from the NY Times
By WINNIE HU
Published: April 4, 2009
SCARSDALE, N.Y. — The privileged teenagers at Scarsdale Middle School are learning to be nicer this year, whether they like it or not.
English classes discuss whether Friar Laurence was empathetic to Romeo and Juliet. Research projects involve interviews with octogenarians and a survey of local wheelchair ramps to help students identify with the elderly and the disabled. A new club invites students to share snacks and board games after school with four autistic classmates who are in separate classes during the day.
And to combat feelings of exclusion, the Parent Teacher Association is trying to curtail a longstanding tradition of seventh- and eighth-graders showing up en masse Monday morning wearing the personalized sweatshirts handed out to the popular crowd at the weekend’s bar or bat mitzvahs.
The emphasis on empathy here and in schools nationwide is the latest front in a decade-long campaign against bullying and violence. Many urban districts have found empathy workshops and curriculums help curb fighting and other misbehavior. In Scarsdale, a wealthy, high-performing district with few discipline problems to start with, educators see the lessons as grooming children to be better citizens and leaders by making them think twice before engaging in the name-calling, gossip and other forms of social humiliation that usually go unpunished.
“As a school, we’ve done a lot of work with human rights,” said Michael McDermott, the middle school principal. “But you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together.”
Many Scarsdale parents praise the empathy focus, but some students complain that the school has no business dictating what they wear or how they act in their personal lives. Others say that no matter what is taught in the classroom, there is a different reality in the cafeteria and hallways, where the mean girls are no less mean and the boys will still be boys knocking books out of one another’s hands.
Bar mitzvah sweatshirts emblazoned with the name of the honoree, the date and occasionally even the guest list are still commonly worn, if not on the Monday after, then on a Tuesday or Wednesday a month later.
Otherwise, “what’s the point in getting them?” asked Jess Calamari, 13, an eighth grader who gave out blue hooded sweatshirts to more than 150 guests at her bat mitzvah last year. “I don’t want to offend people, but I like sweatshirts.”
Dana Reegen, a seventh grader who says that she has been talked about behind her back, gave her classmates a C in empathy. “I know a lot of people aren’t very nice to each other,” she said. “They don’t really think it’s the most important thing, they’re more focused on what they look like, what they’re wearing, and who’s going out with who.”
Nationally, some question whether such attempts at social engineering are appropriate for the classroom or should remain the purview of parents, churches and youth groups outside of school hours. “Who could be against teaching empathy?” said Michael Petrilli, a vice president for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group in Washington. “But there’s a laundry list of seemingly important activities that, when added together, crowd out the academic mission of our schools.”
But Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, said that teaching empathy can seem “artificial or hokey” to some students, but over time can foster a school culture that encourages learning over social distractions. “I don’t know if you can teach everybody to be empathetic,” she acknowledged, “but you can raise awareness.”
Empathy lessons are spreading everywhere amid concerns over the pressure on students from high-stakes tests and a race to college that starts in kindergarten. The Character Education Partnership, a nonprofit group in Washington, said 18 states — including New York, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska and California — require programs to foster core values such as empathy, respect, responsibility and integrity.
This year, Los Angeles is spending nearly $1 million on a nationally known program for its 147 middle schools, called Second Step: Student Success Through Prevention, which teaches empathy, impulse control, anger management and problem solving. In Seattle, seven public elementary schools are using a Canadian-based program, Roots of Empathy, in which a mother and her baby go into the classroom to explore questions like “What makes you cry?”
Within the charter network KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, some schools are focusing more on empathy, with lessons about the Holocaust, role-playing and a “values jingle” sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
And on Long Island, Weber Middle School in Port Washington inducted 300 students — nearly one-quarter of the school — into the Weber Pride club this year as reward for gestures like sitting with a new girl at lunch or helping a panicked classmate on the rock climbing wall.
At Public School 114 in the South Bronx, where David A. Levine, author of “Teaching Empathy,” has been running workshops since 2006, the principal, Olivia Francis-Webber said that the number of fights had dropped to fewer than three a month — from one to three a week — and disciplinary referrals were down to about five a month from nearly 20.
Before, she said, teachers would “immediately admonish the child for bad behavior and send them to the office,” but since the empathy training began, they more often are “sitting down with students and finding out what’s wrong.”
Here in Scarsdale, the middle school has also seen an effect on behavior: Administrators have received three complaints about bullying or harassment on buses this year, compared with an average of two or three a month last year. Counselors have handed out fewer detentions for minor infractions such as chronic tardiness to class or running in the hallways.
The school and P.T.A. have spent $10,000 on empathy workshops with Mr. Levine, and tried to infuse the curriculum and culture with the theme. A photojournalism project showcases students’ work with the homeless, local charities and the environment. This month, the student council is planning a “Mix It Up Day” to break up cafeteria cliques.
Debbie Reegen, an insurance administrator and Dana’s mother, said she believes that empathy is lacking in many Scarsdale children and that the efforts should start in elementary school.
“They should make the parents come as well,” she said. “I think there’s a sense of elitism, and a bit of arrogance, among the parents here.”
At the middle school, there are signs that the lessons are starting to stick.
Sarah Frohman, 13, said that she catches herself when she is about to call someone who annoys her a “retard,” and that she has told her soccer coach in a youth league not to use the word.
Annie Gevertz, 12, said that she is more careful of what she says about other students. “Sometimes, I think about how it would feel if it were said about me, and I’ll keep it to myself instead of sharing,” she said, though she expects gossip will probably never be gone for good “because we’re teenage girls and that’s something we do.”
On the bar mitzvah circuit, students have started handing out alternatives like water bottles and pajama pants. Jason Thurm, 13, collected more than 200 of the personalized sweatshirts from his friends and donated them to a church; for his own party in November, Jason did not have favors, and planned to donate the money his parents would have spent on them to a charity.
In the cafeteria, Alex Primavera, 12, described empathy as putting himself in someone else’s shoes. He said he had been trying not to put down his classmates or call them “moron” and “idiot.” Then he yelled at another student to shut up.
“He tries but he doesn’t get very far,” said Alan Zhong, 12, adding that Alex had just kicked him in English class.