Get Curious to Build Empathy in February!

February has traditionally been celebrated as Black History Month, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as “Negro History Week” and expanded to a whole [albeit short!] month in 1976. Sachel Harris, of The New Teacher Project, writes this in her article “Black History is American History. We Should Teach It That Way:”

Usually, when students learn about Black history in class, their lessons are limited to slavery or the civil rights era. Don’t get me wrong: these are integral parts of our story, and it’s encouraging to read stories that show our strength, perseverance, and ability to overcome so many adversities. I am proud to come from a culture filled with people who were bold and brave enough to fight for our freedom and rights. But in the same breath, I can’t help but feel disappointed that our students are not learning about the vastness of our greatness. After all, we are much more than just an oppressed culture. 

…That’s why Black History Month should not be just a time to celebrate African Americans who have paved the way for us all to thrive. It should be a time to challenge the stubbornly persistent tendency to teach Black History as a footnote to American history. We should commit to telling the complete and vibrant story of a complete and vibrant culture to both students and adults.  

Sachel Harris, Communications Manager, TNTP

Getting curious about stories – sharing stories, seeking out others’ stories, and exploring how our own stories shape our perceptions of our world – is a key path to growing our empathy. Empathy gives us the power to see past our prejudices, biases and filters and connect authentically with the humans around us. In her poem “Turning to One Another,” Margaret Wheatley reminds us to “Treasure curiosity more than certainty” and to “Remember, you don’t fear people whose stories you know.” When we invite and listen deeply to the stories of the children in our classrooms, we grow the empathy and connection of our learning community. When we create systems and structures to encourage story telling and student voice in our schools, we begin to disrupt oppressive systems that silence and marginalize young people.

How do we invite stories into our learning environments and lives?

In her ASCD article “The Power of Protocols for Equity,” Zaretta Hammond lays out five strategies to support the implementation of student talk protocols, and offers resources to find one that fits your classroom environment. In this Education Week article, Michelle Nicola gives examples and anecdotes around her journey of building empowering stories into her classroom practice, drawing on her learning from Hammond, Elena Aguilar, and Chimamanda Adichie. Developing a culturally-responsive restorative practice circle tradition in classrooms promotes storytelling, peaceful conflict resolution, community building, and connection. When implemented with care and intention, culturally-responsive restorative practices can evolve into a system that has the potential to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects students of color. Austin ISD even has our very own culturally responsive restorative practice team!

As we move through a uniquely challenging time together, the power of stories to build empathy and connection is of critical importance. Let us use our curiosity and natural human desire for connection to invite in each other’s stories, lift each other up, and heal.

How are you listening to and sharing stories in your life and learning environments? How are you honoring Black excellence and teaching Black history as American history this month and all year long? How do you grow your curiosity and empathy? Let us know in the comments, and tag us on social media @austinisdsel! We wish all y’all a warm, connected February 2021.

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