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Blog: Empathy: The Real Common Core

Blog by Cliff Mayotte, OHA Education Committee

“There’s so much to a person we don’t see on first glance that helps define them, and once we hear their story its like they become a different person.” – Student, 826 Chicago

Why don’t we use the word “love” very often as a vital component in teaching and learning? Occasionally, we educators will reference “emotional intelligence” as a way for students to activate prior knowledge or access information, but rarely do we leverage the power of love and empathy as means for students and teachers to learn together. These sensations develop the skills and habits of mind not only related to new Common Core standards, but more importantly lead to, as oral historian Allesandro Portelli describes, a “mutual sighting” between two people. This process of mutual sighting is directly connected to nurturing empathy, civic engagement, identification as a global citizen, and dare I say it, increased capacity for love and understanding. Who knew that the real Common Core was empathy?

We can use the oral history process to explore the connections between empathy and the skills emphasized in the new Common Core standards, and then go even further. As an oral history educator, I have experienced countless times being in the presence of students and teachers actively engaged in each other’s stories—enjoying moments of connection and community in ways that make empathy and compassion palpable. But there is a third thing at work in these moments. Simply put, I would describe it as feelings of love and human connection, which is relatable to, but certainly goes far beyond, what has been adopted as “Common Core.” It takes the best impulses of these standards and explodes them to embrace the idea of global citizenship, providing insight into the question, “What kind of person do I want to be in the world?”

Surely these experiences have a place in our learning communities. The communication skills inherent in conducting oral history bear this out. Active listening, non-judgment towards narrators, and a willingness to see and be seen create an environment that is nurturing, questioning, and democratic. It’s not too big a leap for us to see this idea writ large—in our schools, communities, and beyond. This approach, this kind of oral history-fueled “mutual sighting,” has the capacity to enter contested personal or community space and flourish, even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable social conditions. In fact, I believe that they flourish as a result of acknowledging them, not trying to making them disappear. Active listening, empathy, and compassion are key components of an oral history classroom, and are directly connected to curiosity, critical thinking, analysis, research, and literacy building. These skills are in turn connected to Common Core standards for Speaking and Listening, Language, and Reading History. This approach is a coherent and holistic way for educators to interpret the new standards, while serving as a powerful reminder to us about of the kinds of people we strive to be in the world.

Cliff Mayotte is the Education Program Director for Voice of Witness

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