Educators Fight Violence With Empathy

Ten years ago today, two students at Columbine High School went on a shooting rampage that killed 12 students and one teacher. In the aftermath, many educators developed programs to reduce school violence. David Levine has taken it one step further. He teaches empathy. Levine and Principal Olivia Francis-Webber, who brought Levine to her school, explain why they think the program works.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we mark a painful anniversary. It was 10 years ago today that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Since then, politicians, school officials, all across the country have been looking for ways to combat outbursts of violence in and around schools. But some educators think the strategy needs to go deeper and start earlier and involve more people than many school-based programs do now.

David Levine is one of those educators. He's the author of "Teaching Empathy." He leads empathy workshops at schools across the country. Olivia Francis-Webber is the principal at Luis Llorens Torres Children's Academy, in New York. She invited David Levine to present one of his workshops at her school. I caught up with the two of them recently and I asked David to define empathy and explain why he thinks it's teachable.

Mr. DAVID LEVINE (Author, "Teaching Empathy"; Educator): Empathy is a bundle of social skills. It really is starting out with the natural inclination that children have to reach out when someone's having some struggles and then as they get older, teaching them ways to use that natural feeling, to not just feel what someone else is feeling, but do some things to help them.

MARTIN: But is empathy different from being nice? Is there something fundamentally different about it? And what is the difference?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes, well the difference is the intention of reaching out to another person, the intention of bringing someone in to help them feel connected, to help them feel that they belong, to help them know that someone is really watching out for them and cares for them.

MARTIN: Olivia Francis-Webber, you know, of course, the whole issue of bullying and kids being, you know, mean to each other has been the stuff of literature, of movies. I want to play a short clip from a film, that I think a lot of people may have seen "Mean Girls", which brought this issue to the first. It was actually based on a of a book about another educator, who teaches in this area. But let's play a short clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mean Girls")

Ms. LACEY CHABERT (Actor): (as Gretchen Wieners) Regina, you're wearing sweatpants. It's Monday.

Ms. RACHEL MCADAMS (Actor): (as Regina George) So?

Ms. AMANDA SEYFRIED (Actor): (as Karen Smith) So that's against the rules, and you can't sit with us.

Ms. MCADAMS: Whatever. Those rules aren't real.

Ms. SEYFRIED: They were real that day I wore a vest!

Ms. MCADAMS: Because that vest was disgusting!

MARTIN: Now that's high school. But, what about elementary school? That's you're a principal of an elementary school. What issues do you see and what prompted you to call David Levine in to offer a workshop at your school?

Ms. OLIVIA FRANCIS-WEBBER (Principal, Luis Llorens Torres Children's Academy): Many different reasons prompted me to call David in. I'm actually a product of bullying. I'm an immigrant from Jamaica. I came to this country, when I was eight years old. And also, I was pretty good in school. I was a straight A student and because of my accent, kids used to tease and bully me and I used to be beat up on a regular basis.

So knowing that I went through that and when I became a educator, I wanted to make sure that the children that I taught and also the children that I eventually supervised, didn't go through the same things that I went through. And at PS 114, our school is made up of majority immigrants, from a variety of multicultural backgrounds. And they didn't understand each other's culture and they tend to tease each other just the way because of how they spoke, or how they looked, or their different habits and I …

MARTIN: And that just brought it all back for you.

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: Yes.

MARTIN: Replaying your childhood all over again.

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: How did you hear about David's work and, and what is it that you brought him in to do?

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: Well, there's twofolds to why I needed David. I also realized that a lot of the staff members, they're not from the community that the children are from and they're not from the diverse cultural background that the students are from. And therefore, they needed to also understand empathy, and take the time to understand where these children are coming from and be more sensitive. So it's twofolds: I needed help with the children and I also needed help with the adults in my building.

MARTIN: Could you be a little bit more specific though about the adult issue that you're talking about? I just have a hard time envisioning a teacher…

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: Okay.

MARTIN: …making fun of a kid's accent.

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: No, it's not making fun. The teachers that I'm talking about, it wasn't teasing or bullying, you know, I am in a high poverty area. My school is 99 percent a poverty school. And there are times when the children come to school and they're acting up, or are being mean-spirited and so forth. The teachers are just viewing them as oh, this child is being bad, let me call the assistant principal or the principal to admonish them. And when we get the kids we sit them down and we say to the children what's happening, why you are having a bad day? Is everything okay? Did you sleep well last night? Did you have dinner last night? Did you have breakfast?

When the children articulate, we come to find out guess what? There was no food in the home last night, or they were abused in some form of a fashion. The kid came to school angry, and all they wanted was breakfast.

If the teacher took the time to find that out, which we did as administrators, we immediately got them something to eat from the lunchroom, even though it was past breakfast time, and the kids' behavior changed.

MARTIN: Well here's a question, though, for both of you, which - there are those who would say you know what? This isn't the teacher's job, and I'm sorry that kids are coming in with less-than-ideal circumstances, but learning has to happen in the classroom, and kids have to figure out how to do the work because there is going to be no future if the kids don't figure out how to do the work. So what would you say to that?

Mr. DAVID LEVINE: When someone feels that sense of emotional safety in their classrooms and their hallways, the feeling that teachers and other adults really care about them, that will enable them to focus and do better academically.

You know, in Olivia's school, what I first noticed was when I returned for a second, third, fourth visit. Right away, all the kids: You're back. You came back.

They're not used to adults returning, many times in their lives, especially people who are visitors to the school. So they were really saying I'm feeling a sense of belonging. You care. You're here. Just my presence there.

And that's what empathy is, it's being present and listening and responding non-judgmentally so that we do get to the underlying cause of those behaviors.

MARTIN: What about this issue that surfaced in this film clip that I just played, this comment thing, you know this exclusion? When I was in elementary school, it was Fred Braun shoes. For some reason, if you didn't have Fred Braun shoes, you couldn't sit with the cool girls, you know, and you know, a certain kind of clothing. You don't have that, you can't be here. How do you deal with that?

Mr. LEVINE: Now I have to say when I heard that clip, it just brought me right back to what I feel so often in schools, you know, and I have children. I have little ones an eight- and a five-year-old, and I want them to have the kind of experience that all kids deserve, and so to me empathy is a social skill. Skills are power. When you make a choice in your life, that's the greatest power you can have in your life, and the great challenge is to help children have perspective on what's real and what they let in.

You know, the wonderful quote, you know, from Eleanor Roosevelt about you can't let someone - I don't know the exact words - but make you feel bad without your permission, you know, that's the place I want to help students come to. And the way I do it is I actually use very simple diagrams, which show what it means to be in, what it means to be out.

One of the specific symbols I use is a plug in a wall. I say when you plug in, you're plugging into your power. When you unplug, you're letting someone take control of how you feel. So plug in. I have to say that, and it's not a one-time workshop.

MARTIN: But how is that any different that, like, sticks and stones can break your bones, but yet your words will never hurt you? How is that any different from what parents have been telling their kids for time immemorial?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, I change it to: but words can break your heart. I want them to have the understanding that if you saw someone being teased or being bullied, would you help them? And they always say well, if they were my friend, or if I knew them.

So we have the conversation: What makes it different? You know, social learning comes about through imitation, through what you see. So we have to model it, name it, expect it, and when we have people who are bullying, not punish them but counsel them.

MARTIN: Olivia, can I ask you about this? I know everybody has probably seen a scene like this on the playground, where kids are, you know, fighting or pushing each other, and another kid goes to get mom, and mom says you've got to go back out there and hit him back, and if you don't, I'm going to hit you.

You know, a lot of this stuff has a very deep stem, and there are those who would argue, you know, the school just can't address all that. I mean, your job is to teach kids to read and write and to do their math and so they can go on and do everything else they need to do. What do you say to that?

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: Well, you can't learn in a culture that has violence, and that's what we're trying to teach in the school is to feel safe. And we call in parents when children have conflicts. And the parents say right in front of us: Listen, I told my daughter or my son that if they get hit, hit them back, do this and whatever, and we explain to the parents two wrongs don't make a right. And we're trying to model positive behavior and that there are repercussions and things for children who break the rules and regulations, and by you teaching your child to continue violence is only going to beget more violence.

MARTIN: Olivia, I wanted to ask you. Do you think that part of the thing is changing the mindset that bullying and being picked on is just the way it is? I mean, do you think part of it is people just don't believe it can change?

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: No, it can change. And I went through a lot in elementary and middle school where kids were beating me up on a regular basis, where you know, one time I was jumped. I was good athletically, and my team won, and I was threatened before I played the game that if your team wins, I am going to hurt you, and I thought it was a joke.

And I literally was jumped by over 50 girls, and I ended up in the hospital for a very long time. I'm lucky to be here even talking to you today.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: Yeah, so it's a real thing, and you know, it needs to be addressed. It's very serious.

MARTIN: David, is that part of what you're trying to say is that it can be different? It doesn't have to be that way?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes, I think that's a myth, that when you tolerate those kinds of behaviors, you're enabling it.

MARTIN: Do you focus more on the victim, as it were, or the perpetrator? Because the movies we see are always told from the standpoint of the victim because the victim is the one who then tends to go to Hollywood and become a famous screenwriter to get revenge on all the people who were mean to him or her. But what about the kid who is the aggressor?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, there's actually a third player in the equation, and that's the bystander. And it's actually the bystander that we focus upon and to say what can we do? And there's various ways, you mentioned…

MARTIN: Tell me about that, please.

Mr. LEVINE: Okay, well you asked earlier about how do I go about doing this, and one avenue I use is music. I'm a musician. So there's a song I sing, actually. It's called "Courage."

As we go through the song, you know, we talk about the Holocaust, and we talk about the bystanders in the Holocaust, and we talk about even the My Lai massacre, when there were American soldiers who said I'm not doing this, and that took courage. That took corazon. That took passion of what's right. This is wrong that we're doing this.

And we even talk about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we talk about various points in history. And the girl telling the story, you know, she says we learned about this in social studies, and she starts thinking differently about this kid who's new, who's treated unfairly, and she says I don't understand all I learned. Sometimes I just sit there and cry.

The whole world stood idly by to watch as the innocent burned. And at the end of the song, she says I promise to do all that I can to not let it happen again, to care for all women and men. I'll start by inviting Diane(ph). And it opens us up to the conversation that we can make a difference.

MARTIN: David Levine is the author of "Teaching Empathy." He leads workshops at schools across the country, and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios.

Olivia Francis-Webber is the principal at Luis Llorens Torres Children's Academy in New York, and she was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. FRANCIS-WEBBER: You're welcome.

Mr. LEVINE: Thank you, Michel.

(Soundbite of music)

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