Cultivating Compassion in Our Classrooms

Fall 2006

By Nitza Agam

In winter I stand in front of the entire student body school of 400 students from K-8 with my sixth grade class lighting the menorah and reciting Chanukah blessings. My students speak about what each candle symbolizes for them: freedom, justice, equality, a beacon of light in a dark world filled with social injustice and despair. Some of the students have learned how to say these blessings in Hebrew, while others tell the story of the brave Macabees who fought oppressive powers for the right for religious freedom. In spring I speak to the school about Passover and remind students that The Last Supper was a Seder, a Passover Jewish ritual meal, as I raise the cup of wine and the matzah which are the same ritual elements for Communion. These events are unique as I am a Jewish teacher in a Catholic school, which allows me to share my traditions and heritage with students as they share theirs during Mass or prayer services. I learn about Catholic traditions, and they learn about Jewish ones. Most importantly, we discover what links us rather than divides us.

Cultural diversity is lived and breathed here at St. Joseph's of the Sacred Heart school. I apply the same principles in my classroom when I teach about oppression and social injustice through literature. Students in my class have written elegies in memory of the four little girls who died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, after reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis. Those four little girls became real people as one student wrote in a poem:

Four little black heads were bowing
Their small hands clasped with love
They knelt so still, so reverent
They looked like peaceful doves.
Four little girls prayed all in a row
Four little girls went to heaven that day
Four little girls, although they did not know
They stayed in people's hearts that day.

Other students write about personal losses in their lives. They weave their personal stories with the stories we learn in class, writing about the four little girls, Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and family members who suffered from Leukemia or Alzheimer's. One student wrote:

I want to remember all those who died
For their fight for equality
And for those who died in my classmates' families.

I have two family members: one has Leukemia and the other Alzheimer's
One is ten years old and the other is in his eighties.

This is in memory for all those who died too young or died in their fight for their
own rights.

A student remembered a baby brother he never knew; others remembered grandparents and uncles or aunts who died too young. One student wrote about her grandmother who always wore the same string of pearls around her neck along with a favorite red dress. Memory became palatable, personal as well as political.

After studying The Diary of Anne Frank, one student convinced his family to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam during a summer visit and sent me a postcard with brochures from the Museum. Anne was a real person to him, not just a figure in a tragic story of the Holocaust. Anne became alive for my student, just as those four girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church did for my young poet. One poem emerged about Anne describing her eyes, each stanza depicting Anne's eyes in a different stage: smiling before the War; scared as they left for the Secret Annex, cautious when in hiding; pained and enraged when she argued with her mother; terrified when the Nazis arrived to take them to the concentration camps; and finally, closing, "ready to rest in silence, at peace at last, that go to eternal sleep."

Whether I stand in an assembly celebrating my holidays and teaching about my history, or I read literature and discuss issues with students in my classroom and pay tribute to memories of those losses which are so real and dramatic in their lives, I am engaging in multicultural education, and I am cultivating compassion in my classroom. According to Gollnick and Chinn (quoted in Equity, Advocacy and Diversity, NewDirections in Catholic Schools, by Shane P. Martin, and Edumdo F. Litton) "Teaching materials that portray different cultural groups in a positive light help students develop positive attitudes towards members of various cultural groups" (p.41). These students are more likely to participate in their society in a more compassionate and just manner.

The final frontier, beyond religious and social differences, is that of sexual orientation. I shared my personal story with parents and educators along with my family at an evening devoted to breaking myths and stereotypes about gay students. When he was 17, my son "came out" to us and related his experience of walking through a "lavender door" at a conference for gay and straight teens. He admitted it "was kind of scary walking through that door. " He knew what it meant to walk to the other side. Luckily, he did not have to walk through it alone. His two friends, who were not gay, helped walk him through and supported him on that symbolic walk to the other side. How many of us as adults have friends to support us during difficult times; how many of us have lavender doors that we often have to walk through alone? We read about the homophobia that killed young men like Matthew Shepard or the homophobia that traps students into hiding their sexual orientation or identity, and realize that our role as educators is to allow those doors to open, to walk through those doors with our students, or with our sons and daughters.

Let's "cultivate compassion" in our classrooms. Let's allow for different viewpoints, and teach about the power of personal experiences and memory that remembers the pearls around a grandmother's neck, a prayer said for an unknown brother, an elegy written for the victims of prejudice and intolerance. Let's allow students who are gay not to feel ashamed, and let's tell our own stories to students and to parents. The power of those stories teaches us about our common ground and encourages compassion in celebrating our diversity.

I look forward to Chanukah, to Christmas, to Passover, to Easter, when I can stand on the stage at my school and bless the candles, recite prayers, teach about Anne Frank, or four little black girls in Birmingham. I can be myself: a teacher who revels in her students' wide array of differences and similarities.

Nitza Agam

Nitza Agam has recently published her memoir, Scent of Jasmine, (Lulu Press, 2012) and a poem in Before There is Nowhere to Stand: Israel, Palestine, Poets respond to the Struggle. (Lost Horse Press, Sandpoint, Idaho, 2012)  She continues to teach in independent schools and enjoys her life as both an educator and a writer.