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Teaching Empathy

February 16, 2017, 2:56 PM UTC

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.”

On Point

Turns out voter identification laws actually do suppress minority votesVoter identification laws are spreading around the country. Before 2006, no state required a photo ID. Now 10 states do, and 33 have some version of a new voter ID law on the books. Three political science professors have generated new data that shows a significant drop in minority participation in places where the new laws have been implemented. The research on this area is still relatively new, but their findings are compelling. Click through for the methodology.Washington Post

A Colorado mother of four flees immigration officials and takes sanctuary in local church
It is the first such public plea for sanctuary since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began detaining and deporting people, including a high profile instance in Seattle when a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA-covered worker with a legal permit had been taken into custody. Jeanette Vizguerra, who has been in a leader in the immigrant rights movement, decided to take sanctuary inside the First Unitarian Church of Denver after her stay of removal was denied by an immigration judge. ICE has said that Vizguerra has two misdemeanor convictions and has been ordered out of the country.
Latino USA

A quiz that tests for bias against black hair
It starts as a story familiar to many. The sudden burst of affirmation that young girls of color suddenly enjoy when their curly locks are tamed by hot combs and chemicals, usually under the supervision of older, well-meaning women. After years of being affirmed for smooth, treated hair at the expense of her love for black culture, Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of the Perception Institute, decided to create a quiz that identifies implicit biases toward black women’s hair. “Every day we receive subtle and not-so-subtle messages about our hair – associations that our brains categorize into what’s good, bad, appropriate, or professional,” she writes. These “hair hierarchies” reinforces biases about beauty and hold women back. 

A white model appears in yellowface in Vogue’s diversity issue
The error in judgment was immediately called out on social media, a backlash so clear that the model, Karlie Kloss, weighed in with an apology. The spread, shot for Vogue’s March issue has Kloss styled as a geisha, even posing with a sumo wrestler in one photo.
New York Magazine

Twitter CEO says the company is part of an “Arab Spring” moment
Speaking at a technology conference hosted by Goldman Sachs yesterday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey compared the current post-Trump turmoil to recent revolutionary moments. "A lot of the same patterns we've seen during the Iranian Green Revolution and the Arab Spring," Dorsey said. "It was stunning to see how Twitter was being used to have a conversation about the government, with the government." He believes it’s part of a broader shift to more fundamental issues.  "As a culture in the U.S., we've focused on things that didn't matter as much. Now, everything is brought into perspective, and Twitter is at the center of the most important conversations," he said.

The Woke Leader

Some of the best black comedies, pun intended, are on Adult Swim
Adult Swim, the late-night, nostalgia-themed spin-off of the Cartoon Network, has become beloved as a home for classic cartoons resurrected from decades past. But, argues Jordan Minor, it deserves to be known for the launching some of edgy cartoon artistry featuring African American artists and stories, cartoons that are both black in theme and tone. Click through for a thorough review.

Co-parenting by design
For people who have been delaying parenthood – or delaying adulthood – traditional marriage may be a fading concept. But for single people who still want to have a child but who can’t find or don’t want a romantic partner, there is a new category of matchmaking site. Sites like "Family By Design" and "Modamily," both in Canada, have been helping people find their perfect, non-romantic match. “Co-parenting obviously for us raises a whole new set of questions about the well-being of children,” says one researcher. The sites had previously been popular with gay singles, researchers have seen an uptick in heterosexual ones, as well as “mixed” couples who want to raise a child together.

Still haunted by a long ago hate crime
Writer Jesse Washington takes us back to a terrible time, when a man who shares his name was the victim of one of the most horrific hate crimes in our troubled history. It was Waco, Texas, 1916. Washington the writer introduces us to the short and tragic life of the Washington the victim, and explores the uneasy sway the memory of the event holds over the people of Waco. It’s a difficult, but important read and the photos are graphic. “Even today, you get caught up in the wrong place in Texas, you gone,” he was told.
The Undefeated


A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.
—Daniel Goleman