese Exclusion Act and its impact on the conditions of the people incarcerated at Angel Island. Kids asked, why were people at Angel Island treated so much worse than people at Ellis Island? As they began to explore and identify how racism influenced different people’s immigration experiences, they began to wonder if race and ethnicity continued to play a role in people’s immigration experiences.
Enter Debbie Reed, volunteer extraordinaire with Colorado-based organization Casa de Paz. Debbie came in to speak to our classes about the Casa’s work of welcome. Each afternoon, as asylum-seeking immigrants get released from the ICE detention facility in Aurora, often many states away from where they entered the country, volunteers from the Casa meet them, bring them warm coats, and take them home to the Casa for a warm meal, a clean bed, and help with buying bus or plane tickets to get them to their family or their asylum sponsor. As Debbie spoke with us, 4th and 5th graders listened raptly, deeply engaged with the stories of immigrants she shared and inspired by the power of a small group of volunteers to make a difference. Rather than looking away from the stories of suffering that Debbie shared, they learned to look for the helpers and brainstorm ways that they, too, could be the helpers.
Our study of immigration culminated with a final project for which children had three options: 1) conduct an oral history of someone you know who migrated to the US; 2) write a journal from the perspective of someone migrating through Ellis Island or Angel Island; or 3) write an argumentative essay about how you believe the US should treat current immigrants. On sharing day, we heard deeply intimate stories of parents’ and babysitters’ experiences migrating, beautifully imagined accounts of migrating through Ellis and Angel Island (some complete with poetry or stained with tea to look aged), and passionately argued essays. It was clear through their work that these fourth and fifth graders were combining their developmental passion for justice and fairness with deep empathy, curiosity, and critical thinking, the product of social-emotional education meeting the problems and experiences of the world.
At Friends School, we know that our children, no matter their age or their stage of development, are growing up in a world with pain and promise, and it is our job as the adults guiding them to help them engage with that world in a way that helps them truly see it, ask why or how something is happening, and become the helpers.