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A Classroom Action Research Story: The Empathy Project



I'm writing this on the eve of a brand new school year. My fifth graders will arrive tomorrow morning, and we'll be boogie-ing our way into the new year. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of my 27th year of teaching. Not bad for someone who, after her first day of teaching, told her veteran teacher mom  that "This will not be the rest of my life. It's okay, for now." 

And here I am. I have to admit that when I peel back the layers of crap imposed on us...crap that isn't teaching...I still love my job. In fact, I adore it. I'm still curious. I still approach teaching like a research project. Every year, I investigate a pedagogical question. This year is no different. After listening to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle at our state reading conference, my colleague Nancie and I put our heads together and asked "What if?"

What if we selected 9 empathy-themed picture books and shared them with our students, one per month? What if we used the picture books to help our students develop a definition and awareness of empathy? What if our students met online across our school district to discuss the books within discourse groups, using flip grid or google hangouts? What would happen to their listening and speaking skills? What if we tracked those skills using WAPT/WIDA? What if our students self-assessed their discourse skills?

Action research makes my heart sing. It always has. I like pondering questions, developing hypotheses, and tracking data. There's nothing like the rush of success or the surprise of unexpected results. 
I've found that when I share my action research with my students, they are genuinely interested. They, too, ask questions and keep up on "how we're doing" with our classroom learning experiences. 

Nancie and I developed 3 essential questions for our students:

  1.  What is empathy?
  2.  Why is it important?
  3.  How does discourse impact your every day life?
These three questions will guide our shared readings and discussions as we collaborate every month across our school district. Students will return to the first question every month, in order to revise their definitions after reading the selected picture book. 


Before our first online meet up, Nancie and I will be teaching discourse strategies. I'll be introducing sentence stems for discussion, engaging in visible thinking routines that foster student conversations, and using open-ended learning investigations. Both of us will introduce Jennifer Serravallo's Conversation Learning Progression continuum to our students, because we want them to be able to self-assess their conversation skills. Later on, we'll be using that particular continuum to do our own formative assessment.
Within the first three weeks of school, we'll be administering the WAPT test to our whole class. We're doing this with the help of our bilingual support staff. We're doing this so we can get some baseline data on the four quadrants: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing. We've found that even when students aren't English language learners, they have weak areas. We want to be able to see everyone's starting points so we can better measure growth later on. 

In addition, during the week of our online meetups, Nancie and I will be using Serravallo's conversation continuum to assess where our students are as they talk. We'll be conferencing with our students about their progress, too. This is our sole focus during this week. Our goal is that by the close of the school year, our students will be at the end of Serravallo's Conversation Learning Progression continuum: 
Thinks flexibly, allowing one’s own opinions to be changed and/ or considering new perspectives and uses empathy to understand others’ ideas, especially when others’ opinions differ from one’s own.
We'll repeat the WAPT again in January and May to measure progress. I'm predicting that we'll see an increase in our students' listening and speaking scores, but I wouldn't be surprised to also see a spike in writing due to verbal rehearsal and expression. Both of these things develop writing skills. 



Nancie and I worked hard to choose the books. We wanted books that honored diversity. We wanted meaty books with strong characters. We wanted empathy-themed books. These are the books we chose:
  1.  Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig
  2. One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
  3. Be Good To Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming
  4. The Hard Times Jar  by Ethel Footman Smothers
  5. Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
  6. Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
  7. A Thirst For Home by Christine Leronimo
  8. Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes & Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters
  9. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
I'll be writing about The Empathy Project's progress throughout this school year. Be sure to check back the first week of each month to read more about our progress and findings. We're so excited! Our first book is Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig, and it's powerful!



Looking for some ways to support your reader's and writer's workshops? You can read more HERE!

Plus, I offer many resources (some free) to help your kiddos take off! Click the picture below to discover more. 




2 comments

  1. Does Nancie teach in a school other than yours? How did you get teachers acroos the school district to participate? I hope you do follow up posts about this---I would love to see the progress. Thanks for sharing and good luck with this project. It should be great!

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    1. Hi Margo. She does teach in another school. We were at the same reading conference together and both of us were intrigued by the same speakers. That's how it evolved. I'll be blogging every month about our progress!

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