Serial, This American Life, and The Empathy Code

You might be wondering what the relationship is between Serial,  a production of  the weekly radio show This American Life, and this blog on creating empathic schools. Here’s my take. The 12 episode podcast which retraces  the case of Adnan Syed, an 18 year old high school senior from Baltimore County, Maryland, who was convicted in 2000 of murdering his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee, is about real life and real people;  a tragic situation that continues with a level of uncertainty to this day.

What keeps drawing me in as I have listened to the story of Adnan and his case, are the social dynamics that exist in the lives of high school students, the social drama that drives their decisions, and how emotional events become embedded as emotional memories. Daniel Goleman in his work on emotional intelligence speaks of emotional memories, and for me,  as an educator whose focus since my earliest days of teaching has been on creating emotionally safe learning communities, this idea has always intrigued me. Since I first came across Dr. Goleman’s work I have been devoted to making  my classroom emotionally safe. I want school to be a place for children where their memories of learning and the people they learn with (including their teachers) are positive.

As far as Serial goes, host Sarah Koenig  and her production team have done a  masterful job of  presenting the findings of their investigative work  from police interviews, and court documents and recordings from 14 years ago.  In addition, Sarah throughout the podcast, weaves in taped interviews with many of Adnan’s and Hae’s classmates, teachers, family and friends; all conducted in the past 16 months. 

Although Serial concluded right before Christmas, my wife and I are a little behind (that happens when you have kids), and have two more episodes to go. We are hooked and anxious, and can’t wait to find out what is going to be presented at the show’s conclusion.

The executive producer of Serial, Ira Glass, is also the host and producer of  the aforementioned This American Life which is a favorite in our home. The show from WBEZ in Chicago, is about our culture, the people within our culture, the lives they live, and the stories their lives have to tell.

In September, 2012, in an episode called Back to School,  Ira spoke with Paul Tough, author of the book How Children Succeed. During the conversation, Paul uses the term “non-cognitive skills” as a descriptor of an alternative view into a kind of intelligence that cannot be measured by standardized testing. He speaks of “qualities like tenacity, resilience and impulse control,” and how a certain segment of the school reform movement sees these types of skills as being critical to the happiness and life success of the students in our schools. I agree.

There are other guests and I strongly encourage you to listen to the entire show. It is worth the 57 minutes and will clarify why this work on teaching empathy and other social and emotional skills is vitally important for our schools.  So, to help prepare you for a deep dive into non-cognitive skill development (also known as social and emotional learning or character traits development), here is a list of recommendations I call The Empathy Code which when practiced within a school create the culture building guidelines for non-cognitive or social and emotional learning.

The Empathy Code

  1. The principal is supportive: This person is child oriented, is an effective listener, provides staff with numerous opportunities to work collaboratively, encouraging innovative efforts, and is available to those who wish to speak with him or her.
  2. Social skills are taught and modeled : Whatever social behaviors are practiced by the adults in the school will not only be observed and experienced by the students but will  be learned by them  as well.
  3. Mindfulness is cultivated as a daily practice and connected to empathy in practice. “Mindfulness is a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what is happening in and around us.” (Schoeberlein)
  4. Eradicate sarcasm: Whether used as a humorous strategy or a controlling tactic, sarcasm intimidates and bullies the students. The staff member who relies on this approach does an injustice to his or her students by teaching sarcasm as a social strategy.
  5. Keep it simple: There is no need to have multiple initiatives.   Simple does not mean trivial but means focused and meaningful. The most significant empathic practices occur through the micro-interactions that take place throughout the school day between the teacher and student. The littlest things can make the biggest difference in a child’s life.
  6. Build a sense of community: The fundamental belief in a school that places a priority on teaching empathy is that all members of the school population deserve to feel connected through the cultivation of helpful and positive relationships.

The Past, Present and Future

So, to bring this piece full-circle, I return to the initial question about the relationship between Serial (and This American Life) and creating empathic and compassionate schools. Serial tells a story about the human condition; about something that happened in the past that still has an impact on many lives today.  This American Life  highlights the social culture in which we live; telling stories most often about people in the present.  The Empathy Code is about the future, for it summarizes the cultural conditions necessary to create empathic schools, and the children in these schools are the future changemakers, decision makers and world leaders. Keeping the  noble responsibility that comes with being an educator in mind, the argument about infusing non-cognitive skills and social and emotional learning  into our educational framework is not an argument at all but a prerequisite for school and life success.


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David A. Levine’s ( work on teaching empathy as a social culture building strategy has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, and ABC News. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education’s Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls "A School of Belonging." This systems change process, is highlighted in his books, "Teaching Empathy", "Building Classroom Communities", and "The School of Belonging Plan Book." He is the founding Director of the Teaching Empathy Institute, in Kingston, NY, a program of The Tides Center, and serves as an adviser to Ashoka’s Start Empathy Initiative.

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