This week, I’ve got empathy on the brain.
Specifically, I just participated by a module created by a pair of esteemed colleagues (Cat and Fernanda), wherein I was asked to complete a series of tasks in Portuguese. From what I deduced, the tasks were (at most) of preschool-level and were related to colours and numbers. At least, I think that’s kind of what I was doing.
In fact, I could vaguely determine what task was being asked of me in the lesson (which I spent all of 10-15 minutes looking at), and even though I knew that it was a practice task, I found myself getting nervous because I didn’t know what was being asked of me. Imagine, then, how students who are English-language learners, or have a learning difference, or simply do not understand the material must feel day in and day out of certain lessons or classes? Further, my only task in Cat and Fernanda’s assignment was to reflect on what I felt– not derive an answer. I have to wonder: how many of my students have felt like this? What can I do to make a more inclusive and supportive learning environment, yet still push all of my students to their best?
In addition to this lesson, I am concurrently reading a book for pleasure (yes- I make the time) called “The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism.” This book is written by a 13-year-old boy from Japan (Nagoki) who has autism and is non-verbal and struggles to write and communicate effectively. His mother and teacher helped create a method whereby Nagoki could type, and his voice is powerful. Not only is it clear that Nagoki has exceptional observation skills, he also creates a guide for people without autism to understand some of the challenges of autism, including repetitive behaviors and communication. Nagoki is candid. He readily explains that he knows, for instance, that his mother has just told him a direction but he has immediately forgotten and must ask again. He knows he is asking the same question– he just can’t help it. Nagoki’s candor and openness are rare, and this eye-opening read is somewhat of a landmark for parents/teachers/anyone who knows youth with severe autism, particularly those who are non-verbal/communicative.
This book made me wonder how many students in public schools are not being served simply because the scope of understanding with autism is still so limited. And, because autism runs along a high and wide set of spectra, I wonder how many of my students may have embodied some of these traits? How many students have I chastised for not paying attention to directions when it may full well be something out of their control, as Nagoki outlines? Connecting back to Cat and Fernanda’s exercise, it also makes me wonder how many students I have had who simply are unable to understand directions at a cognitive level. How many students have been in a spot where they don’t even know what they don’t know (as I was with the Portuguese lesson).
I’d love to use Cat and Fernanda’s lesson in professional development opportunities. It’s rare to engage colleagues in exercises that embody full empathy for students, and this is an exercise that can easily do that.