ECI 832 / Reflections

Lessons from a 4-Year-Old Conversationalist

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk “The Price of Shame” is exceptional.  The word that jumped out at me was “dimensional“.  She shared about how easy it was for people to forget that she, “That Woman, was dimensional, had a soul and was once unbroken”.  Her story is truly one of unbelievable pain and humiliation, but now, perhaps one of beautiful redemption.  The internet has a way of flattening humans, making it easy to shame another without the face-to-face realities and consequences.   I was similarly struck by the experiences of Justine Sakko, as powerfully shared in a TED Talk by Jon Ronson.  He refers to how shaming is an act of dehumanization.  Last week, my 4-year-old niece reminded me about how, as Sherry Turkle points out, “conversation is the most human and humanizing thing we can do”.

We were sitting at the dinner table together.  My youngest niece (affectionately referred to as “little monkey”) is a character: dramatic, creative, ultra cute, loving, imaginative, sweet, sometimes sour, a little hurricane of energy.  Her big brothers were at the table, too, as well as one guest.  I sat back and listened as she peppered the teenage guest with questions about where he lived (BC).  “How do you like living there?  Do you have different kinds of animals there?  Are there bears? Do you have a big house? Who lives in your house?”  I was impressed by her questions, but especially by her ability to listen to his stories and then generate follow-up questions based on his answers.  Many adults would envy the ease and flow of the conversation she guided.

Memories at the table.

Shenanigans at the supper table.

There’s a reason why she’s such a little conversationalist, of course.  She learns from the inquisitive, caring nature of her Mom- an expert in genuine questioning.  She is also very comfortable sharing in conversations around the table because it is a natural rhythm in their family.  Sherry Turkle says that technology is largely to blame for a decline in empathy and an inability to engage in intimate, fully present conversations.  I agree, and perhaps more than anything other place, the table is where the sharing of life and connection happens.  Establishing the rhythm of real conversation around the table is one of the most important rhythms in a family’s culture.  Like my niece, I learned to converse, care, relate and take an interest in the lives of others because of the example of my parents over thousands of meals shared together.

Both Turkle and Lewinsky point us towards compassion and empathy.  Lewinsky proposes that “shame can’t survive empathy”.  We need to help our students learn to see past a Twitter handle or a Facebook profile, and truly see the story behind the flat screen.  I love the online efforts of a group like the Bystander Revolution (@bystanderRev), where celebrities are initiating challenges that direct twitter users towards words and acts of goodness, and the sharing of stories.

We also need to help our young people find ways to engage in and embrace face-to-face conversation.  Last year I approached the elements of story as a metaphor for our personal life stories. The theme was “The Power of Living a Great Story: Your Story Matters”.  Alongside another teacher, we invited various guests to come in and share their story, focusing on a specific element: setting, characters, conflict or resolution.  Our students loved listening to the story of each guest. They learned to listen, ask questions and show understanding and interest in another person’s life.  As the culminating inquiry, the students wrote their own life stories and created a unique piece of artwork to represent their journey.  It was a very powerful experience, and I believe the sharing of these honest stories helped each of us to show greater empathy to one another. My students shared why their story matters in this video that highlights the learning process.

Listening, asking questions and sharing our stories: simple but powerful!  Thanks, little monkey, for reminding me!

What kind of learning opportunities are you creating to help your students develop empathy and compassion?  


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