At Maryland high schools, teaching empathy in a time of controversy

As anger and intolerance dominated the national public discourse over the past year, Arundel High School principal Gina Davenport thought about how her students might respond.

Davenport wanted to help the young people communicate in ways that rose above what they were witnessing daily on the news and on social media about the deadly rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in August and debates about removing monuments to the Confederacy from public squares.


By the time the students returned to school last month, she'd come up with an answer: A required course focused on building community and fostering citizenship.

The goal of the one-semester course required of all ninth-graders was simple: "To teach empathy in the midst of a society where that doesn't seem to exist."


At a time when the country has been divided by a series of controversies — most recently, the dispute between President Donald Trump and NFL players over protests during the national anthem — Davenport and educators across the region say they feel compelled to show students a different path.

They're adding classes and training teachers in an effort to show students how to discuss controversial topics effectively, to base those discussions on recognized facts placed in a historical context, and to do so in ways that don't undermine school spirit or cohesiveness.

Ethicist Paula McAvoy is the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin. She wrote "The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education" in 2015.

"There are more teachers and school districts who want to try to teach students how to have civil discussions, to bridge the polarization that is taking place and to better understand each other's perspectives," she said.

Ninth-graders at Arundel High School were puzzled at first by the new course wedged into their fall schedules. The formal name is Community Citizenship, and some assumed it would be boring. Now, some say it's their favorite class.

Davenport said an incident last school year brought to light the fact that students in her diverse high school didn't always feel welcome.

A few students sitting at a cafeteria table had written a petition under the title of the "Kool Kids Klan," that asked classmates to celebrate white supremacy over black people.

The petition was discovered quickly by a teacher and taken away. But the incident made Davenport realize that the racism that was being discussed nationally also existed at the high school.


She pulled together a group of teachers and had them develop the course.

"We needed to start teaching empathy," she said. "Whether you are a Democrat or Republican you need to get along with everyone. … We have to form a community that we could be proud of."

At the start of the course, students identified their personal traits and values. As the semester continues, they will be asked to define race and culture, what it means to be a good citizen, and how they fit into a larger community.

On a recent morning, students took a five-minute personality test on which they were asked to consider whether they were persistent, problem solvers, detail-oriented, fun-loving, perfectionists or analytical, among other characteristics. They then divided into groups. The room buzzed with laughter and discussion as they discussed the different personality types.

Davenport does not expect one course to change her students, but she hopes it ultimately helps them learn how to effectively engage in, and perhaps elevate, public discourse in their communities.

"I don't think they will leave perfect citizens," she said. "But we have to try something. It is almost as hard as teaching them reading or math."


Anne Arundel County Superintendent George Arlotto and the school board support Davenport's course.

In an opinion piece for The Baltimore Sun, Arlotto wrote that the division of the last several months offers schools an opportunity to take action.

"Our quest to provide every student with a safe and supportive learning environment free from the pressures of swirling bigotry and racism will be that much harder in the coming school year," he wrote. Through "courageous and sometimes difficult conversations," he wrote, he hoped "we can develop the tolerance and appreciation of diversity essential to building bridges that unite instead of walls that divide."

Administrators in Howard County and Baltimore County are training teachers in how to guide sensitive conversations in their classrooms without students attacking one another.

High school social studies teachers in Baltimore County wrote sample lesson plans this summer that addressed the Charlottesville protests and the removal of monuments to the Confederacy in Baltimore and elsewhere around the country.

Dani Biancolli, coordinator for secondary social studies, said teachers will give students documents that represent the perspectives of people who support removing such monuments and of those who oppose it.


"We would never want a teacher to use an article that provides just one side of the issue," she said.

Making sure both sides are represented is important, McAvoy said. But there are times when students can be told that one side is right.

"Schools in a democratic society should not be neutral to the values of the democratic society," she said.

She named individual liberty, freedom of speech and religious freedom.

"The idea of basic human equality, that we are a diverse society — they should be settled issues," McAvoy said.

When discussing the views of white supremacists, for example, teachers should be able to say those views are not acceptable in their schools.


Schools in Maryland and nationwide are growing more segregated, which can affect the diversity of opinion in their classrooms. McAvoy said the phenomenon could be having an effect on the national climate because students aren't as likely to encounter people who have widely different opinions.

With diversity in the classroom comes a greater risk of conflict, McAvoy said. But when students are able to open up, the discussions can be more meaningful.

Students of color make up about half the population at Arundel High.

Student Jack Hartford said he believes the new course is teaching students to have "disagreements in a positive way."

"You feel connections, trust between others and the teacher," he said.

Lexi Esparza, 14, said students in the class have had disagreements during discussions, but the teacher makes sure their exchanges are respectful.


"It is not like us fighting, it is like us having to talk about it," she said. "I think that it is changing me. I am getting better at being patient. … I am getting better at understanding how other people think about things."

The course also could be changing their social interactions in the hallways. Nalani Byrd said she is learning to ignore others when they say things she doesn't agree with, and she has a different view of how she appears to the world.

"It definitely opens your eyes in how others view you and how you should carry yourself," she said.

Jodi Wicks chairs the English department at George Washington Carver Center for the Arts and Technology, a high school in Towson. She helped create training programs to show teachers how to discuss sensitive subjects in literature.

When a lesson calls for a difficult conversation about a book, she said, she asks students to write down their thoughts first and reflect before they open their mouths.

"A lot of time hurt feelings arise when someone says something carelessly without thinking how it will offend someone," she said.


Mark Stout, coordinator for Advanced Placement and secondary social studies in Howard County, said the county is developing an elective high school class on civil discourse and ethics.

"It has been a tumultuous year," he said.

Howard County has tried to help teachers who are reluctant to talk about difficult issues in the classrooms by promoting schools as safe environments for students to express opinions.

"It is about civil discourse in the classroom and having the facts to support opinions," Stout said. "Kids are just dying to talk about these things, and we shouldn't stifle it. But we have to teach them to talk about it respectfully."