The following remarks were delivered to Middle and Upper School Grandparents and Special Friends at the Thanksgiving Assembly:
This year’s theme “Empathy and Ethical Thinking” has drawn our educators at Brimmer together on a subject that is critical to the development of young people. The maturing minds in our Middle and Upper Schools are developing the social skills needed for the rest of their lives. This theme brings to the forefront the importance relationships play in our lives. Just a week ago, our Parents’ Association sponsored guest speaker, and author of The Empathy Effect, Dr. Helen Riess to speak about her research at Massachusetts General Hospital on the importance of building and teaching empathy. Subsequently, I read her book on the subject and was educated on how vital this skill is for our student’s success in their future.
The pathway to empathy starts with a meaningful connection between people. At Brimmer teachers and students value the relational connections we have within our own community and this is evidenced nearly every day. I would like to highlight an incident and a program – one in the Middle School and one in the Upper School – that exemplify the stages of building empathy within our own school community.
Teaching students to have a voice that is authentic and reveals an original point of view is a hard task. Just ask our college counselors, and they will tell you that the college admissions people are trained to identify a student-written college essay and differentiate it from one done with too much assistance.
Five years ago, we launched the on-line publication, The Gator. It was risky. Would it be a good example of the students’ digital footprint? Would it reveal a lot about our student body and the ethics of our school? The answer to these questions is yes. Just Google one of our writer’s, and you will see. AJ Naddoff, class of 2015, who launched his interest in journalism here at Brimmer where he was editor in chief, just had his first byline in the Washington Post on Kosovo and its concerns with homegrown terrorism. Naddoff’s research included in-country interviewing and answers to questions that could have ignited a negative reaction had he not been careful.
The ethics of our School and its students are also displayed in The Gator, now an award-winning publication. Last month Gabe Byran won first place nationally for his article “Speak Truth to Power Amid Sexual Abuse Claims.” With exceptional clarity and conviction, Gabe opens his article saying, “Something is rotten in America, and the stench is emanating from our political leaders and media elite, who either don’t know how or refuse to treat women with dignity and respect.” He continues with well-researched and clearly presented evidence to support his opinion. Gabe’s ethical thinking is clear and convincing, so much so that the piece was selected among thousands of high school writers as the first-place opinion piece of the year. Teaching students to have a voice — one that is authentic, original, and ethical — is a goal reached.
A second example of teaching the pathways to empathy and ethical thinking is the new curriculum in our Middle School framed by the Max Warburg Foundation. The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum was first shared with me last year when our PA Co-President Mark MacClaren and Trustee Eleanor Bright shared how important they found this curriculum to be and how it seemed like a good match to Brimmer’s mission of developing ethical citizens. The match, an exceptionally good one in a year when we had adopted the theme of teaching empathy and ethical thinking, inspired Middle School Head Carl Rapisarda Vallely and teacher Gus Polstein to embark on integrating this new program. Since “stories of courage have a special power to engage and inspire young people,” our Middle School students now had a new way “to discover their capacity for courage and find a voice to share their personal stories of courage with the world.” The Middle School students are busy learning about their own challenges and personal stories that represent courage and will be entering their stories in the annual contest.
This new journey for our students involved an important connection. Parents and Trustees partner with our school to make the student experience an exceptional one. Teaching empathy requires a commitment from a community of adults who are dedicated to a community of children. Most certainly, educators select the curriculum, but with the support of our families and friends, our work is enhanced and made more effective.