One of my learning targets for our current unit is, “We can learn to empathize with others.”
Does it actually hit on any of the 72 Common Core Standards? Nope. Do I think it is absolutely crucial for my students to become super amazing, excellent human beings? You bet.
Why is empathy important to 7th graders? Because they have a tendency to walk around with a metaphorical mirror right in front of their face all day long. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity to think about others, it’s just that they don’t really try to.
This is especially important when working with a whole lot of super privileged Vanilla Latte 7th graders. A lot of my students have grown up in a relative bubble of wealth and the idea that they are absolutely entitled to anything they want. Those that don’t have everything simply are not trying hard enough. Those that may have different traditions or ways of thinking are foreign and weird.
So there we are, reading a chapter from Francisco Jimenez’s novel, Breaking Through. As we discuss why Francisco’s father might be feeling upset that his son is going to college, I get these responses:
“That just seems selfish. Why doesn’t he want his son to be successful?”
“But Francisco is 18. Everyone leaves when they turn 18.”
“I think Papa is jealous.”
I’m starting to worry because we are obviously falling miles away from our intended learning target drop zone. Then, one of my Latino students says, “I just think it’s hard for Papa to kind of lose a son. The family won’t be together anymore.”
Okay, yay! We have a bullseye on the learning target. As I start to respond, a VL student replies, “Jeez, it’s not like Francisco died or anything! He’s just going to college! What parent wouldn’t want their kid to go to college?!”
At this point, I intervene. “See, what’s happening here is an individualistic versus collectivist argument.”
My students look at me like I’ve just spoken to them in Hebrew.
“What?” One of them asks timidly. “A what argument?”
“Look, sometimes cultures can be split between individualistic or collectivist,” I started. “In one, people are encouraged to go out and do things on your own. You’re encouraged to be super independent and figure all of your stuff out.” I see some VL heads nodding. “In a collectivist culture, people are encouraged to do things together. Everything is a team effort. You are expected to let others help you figure stuff out.” Now, I have various Mocha heads nodding.
“Now,” I say, putting on my best Dumbledore voice. “Let me tell you about the pie.”
My students settle into their chairs. They know a story is coming. I launch into a story about when I was visiting my aunt for Christmas and I realized we didn’t have a pie for dessert. The individualistic part of me told my family, “hey, I’ll run to Costco and get a pie. I’ll be back in 30 minutes, tops.” I started to grab my keys. My abuela stopped me and said, “No no, we’ll all go. Just give us a minute to get ready.” This was the collectivist part of my family showing up to play.
“So, there were thirty of us, and can anyone guess how many people ended up going to Costco for that pie?”
“Thirty?” Asked one of my VL students, incredulous.
“You better believe it was thirty!” I exclaimed, eliciting giggles and cheers from my students. “It took four cars, and a full two hours to get that apple pie. Could I have done it more easily on my own? Yeah. But it was also a lot of fun to spend so much time with my family.” What I didn’t mention was that the collectivist spirit is so strong in my family that every time a member of my family wanted to look at one of the 3987892378923948247 things in Costco, we all had to stop and look at it. Then, when that one person was done, the familia could move on.
“Yeah,” one of my Mocha students said, nodding knowingly. “It is like that. I get you, Ms. Mocha.”
Ed Sheeran (not his real name, obviously. But I have a song by him stuck in my head, so it will do), a VL students was nodding pensively. “My family always splits up to do stuff,” he started. “But I wish we did stuff like your family did. I didn’t know families could do that.” Ed stared at the desk, as if he had just had a deep, dark secret revealed to him.
“So back to Papa,” I said. “Why do you think Papa was upset about Francisco leaving?”
Stretching their new empathic muscles, their responses were much different than before.
“Well, if your family is used to doing something together, this sort of change would be kind of scary.”
“I’d be afraid if the way my family was was going to change forever, too.”
“Maybe he’s afraid that Francisco will never come back and the family will never come back together.”
And there it was. We (all) were now hitting the learning target head on. It wasn’t that my students didn’t care about Papa and his feelings, it was that they had zero reference in how to relate to his feelings. Growing up in a largely individualistic culture, they simply didn’t know that there could be a valid reason for feeling like Papa did.
As students were leaving that day, Ed Sheeran stopped me and said, “When my mom says she’s going to Costco, I’m going to go, too!”
“People aren’t only collectivist at Costco,” I replied.
“I know, but they do have huge hot dogs there,” he said, sauntering out the door.
I sincerely hope that Ed goes to Costco with his mom, and experiences not only an obscenely large hot dog, but also a bit of a different culture.