31 July 2015

Writing for Empathy

Close your eyes... imagine one of your students... happy, sad, engaged, frustrated, angry, excited... or see yourself in school at the age of the kids you teach or lead...

Can you see that kid?

Now, look out through their eyes. Feel every sense. What do they see, hear, feel, touch, smell, taste? What matters right now as they sit in your class? Walk through your halls? Eat in your cafeteria? Stare blankly out your windows? Play on their phone?

Writing can be hard. Writing from the point of view of another can be really hard. Writing to communicate emotion can be risky - even shame-inducing - Can I really describe what a seventh-grade boy is feeling right at that moment? - and let a peer see it?. Writing to communicate senses other than sight and hearing might make us look weird.

And writing from personal memory can just seem dangerous, especially among professional peers.

But, how else might we engage ourselves with our students? Truly engage ourselves.
"When I was your age..." "You were never my age."
- Rebel Without a Cause

We cannot build an effective, an empathetic, a working User Experience unless we build a User Interface that kids won't turn away from. And our schools are User Interfaces. Our schools are the "how" our children interact with education. Every door, wall, room, teacher, rule, chair, desk, window, digital device, book, hall pass are part of the User Interface, and that User Interface defines the User Experience.

And we cannot begin to understand the User Experience we need until we get fully into the heads of our users. That's true in web and programming design, its true in retail and restaurant design, and its absolutely true as we design our schools. This understanding can have complex analytical paths - and those are important, and it has a committed caring component -  but it also has an essential empathetic underpinning, and maybe you can begin working on that underpinning in a serious way before this next school year begins.

 We asked our building leadership teams, and we asked those Principals and Assistant Principals to ask their teachers, to experience a bit of "writing for empathy." Medical educators have discovered that when doctors write from the point of view of their patients, empathy increases and the quality of care increases. We thought it might be worth seeing if this applied to our educators as well.

So we began, and told them not to be limited by structure - choose any writing mode you'd like - or grammar or spelling or where or how to write - on the floor, standing up, on paper, on phone, on computer - to just find the emotional path and write.
We so often stop our students from writing... we tell them that everything from how they sit to how they spell is more important than communication... and we thus raise children who hate writing.
This became powerful. People not only chose every and any place to write, every and any device to write on, they chose modes from poetry to an email exchange between high school students in class, from narrative to internal monologue to dialogue in the corridor. From tweet and text to song.

It is remarkable what happens when you stop telling people how to write and start encouraging them to write.
"Our kindergartners and first graders are natural writers," one principal said, "and then we tell them to stop and worry about handwriting and spelling and punctuation, and they never really write again."
And then we asked these leaders to share with another, and it became magical. The excitement of reading to each other, of listening, of wondering. People leaned into each other, with genuine smiles - smiles of recognition - and heard. The room was filled with the kind of excitement that - yeah - is mighty rare at Principal Meetings, that is - sadly - often rare in Language Arts classes.

To build the school our children need we must understand the User Experience they need. And in order to create the User Interface that makes that User Experience possible, we must begin to look at school not through our eyes, but through the eyes of those we serve.

A thought as the start of our school years looms once again.

- Ira Socol