Lower School Saints Explore Empathy

Lower School Saints Explore Empathy

Lower School Saints Explore Empathy

Delving into Understanding to Make Connections

Head Lower School Librarian and
Interdisciplinary Curriculum Coordinator

Early Saints Teacher

Empathy—the ability to attempt to understand what someone else is feeling or experiencing—is now a core competency in the socio-emotional content of many independent schools’ curriculum, including St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. At SSSAS, we also continue to prioritize diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives. One aspect of our Action Steps for Racial Justice focuses on the curriculum, with the goal of equipping “students with the lens and skills to understand experiences outside of their own and to use this understanding to make the world a more inclusive place.” Enter the Lower School’s Saints Explore Empathy (SEE) initiative. SEE was born in December 2016 during an after-hours conversation with Donna Ryan about how to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in January. At the time, Donna was a kindergarten teacher and head of the Lower School’s multicultural committee. As we were discussing how to form our conversations and explorations around the important work of Dr. King, Donna felt that the most important concept was empathy. 

This idea was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s profound statement that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?,” as well as African-American writer and activist James Baldwin’s notion that the “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King at Selma, noted that “When you see something not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to speak up, speak out—to find a way to get in the way.” In supporting our school’s mission, it is our goal to act on these statements and “instill a social consciousness”* in each of our Lower School Saints so they see others’ perspectives and understand that they have the power to make a difference and change society. Empathy provides the foundation for this work because we need to understand the perspectives and experiences of other people in order to “be better,” as James Baldwin suggests. 

In January 2017, the Lower School Multicultural Committee decided that in order to “Be Better,” it is essential that we SEE and understand each other. As we explore empathy, we first must define our own experiences and emotions to identify the similarities and differences to connect with others. At the Lower School, empathy stems from the following enduring understandings:

  1. Each student is an individual with unique attributes and perspectives, some of which are visible and others are invisible.  
  2. The Saints community can grow if each person shares his or her unique attributes and perspectives, and is willing to listen and learn from others.
  3. Each student can use his or her unique attributes to make a difference at the individual and community level by developing understanding, expanding perspectives, and creating connections.

During our first Saints Explore Empathy engagement, we held classroom discussions around three essential questions that continue to define the initiative today:

  • Who am I? What are my unique attributes? How do others see me? What can I teach or offer to someone else?
  • Who are you? What are the unique attributes of your classmates? What can I learn from you?
  • How can we answer Dr. King’s most persistent and urgent question: What can I/we do for others (each other, our classroom, our community)?

“Goodness as well as Knowledge”
Social Responsibility at
St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes

“Episcopal schools integrate ideals and concepts of equity, justice, and a just society throughout the institution.”  ~National Association of Episcopal Schools

We believe that social responsibility begins with the understanding that our individual and institutional actions impact our community now and in the future. We believe that social injustices are best resolved when we challenge the systems and structures that cause the perpetuation of injustice. 

Firmly rooted in our Episcopal identity, our work is through and with others across all academic disciplines, grade levels, and departments.

Our mission is to foster a culture of learning, action and reflection around our world’s most complex issues and challenges. We support the development of thoughtful and engaged citizens who will strive to transform injustice and heal the brokenness we find within ourselves, in our community, and in our society.

In the interim years, Lower School Saints have continued to have powerful discussions around these questions beginning with our youngest Saints. Starting with our 3- and 4-year-old students in Early Saints and junior kindergarten, children explore aspects of identity and perspectives in developmentally appropriate ways. This work continues throughout a child’s experience at the Lower School through Responsive Classroom and the social studies curriculum. Fifth graders return to the concepts of identity and experiences, as well as perspectives, as they explore the big idea of what it means to be American.  

Fast forward to 2022, and the Saints Explore Empathy initiative continues to evolve to explore the concept of community and empathy in order to understand that they have the power to make a difference and change society, especially within our community. This year we’ve focused our work on the concept of social responsibility, specifically on community and service learning. At SSSAS, social responsibility includes the intersection of our service learning; diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work, and environmental sustainability and is informed by the Enduring Understandings of Social Responsibility. 

We challenged the Lower School students, faculty​,​ and families to participate in the ​“Saints ​30 ​Days of ​Kindness Challenge​,” in January to share small acts of kindness with others and our community.​ This set the stage for the February X-Day (special Lower School days that provide opportunities for deeper learning and capitalizing on “moments yet undiscovered”), and expanding interdisciplinary learning. In February Lower School students visited with young change maker and author, Jahkil Jackson. When he was eight years old, Jahkil noticed that there were people in his Chicago neighborhood experiencing homelessness and wanted to help them. He created Project I Am and initiative to distribute“Blessing Bags,” which include toiletries such as toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and shampoo–items that people need everyday to stay healthy and for self-care. Lower School Saints worked with Jahkil to learn about Project I Am and made 435 Blessing Bags for our community partner, ALIVE! [For more information about Jahkil’s visit, see David Yee’s article on p. 12.]

Jahkil Jackson reading his book, “I Am,” during his February visit to the Lower School. He wrote “I Am” to help young people implement values that can help to navigate being bullied and build a strong sense of self-worth. His book is a creative display of how to have belief in oneself and to not be concerned with negative influences.

In addition, Saints families were stewards of Alexandria’s fresh water streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed as they participated in a clean up of Timber Branch Run in February. These efforts support our school’s mission of pursuing goodness as well as knowledge; it only takes one person or idea to make a change in the community, and there are many ways to serve and support our Saints community. Our Lower School Saints realize that they have potential to be change makers, and can be inspired by role models such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jahkil Jackson.

These conversations look different depending on age and classroom. For example, during music classes, our third through fifth grade students spent time learning about jazz great Troy Andrews (Trombone Shorty) and his experience growing up in Tremé, a neighborhood in New Orleans. We danced to his music, “Hurricane Season,” practiced improvising on xylophones, and read his autobiography, Trombone Shorty.

The students were fascinated by the fact that although Trombone Shorty became a world renowned musician traveling the globe and playing with some of the biggest names in jazz, he continues to spend much of his time back in New Orleans working with young musicians beginning their own musical journeys. Troy Andrews created his organization, The Trombone Shorty Foundation, to provide outstanding musical training to the youth of New Orleans. 

Growing up, Troy Andrews would play alongside brass band musicians on the streets of New Orleans. They were always willing to give him a tip or help him learn a new technique, and his musicality blossomed thanks to the community’s guidance and support. Trombone Shorty felt it was his responsibility to work with the next generation of New Orleans jazz musicians and honor the New Orleans tradition of “playing it forward.” After exploring Trombone Shorty’s music and learning about his journey and his youth music foundation, one SSSAS student noted, “He is a role model because he never forgot how important his community was even when he made it big.” Another young Saint reflected, “If Trombone Shorty helps a kid in his community become a great person and musician, and then that kid remembers to help the next kid, and then that kid remembers to help the next kid, there will be generations of people in New Orleans helping each other and keeping jazz music going for generations.”

In fourth grade, children discussed ways they could be changemakers using their hearts, minds, voices, and hands to effect change. The students enjoyed learning about Jahkil and his love of basketball as well as his drive to make change. In addition to making Blessing Bags, Students wrote letters to the people they are serving. In addition, fourth graders are learning about philanthropy through The Giving Square’s Kids for Kids Fund. This program provides a curriculum that nurtures the spirit of philanthropy and service in our students. Through the Kids for Kids Fund, students explore the rights of all children, develop perspective-taking and empathy skills around various challenges, and learn about great local solutions to solve community problems. The program culminates in the children collectively deciding how to allocate $1,000 to a local organization and writing personal giving pledges.  

SEE is also a connector across the SSSAS campuses. On April 14, the entire Saints community came together as one to celebrate Saints Mission Day. Our theme for this year’s event was “Small Change Can Make a Big Difference,” and borrows from the “caring community” phrase in our mission statement; this event also supports the Lower School’s Saints Explore Empathy initiative. We focused on small efforts that our all Saints can make to deepen and strengthen our relationship with the local refugee community in partnership with the Refugee Ministry at Christ Church Alexandria. To prepare for Saints Mission Day, Lower School students explored how all Saints can make small efforts to deepen and strengthen our relationship with the local refugee community. Fifth graders in Mr. Finan’s reading classes learned about refugees in their historical fiction book clubs this year, and to activate and build schema for the day, Lower School Saints learned about who refugees are and read and discussed age-appropriate picture books. Working in cross-divisional groups, they wrote postcards to the children in Christ Church’s Refugee Ministry and created origami Story Boats with notes of hope to refugee children.

Saints Explores Empathy continues to be a powerful way to connect Lower School children with each other and our community. It also provides a way for each Lower School Saint to live the SSSAS mission. It is our hope that the initiative will continue to evolve and provide the vehicle for our Saints to attempt to understand the human condition and make connections to strengthen our community.