Building Global Empathy

One of my colleagues is a big fan of Padlet. She shared with me this week, a post from the Padlet blog titled “Beyond the Steel Door” about a collaborative project between students in a Virginia juvenile corrections facility and students in a progressive Norwegian school.

The post is a great example of two teachers who wanted to expand the thinking of their students and used technology to help them achieve this goal. The communication between the students has evolved from the somewhat functional (What food do you have in prison?) to more about shared life experiences and differences in philosophical schools of thought. It is inspiring, and moving and it also showcases the talents of both classes of students when given the authentic opportunity to express themselves.  Take as an example this poem written by one of the Virginia students:

As the days go by and by,
And the next seems longer than before,
As I lay on the bunk and cry,
While behind this steel door,
Thinking about my past,
And how it all led me here,
Wishing I had another chance to stay
With my family for holiday cheers
Taking it one step at a time,
I know I will make it,
To be free again
Let’s find out where I take it.

And a response by a Norwegian student:



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Image Credit

I found this project to be amazing – and fascinating – and such a strong example of the powerful nature of learning when you start from a place of empathy. The primary goal was connection and authentic audience. The actual outcome was this PLUS incredible writing from students that may not have produced such work without this motivation.

So, how can we reproduce this experience for our students?

It is pretty obvious that one needs to have the passion and drive to make this happen – and to find another teacher that shares this passion and drive. But shouldn’t we all have that? Aren’t we here to facilitate meaningful connections for students, help them understand different perspectives, and communicate effectively and authentically?  Or are we too busy covering the curriculum for that to get in the way?

My colleague has suggesting finding schools in our area with Refugee students and German students and connecting with them. How would this work? Well, I think it would work if you first just started. With no agenda as to where it might lead. As the interactions progress, start looking closely at how the students are responding and guide them in ways to express themselves that also are curriculum objectives.  Creating poetry and using visual language were evident in the Norway/Virginia exchange but this was not the primary purpose for their interaction. Sure it can be scary/awkward/difficult to get a project like this going but it can also be inspiring/uplifting/motivating for all involved.

How can you use technology for collaborative learning?

Another friend, former colleague, and rockstar teacher, Tricia Friedman, is currently looking for ways to inspire her students to blog. She has created an amazing list* of prompts to spark thinking in her students and give them scope to lead their own writing experience. What if this list was shared with the world and students could post links to their writing for others to read and respond to? What if connections were made solely on student interest regardless of geographical location, culture, or identity? What if we got our kids connecting over shared ideas and philosophies – or even connecting over disparate ideas and philosophies in an open and respectful way.

*which I am sure she will share with the world when it is ready! 

I think the point of all this is that we need to reframe our thinking when it comes to imagining ways for our students to share what they know. Until we are consistent in the way we provide authentic audiences for our students, I don’t think we are going to see the depth of expression our students are truly capable of. But it has to start with developing that culture in ourselves, as explained by Philadelphia based innovator, Margaret Powers:

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How do you exhibit authenticity in your approach to collaboration and interaction with others outside your classroom?

UPDATE: Here is a link to Tricia’s Blogging Inspiration Padlet:


2 thoughts on “Building Global Empathy”

  1. You just made my day. I’ve since shared and invited my whole staff to join us in ‘March Towards Collaboration’ for the month of March, and I am about to blog about it as an open invite to other schools. This is why PLN’s matter–when you need that nod of encouragement and ideation, you have a mentor just around the corner. Thank you so much, Sonya. You make so many of us better (and more full of joy) at what we do.

  2. Thanks Tricia. I really loved your idea and having been thinking about the ‘steel doors’ and then ruminating over Margaret’s nugget about teachers leading by example I just saw massive scope in your idea to share it with everyone – the ideas are too good to keep for just your (lucky!) students. Thanks for helping keep the discussion moving forward about authenticity, empathy, and just good teaching and learning.

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