Sparking Learning and Empathy with Empatico

As educators, we make it a goal of trying to develop students into good citizens, preparing them for the world that awaits them once they leave our classroom. This is no easy task and I can’t think of much more important for the betterment of our world. Prior to becoming a technology integration specialist, I was a classroom math teacher at a Middle School in Western New York. During this time my focus was on making sure my students developed their mathematical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving. I also focused on helping students to become kind and caring at this transitional time approaching their teenage years. The best way I knew to do this was to form positive relationships and model this behavior myself. It worked for many, but it sure was tough. Middle School kids could sure be cruel to each other. They seemed to enjoy life going about their day to day focused on not much other than themselves and what their peers thought of them. Looking back to my Middle School self, I was just like this. These students were a smart bunch finding their way, making mistakes, finding humor in just about everything, even my math lessons. My teaching was confined to my own classroom. You entered Room 207, we learned in Room 207, asked questions in Room 207 and what went on in Room 207 probably for the most part stayed in Room 207 aside from the few students who actually told their parent or guardian what they did in math class that day when they got the question, “So, what did you do in school today?” Keep in mind, this was prior to digital portfolios and parental communication SMS tools like Remind and Bloomz. What was missing from my classroom was a connection to the real world, beyond the book. A math problem referencing a real-world scenario was the best I did. I needed to do better for my students if they were truly going to be prepared for the real world.

Fast forward several years later to today. The advancement of educational technology and the continued movement towards a global society along with teachers looking to engage and empower students has changed the landscape of classrooms and schools. No longer does learning just have to be contained in “Room 207.” In my new role as a technology integration specialist, I aim to bring meaningful learning experiences to the classroom by utilizing technology. To focus on meaningful integration, I love connecting back to the International Society for Technology in Education Standards. I especially like connecting to the latest student standards. These include Empowered Learner, Digital Citizen, Knowledge Constructor, Innovative Designer, Computational Thinker, Creative Communicator, and Global Collaborator.

While embarking on my journey of seeking global collaborations with technology I came across Empatico, a project brought to classrooms by The KIND Foundation. The headline that caught my eye was: “Empatico introduces your students to the world, no passport needed.” Along with it was also the phrase “Match with another classroom. Discover standards-based content. Connect in real time.” This sounded like a recipe for meaningful technology integration and learning to me. Also, the name Empatico hit very close to empathy, something our students need to develop in becoming good citizens. It is aimed at students ages 7-11 (Grades 1-5 in the U.S.) and is completely free (and always will be). The idea behind creating this for children is that having early positive experiences with diverse types of people can strongly influence how they develop perceptions of others in the future. After doing a little more reading about Empatico, it was clear that this program very well aligns with the ISTE Student Standards.

Empatico5

Within a couple minutes, I had an account created and a profile set. I connected with classroom teacher Lori Wunder of A.J. Schmidt Elementary School, one whom I support in my role as a technology integrator/TOSA. I was excited to share with her this new learning tool. There were four activities for us to choose from. In finding a common match with another classroom, we had to set our availability on their built in calendar as well as select two of the four activities. This would allow there to be a shared interest in topics. The activities available were Helping Hands, Ways We Play, Community Cartographers and Weather Out The Window. The total activity time is 2-3 hours, which includes a preparation activity before the interaction (40-70 min) and a reflection activity after the interaction (20 min). Matched classrooms can and are encouraged to modify or extend the connection to meet their individual needs. In our case, what started just as laid out in Empatico, spun off into a collaborative Kindness Project. Our classes both selected Community Cartographers and Weather Out The Window.

Within the dashboard was a Resources/Materials tab with ready to use items for teachers including printables and ideas. These included and could be filtered by need:

  • Teacher Tips for Intercultural Experiences
  • Reflection Circles
  • Backup Plans
  • Room Setup
  • Parent Take Home Letter
  • Empatico Skills Mini-Lessons
  • Activity Templates
  • Reflection Tools

We were matched with a class in Andover, Kansas from Prairie Creek Elementary. Within the Empatico Teacher Dashboard, there was a messaging portal that made communication a breeze. I loved that I also received an email message when our partner class responded. Within a couple days we were having our first connection. Empatico promotes the exchanges as seamless and I couldn’t agree more. With one click of a button, our classrooms were connected over video.

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You could feel the positive energy in the room as kids were so interested in meeting their partner class. Students asked questions about each other’s school day, hobbies, and community. We learned that we both had something in common in starting Kindness Projects in our schools and both agreed to help each other out and share experiences. During this initial video connection, I could see students making connections to how they were similar and also to some of their differences. It was during this call we also learned of our partner class’s Kindness Project. They were creating cards and gift boxes for a local children’s hospital. It inspired our students in Mrs. Wunder’s class to create cards for our local children’s hospital connecting on the hashtag #theroadtokindness. We calculated the distance between our schools in Google Maps. 1,142 miles to be exact. We also realized it would take us almost 17 hours to drive there. Students couldn’t wait to connect again for the next part of the activity.

We scheduled our second connection to take place a couple weeks later. This allowed students enough time to construct their maps of their surrounding school community and put their cartography skills to work.

When it was time to connect again, we switched between classes describing their school community surroundings. Here is a video highlighting part of the exchange. During this exchange, it was really snowing heavily outside in Angola, NY. The students in Kansas loved to see the snow because it is rare they get much of it. It helped set the stage for our next activity exchange, “The Weather out the Window.”

Here are a few examples of student maps shown in this Tweet.

I was impressed that a few of our students even labeled specific names of an apartment complex and a lake nearby their partner school. I loved that it forced them to communicate creatively and ask the right questions in creating the most accurate map possible while knowing almost nothing about their partner school’s community.  

After our connection ended, we took to Google Maps again, this time to satellite view and street view to see just how what it really looked like compared to what students mapped based on what was communicated to them. The students loved being able to explore the area in Google Street View feeling almost as if they were right outside the doors of their partner school. We also found a few of the places referenced that made it feel even more real. It was a fabulous global learning experience and collaboration.

Circling back to the indicators to ISTE Student Standard 7: Global Collaborator. They are listed as:

  • Students use digital tools to connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, engaging with them in ways that broaden mutual understanding and learning
  • Students use collaborative technologies to work with others, including peers, experts or community members, to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints
  • Students contribute constructively to project teams, assuming various roles and responsibilities to work effectively toward a common goal.
  • Students explore local and global issues and use collaborative technologies to work with others to investigate solutions.

Empatico hits on many of these indicators and serves as a launching point to teachers wanting to venture out and explore new global education opportunities. Knowing that I experienced students becoming empowered learners, creative communicators, digital citizens, innovative designers and knowledge constructors through Empatico made it a huge success.

In addition to the 4 activities in Empatico, they also launched a two-week long Caring Kids Challenge that which we signed up to participate in. The Caring Kids Challenge was designed to provide free, simple activities to reinforce positive social skills and help students build stronger relationships while navigating differences with curiosity and kindness, in the present and for years to come. These were short 10-20 minute challenges and they certainly sparked some empathy for our learners. The first week’s challenge focused on respectful communication, one of the four Empatico Skill Pillars. The second week’s challenge focused on cooperation and critical thinking skills. All activities and challenges take on a focus of perspective taking in helping students relate to the experiences of others and understanding how those others feel.

Getting back to #theroadtokindness collaboration that became an organic extension of our Empatico connection, here are a few snapshots of the magic that took place:

Ready to get started in your classroom with Empatico? Visit https://empatico.org, click Get Matched with a Class, create a profile setting available times to collaborate and you’re on your way to being matched with another class somewhere in the world. Enjoy the ride and the learning ahead, but more importantly, enjoy the benefits of a classroom actively developing more empathetic students!

As my first child begins Kindergarten next year, I can’t help but think that if he is experiencing these during his educational experiences on a fairly regular basis, he will be well prepared for anything that may come his way. I want my son to be a good citizen, a global citizen. I can only hope that he gets to experience the power of Empatico along his journey. Fingers crossed!

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