In school, students learn science, math, reading and, in some classrooms, empathy.
Across the region, teachers are thinking outside the box and finding ways to bring life to their lessons. In Tabernacle and Medford, two teachers are using current events to build the skill of understanding others.
Michael Dunlea, a third grade teacher in Tabernacle, is known for his creative teaching style. He was recently nominated for the National LifeChanger of the Year award by his colleague, Melissa Collins, a teacher from Memphis, Tennessee.
The pair teamed up from miles away to give their students a more diverse learning experience. Collins’ class is made up entirely of Black students, while Dunlea’s is mostly white.
Together, the third graders send letters, take virtual field trips, play math games and make friends.
“We can’t change our class,” Dunlea said. “We can’t change the town line. We may not be able to undo 400 years of systemic racism and things that have led to all-white communities or all-Black communities. So what we can do is create a space where students can get to know children who are different from them.
“In doing so, they find out that they have more in common than what is different.”
Dunlea has partnered with Collins for several years, but remote learning during the pandemic gave them an opportunity to strengthen their bond through technology.
On a video call, the 8- and 9-year-olds hear presentations from people like the director of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, a chef, a cameraman and teachers from other countries.
Dunlea began to work with Collins after coming to terms with his own experiences growing up. Like the students he teaches, Dunlea went to school in a mostly Catholic, mostly white space.
“I had a lot of misunderstandings about things that were different because I just didn’t have exposure to them,” he explained.
The teacher began to make friends from diverse backgrounds while he was on a national teaching fellowship.
“I felt so much more committed as a human to try to make things better,” he noted. “The sooner we let kids meet people who are different, we take away fear and ignorance and we allow them just to see others as humans.”
At Shawnee High School in Medford, AP Language and Composition teacher Davon Loeb was inspired by current events to revamp his lessons. After Jan. 6 — the day rioters attacked the nation’s Capitol — he spoke with his students about that day, policing and racial injustice.
The purpose of AP Language and Composition is to discuss how rhetoric persuades people to think one way or another. Loeb brought in a police officer to share his side of the story, the class discussed it and students got to work writing objectively about the riots.
“Students researched articles that celebrated the heroes of the riot at the Capitol rather than solely on destruction, culpability, and political division,” Loeb said.
Relating lessons to current events can make learning easier, he explained, because students have a better understanding and can connect to what they’re reading. Loeb also has a goal of building empathy in his students.
“As an educator, it is my responsibility to help students gain a literacy about the world around them. I want students, regardless of their identity, to take any injustice personally,” he stated.
“I want them to form genuine empathy that is firm and unwavering. Empathy that does not favor one group of people over another. Empathy that will carry them throughout the course of their lives.”