The COVID-19 pandemic offers teachers a unique opportunity to capitalize on student empathy. Before the pandemic hit, millions of U.S. students were already in our classrooms experiencing challenges like food insecurity and the inability to afford medical care. But the pandemic brought these challenges home to middle-class families in ways we have not seen since the Great Depression.
Plus, across the country, families of all economic levels have faced restrictions never seen before. Shelter-in-place orders, business closures, restrictions on dining, even mask-wearing—all of these experiences mean U.S. children now have common experiences of privation and restriction. These difficult experiences come with a silver lining: Middle-class and affluent students now have lived experiences that could help them develop greater empathy for the everyday struggles of more marginalized people.
That window of empathy makes this a critical time to have discussions about social injustice with your students. Their experiences with COVID-19 can be the catalyst to explore any injustice, whether in their own communities or somewhere across the globe.
These four steps can guide the process:
The first step toward a deeper understanding of injustice requires empathy. The closer students feel to the group experiencing injustice, the easier it becomes for them to see the injustice they experience. Before introducing the specific injustices faced by a marginalized group, teachers can begin by helping students understand and relate to the people involved. Students can meet speakers from the group, watch videos, conduct research or take part in other experiences that help them get to know that group of people.
Once that basic understanding and sense of relationship has been established, teachers can help students connect their pandemic experiences to the similar challenges marginalized groups were already facing pre-pandemic. Gently, with sensitivity and empathy for their students, teachers can encourage conversations that link common pandemic challenges like stores running out of essentials or difficulty reaching doctors to other communities’ experience of these challenges for reasons not related to the pandemic.
- How did you feel about having to stay home so much? What did you miss?
- Many people are worried about their health during the pandemic. It has been harder for many people to be able to even speak with their doctors. Would anyone like to share their experiences with these issues?
- How is this like what we have been learning about [the marginalized group under study]?
Once students have developed empathy with people from a marginalized group and begin to feel connected to them, it’s a good time to introduce more information about the injustices they face. During this phase, teachers can present statistics, data and information about the marginalized groups related to the particular injustices the group experiences. Also, students can deepen their research, create projects and hold debates to discuss how different social situations affect different groups of people.
For example, during the COVID- 19 pandemic, you might ask students to look at graphs or data about the populations of people who are the most affected, then ask them to infer what that data means. Or you might bring to light, questions about certain groups of people:
- When and how do the elderly shop or get groceries?
- Which populations of people would be most affected by food shortages?
- Who were the people most affected by school closings? How can school closings affect a person’s employment status? Which groups of people were most affected by the closing of businesses?
- How might undocumented immigrant status affect someone who needs to get COVID-19 testing?”
Without an action component, social justice lessons are simply social-emotional learning. Once students empathize with a group of unfamiliar people and see the injustices they face, what should they do with that information? Empowered with empathy and understanding of injustice, students feel the need to act.
During the pandemic, it can be even more difficult than usual for students to act directly on a large scale, but local acts of service can be even more important than usual.
- Collect and distribute food for food banks.
- FaceTime or Zoom with isolated elders in their family or neighborhood.
- Create social media campaigns and public service announcements.
Given the recent national discussion of racism in policing and the larger conversations occurring about equity, students may want to create campaigns at school or through social media. They may even want to write to officials, stage a protest or organize a boycott.
Once students build empathy, realize the injustices a group of marginalized people face, and synthesize ways to act, they can then generalize these lessons to other social injustices they see in the world. As teachers explore this model with their students, they will begin to develop a social justice lens. Students will begin to automatically notice other injustices in their everyday communities. And teachers can encourage students to continue their quest for social justice by asking them to actively investigate other injustices that they are noticing about their communities.
Considering today’s struggles with COVID-19, students may begin to talk about the long-term effects of the pandemic on marginalized groups of people. Students may also start to recognize and ask questions about social injustice happening in their community unrelated to COVID-19.
Students may even begin to make connections between COVID-19 and other global issues, such as blockades in Palestine, school closures in Puerto Rico or triage medical care in Syria. They may begin to empathize with the experiences and realize the injustices of other groups of people challenged by food shortages, employment insecurity and limited access to health care. And students may choose to transfer what they learned about leveraging social justice during this pandemic to other social issues around the world.
During the last few months, the average American has begun to experience some of the challenges that many Americans from marginalized groups have faced for years. During this time, teachers have a unique opportunity to effectively teach social justice lessons to their students through this experience, hopefully creating opportunities for students to act for social justice in their communities today and create opportunities to continue to build social justice once this pandemic has passed.
To learn more about how to design social justice lessons, join me for a webinar on August 3, 2020.