By Ellen McGirt
February 16, 2017

A new program launched this week that aims to help students become more empathetic and connect peacefully with people who are different from them. It’s called “A Mile in Our Shoes,” and it’s the latest from Newsela, a reading platform that is being used by more than 12 million students and one million teachers in the U.S.

“Teachers do a lot of things that they’re not paid to do, and one of those things is teaching empathy,” says Matt Gross, Newsela’s CEO. After noticing the tensions in the country – and the uptick in hate crimes and bullying after the election – Gross e-mailed all the teachers using the platform to alert them that the company was working to create a series of articles and other content that would help their classrooms better understand and process the results. The teachers responded in droves, sharing their stories and asking for help. “I was amazed,” he said. These are not small problems. On a recent visit to a classroom in Austin, Texas, he talked with a teacher who had a card on her wall explaining what to do if immigration officials show up at your door. Gross shares another story of a Friday night football game where a long-standing rivalry turned into threats of deportations. “These are not in a teacher’s job descriptions,” he says. “But more than ever, they realize that something has changed and their roles have changed as well.”

Newsela’s core product is the world, in a way, which is part of what makes it such an interesting technology tool. It relies on human editors working with “leveling” software to adapt existing journalism from places like the Washington Post, Scientific American, and many others, into engaging stories about real life that are both interesting to kids and appropriate to their reading level. Gross, a former classroom teacher, developed the idea while working with the state of New York to help implement Common Core standards, a change which caused teachers a great deal of pain. “Kids were supposed to be reading at a much more complex level than they had before, and very importantly, kids were supposed to be reading a lot more non-fiction,” he says. There was little in the marketplace. And there was an influx of tech in the classroom that was being utilized for everything but reading. “It was this generational opportunity to change the way we do things in the classroom, and yet education publishers were not responding,” he said. In addition to content, they also offer quizzes, and assessments so that teachers can monitor individual kids; the data they collect can be shared so administrators can figure out how a whole school or district is reading. Newsela launched in June 2013.

A Mile In Our Shoes” is a curated “text set” that combine materials from a variety of sources around a theme. “They’re like playlists for teaching,” says Gross. The sets focus on different communities, like immigrants, Muslims, rural Americans, people with disabilities, LGBTQ and veterans. Newsela is also working with Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center) to provide webinars for teachers who need some help working with the material. “Taking on these challenging topics in class can be hard and can surface sides of ourselves that we may not be proud of,” says Gross.

To that end, Gross offers some advice for the rest of us who aren’t working from a curated playbook. “Listening is crucial,” he says. “Don’t assume your employees share the same point of view as you.” Next, focus on your values, not your position. And finally, be brave and talk it out.“Your employees have a greater capacity to take on these issues than you imagine them to.” A silent employee isn’t necessarily a happy one. “They need to feel heard.”

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