Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Teaching Students Empathy #ChooseKind

I have never been a real big fan of watching movies during the school day. Yet, the management of classroom cinema is not in my wheelhouse. The responsibility of ensuring educational value is usually delegated to the building principal. Thankfully, Mr. Schlatter requires teachers to identify the educational purpose behind each proposal and articulate a connection to the curriculum. So, when the intermediate teachers proposed taking the entire 4-6 grade student body to Grundy Center to see 'Wonders', they checked all the boxes. Not only did they have a good plan, they had a great plan! 

The primary plot centers around the character 'Auggie', who is born with Treacher Collins syndrome and his foray into school. But many of the sub-plot[s] of those who come into Auggies's orbit create some of the most valuable lessons and understanding of the interactions children have with one another. Certainly they shine a light on the oftentimes unknown challenges some students face. While not offering an excuse for adolescent behavior, we do hopefully come away with a better understanding of what it is like to long for peer acceptance, and how lonely some children can be in a sea of students. 

As an example, our first interaction with 'Miranda' leaves us feeling badly for 'Via', Auggies older (and typically left-out) sister. As the one true friend and really only person that seems to understand Via, I was sad that she was so dismissive of Via and didn't want to be around her following summer break. It isn't until later on in the movie we learn that over the summer, Miranda's parents divorced. She is living at home with a parent who is coping with the breakup of her marriage in an unhealthy way. Miranda is lost, and the world around her has crumbled. While no excuse for the way she shunned her friend, we do at least have an understanding of the added stress this youngster, and many like her carry with them. 

Then we have Auggie's tormentor and primary antagonist in the movie. Toward the end of the film, Julian is finally held accountable when he is called into the Principal's office with his parents in tow. Faced with irrefutable evidence of bullying, Julian's mother comes to the defense of her son, and in a twisted way justifies his behavior toward Auggie. As Julian departs the Principal's office he turns back to the principal and says, 'I'm sorry'. Again at that moment we come to understand Julian just a little more. His bullying behavior is intolerable and he certainly deserves the consequences that are meted out. But at the same time, we come to realize his behavior is learned. From his mother.

As I was preparing to write this blog, as is my custom I did a little research. And in doing so read some of the reviews of the movie. Now, hopefully this column doesn't come off as a review as well, because if it does then I will have sorely missed the mark this week. But a comment from one reviewer stuck with me. While complementary in review, he noted that at times, "...it sometimes overplays it's hand". 

I couldn't disagree more. The fact is, these stories and subplots are all too real. You see, we have had instances in our own school, and schools all around this state and nation, where bullies and parents of bullies believe they are the real victim. We have borne witness to the wreckage that finds its way into the hallways of schools because of events and circumstances that are far beyond the control of the students who are forced to live in a manner not of their choosing. Hopefully what this movie can teach us is that we all need to look beyond physical appearance. Beyond what we see on the outside. Maybe then we can have a little more clarity, or understanding of what the children who walk the halls of our schools are going through. And then, perhaps as Miss Cuvelier tweeted out after the movie, we can all #ChooseKind

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