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Children Full of Life: Teaching empathy in the classroom

Published on: December 29, 2013

My friend Caryn, a music teacher, posted this remarkable video on her Facebook page. In the clip, part of the 2003 documentary Children Full of Life, Japanese 4th-graders do a "notebook letter" exercise in which they write about their feelings and then share with their class-- and one boy's letter about the recent death of his grandmother sets off a wave of tears among his classmates. The kids first look stricken as he reads his letter -- and then begin to cry as they talk about their own losses, their feelings shifting from identification with his grief to recollection of their own. Their teacher, Mr. Kanamori, guides them with extraordinary sensitivity and openness, telling one girl who had never before talked about her father's death, "It's hard keeping it locked away, isn't it, Mifuyu?"

It's almost impossible to imagine an exercise like this one as part of an American curriculum. We're too fearful of eliciting such raw emotion in our kids, even though kids feel loss deeply and don't always have the words to express themselves. Talking about deep feelings among peers seems like a sure way to open kids up to bullying, even though Mr. Kanamori believes that the opposite is true. And we like to keep deep feelings within the family -- there seems to be something almost distasteful about sharing like this in a public school setting. Would we trust a teacher not to say something damaging in a situation like this one?  To not impart values that we disagree with?

It's a shame, because what happens in this video is amazing. Mr. Kanamori's goal for his class is for them to be happy, and he believes that happiness comes from sharing with and listening to others.

"Empathy is the greatest thing," he says. "When people really listen, they live in your heart forever."

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