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Student prepares for TedTalk on European refugee crisis

At the beginning of this school year I found myself in deep introspection about the state of our world today. The heated and vitriolic rhetoric of this election cycle was hitting full tilt, and I knew my 9th grade students would have spent the entire summer absorbing it all. As I sat down to organize my curriculum for the year, I began to ask myself a driving question: “How can I use my history class to counteract the negativity in our country and in the world?”

As a history teacher I feel it is our responsibility to teach children what it means to be good citizens, both of this country and of the world. The way that things were playing out on TV and social media made it very clear that this question was more important now than ever.

This exploration led me to many thoughtful discussions with colleagues and family, all of which I took mental notes on as I tried to build a PBL experience in my mind. I began to realize that perhaps the single most important life skill, and one that seemed to be wholly absent from the public forum, was empathy. So my driving question evolved. I went back to my notes and wrote a new one: “How can I use my history class to help students build their capacity for empathy?”

It was a good start, but I didn’t feel that it was complete. I felt as though guidance and direction were missing. So in the margins I wrote “Empathy for whom?” I often find that thinking about the definition of certain words can lead to breakthroughs when designing PBL units, so I looked up the definition of empathy. It read, “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I looked at that last word and inspiration hit. However, instead of “another” I was going to challenge my boys to build empathy for the “other.”

A Powerful Entry Event
We spent the first few weeks of school talking about what it means to be “other,” discussing current events where one group is made to feel like “other” and what skills are necessary to better understand the experience of our fellow human beings. When I felt as though we had established a solid understanding of “otherness” I asked my students to write about a personal experience when they were made to feel like the “other.” We sat around my Harkness Table and I encouraged the boys to open up about their experience and how it made them feel.

What transpired was one of the most touching and powerful class discussions I have witnessed. Some students shed tears, and I watched as classmates offered comfort and stepped up to bravely share their own story. It was the perfect hook. At the conclusion of the discussion I wrote the driving question on the board: “How can we help our community build empathy for ‘other’?”

Major Products: Designing, Building and Sharing
The project ideas immediately began to flow. A question-storming session led students to construct 10-15 “Need to Know” questions, which ignited their research. Once the initial research was complete, students began to use the information they obtained to design their major products.

One group, in which a student had an uncle who suffers from Parkinson's Disease, decided to build empathy for those who live with the tremors that accompany this degenerative disease. The students designed and built a tremor simulating glove by attaching a servo motor to the top. Their plan was to place this glove, with an explanation and statistical poster, in the foyer of our main building so community members could try it on.

Another group modified a board game and changed the rules to allow one player to achieve and win much faster than another, highlighting the issue of privilege and power. They then took this game to a fourth grade classroom and had the students play against each other. It was amazing to watch as the fourth graders who were playing became frustrated with the difficulty of “winning” the game, with some calling the game “unfair” and “rigged.” At the conclusion of the game the 9th graders in the group sat the fourth graders down and explained what the game was meant to represent. This was especially powerful for the young boys, and their teacher notes that the conversation around this topic continued well past the time we left their class.

A third group designed and coded a text-based game, meant to put the player in the shoes of a Syrian refugee, to understand the extraordinarily difficult decisions they have to make every day.

At the conclusion of the project, after all work had been shared, I asked my students to reflect on their experience and I want to share just a few of their responses:

“I feel like I have accomplished something big and have opened a sixth sense. That sense is how to empathize for something or someone. For a group of 9th grade students to accomplish this has taught us so many life lessons.”

“Doing this project has allowed me to grow an even stronger passion for this type of work. Being passionate about something allows me to do my best with it..”

“This project left an impression on me. It made me dive deep into a topic that affects my everyday life, but that I had never thought about in so much detail. Also, I find it satisfying when what I do leaves an impact on others, or makes a change. Once we presented our project, I feel we opened the minds of our peers, and also allowed them to have more empathy for those with ADHD.”

When I finished reading through the reflections I paused. I felt like my students had grown so much through this project, and in just the first few weeks of school. This project has served as the perfect foundation upon which to build my history curriculum. I also realized that Project Based Learning can do more than help us build better students, it can help us build a better world, and that is needed now more than ever.

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