School of Compassion
Much of our lives are scheduled, planned, timed, tracked, and sometimes not within our control. We find ourselves striving for balance between work and home life, playtime and homework time, and even vacations and home projects. In between this delicate balance are moments, sometimes small, however moments that exist where we interact with others. Family, friends, co-workers, animals, strangers, even nature. How do we make the most of these small moments and leave a positive impact?
At school, there is also a balance. As a progressive school, we recognize the need for both open-ended learning and play balanced with a focused time that allows students to stretch their minds, questions, and ideas. We recognize the importance of these explorations and to make the most of them, which is why we focus just as much on the social, emotional, and moral development as we do the cognitive. How do I work with others in my class? How should I handle this situation? What should I say? How may I help?
In the morning a student is greeted with smiles, a word of greeting, even a hug. “It’s nice to see you today.” During their school day, students have opportunities to encourage others, talk to the rabbits or chickens we have on our playground, pick up a piece of litter, pause play to check in on a friend, even stop to reflect on themselves and remind themselves about their accomplishments and their worth. Our students are comfortable sharing their feelings and looking to others to help them solve a problem. Through our compassionate acts, we are a community, a family.
These social, emotional, and moral conversations and exercises are the stepping stones to being a practicing person of compassion. You will not find compassion on a progress report or even in standards because compassion is a part of every act, every word, and every day. Compassion is our desire to help and to alleviate suffering. A child’s EQ—emotional intelligence—is the main predictor of his or her success in life, and having empathy and compassion for others and effective relationships are key to that EQ.
Three times a year we take time to focus on and recognize compassion. Compassion towards someone we may have never met before, an animal in need, and our earth, the very thing we need to survive. These focus study areas are called School of Compassion Projects.
What Does it Mean to Be a School of Compassion?
At Virginia Chance School, we believe that the earth is a place for everyone, we want to be in harmony with other people, our earth and animals; and it is important to have a warm heart and open mind.
Each year, the students of the school hear and talk about our Charter of Compassion and then either sign or fingerprint that they will remember to have a compassionate heart and wish to be a part of school initiatives that embrace this message.
Our goals of being a School of Compassion are to: provide ways for our students to grow emotionally, socially and morally; live out our desire to “treat others the way we want to be treated”; learn to have compassion and act on that in positive ways when students are young so it becomes part of their character; to lead others in becoming more compassionate and impacting our community and our city.
How Did We Become a School of Compassion?
In 2012, Virginia Chance School identified that several of our initiatives demonstrated our desire to be and show compassion. We had some initiatives we were undertaking through Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, the Green Team, and in classrooms as part of our Mission and Philosophy of the School. The classroom students and Green Team then created a Charter of Compassion that would reflect their own words, language, and wishes of the school’s students. From this work, the students identified three areas where they wanted to show compassion: the Environment, Animals, and People. We then partnered with the Mayor’s Compassionate City initiative, and on November 11, 2012, a group of students and Mrs. Houston joined Mayor Fischer on the City’s Compassionate Day and presented the school’s Charter of Compassion. Each year the school reflects on the original charter and invites school-wide learning and project participation.
Click here to read the Charter of Compassion: Vision and Objectives for School of Compassion
In 2012, the children of Chance a Charter for Compassion with a promise about what it means to be a School of Compassion. Then we invited each child to sign our charter (or put their fingerprint on it for our youngest preschoolers) agreeing to follow our compassion desires:
At Chance School, we believe
We want to be in harmony with other people, our earth and animals
And it is important to have a warm heart and open mind
Therefore, we promise to:
Treat others the way we want to be treated
Play with friends
Help someone who needs help or who is hurt or sad
Share with friends and share with those who don't have something
Use kind words, and say, I love you
Encourage one another
Help people when they fall and with their problems
Say I’m sorry
Pass out hugs as needed
Recycle and compost
Pick up litter
Participate in environmental groups and activities like The Green Team
Plant trees and flowers
Be kind to animals
Give food and homes to animals
Treat animals properly
Help animals stay in nature
School-wide Thematic Units of Study
These three School of Compassion projects, People, Earth and Animals, are school-wide thematic units of study, which means that ages 3-5th grade are invited to be a part of this learning process. Because of the different developmental stages and student interest, each class approaches the studies differently, however with one common objective: feeling, showing, and demonstrating compassion towards another person, an animal, or the earth. UC Berkeley talks about how the concept of compassion is closely related to empathy, however, they are not the same. While empathy exercises our ability to feel another’s emotions and “walk in their shoes”, we start to feel compassion when we also have a desire to help or alleviate suffering.
An example of this work is our study on Venezuela during the Fall of 2019 for our School of Compassion on People. During this study, we explored the country of Venezuela and learned more about the people of Venezuela. For this study, our objective was to work with a community center in Lomas de Urquia to send messages of hope and caring. We invited classes to explore the culture of Venezuela with the leadership of our Spanish teacher who was born and raised in the community we were connecting with. Food, music, and games were our ways to connect the students to another culture. Videos from kids in the town of Lomas de Urquia strengthened that connection, but also raised questions from the students, “Why are their shoes falling apart?”, “Why are there so many cars broken down?”. These questions were invitations to explore the needs of people that were not being met due to other circumstances. As each age asked a question based on their own observations, each teacher was able to explore those questions in a developmentally appropriate way. A three-year-old classroom noticed that in videos people in Lomas de Urquia walked everywhere and used a lot of steps. The students then decided to get a video of themselves walking through their school using the number of steps that they have witnessed in the video. This same classroom also connected to the types of houses in Venezuela and discussed their similarities or differences from their own. Deeper conversations emerged from higher elementary who were more aware of current events. As these students discussed and learned more about Venezuela and its people, their knowledge and interest developed into a desire to help and make a plan for how to help meet the needs in this community. Our study of Venezuela grew into a compassionate study because of the student-led desires that were communicated. We took these desires a step further and put together an action plan to gather supplies and send them to Lomas de Urquia. With these supplies, students also sent creations and messages of hope because as they learned through this process, knowing that someone was thinking of them gave the people in Venezuela hope. As Will, a 5th grader described, “Kindness can sometimes be better than food or money because kindness is straight from you and not from the store or someone else.”
Our School of Compassion study on Animals often stirs excitement in the students as the study of an animal is generally an easy and a wonderful way to connect a child to their feelings about the needs of another. PBS KIDS for Parents writer, Deborah Farmer Kris, describes how we may apply compassionate thoughts and feelings towards animals. First, we have to identify that everything has needs and perhaps that animal we are studying has the same needs that we do. We all need fresh air and water, food, shelter, and care. Next, we need to understand that some needs are not always the same. What kind of shelter do owls need and do they have a different diet than ours? Why?
What we found in this study is that as students became more familiar with owls and found those connections, a sense of caring, respect, and understanding emerged. By allowing exploration and facilitating learning based on student interest through projects like this helps these steps to arise through a natural learning process. As students go through these explorations and investigations, a question from a student or teacher may be “how may we help?” In the case of owl studies, students started to apply their knowledge of owls to what owls need in our campus habitat and then the final step of the process, “We can help”. This process takes time which is why we devote a whole month to this study.
While these projects exist as a way to apply student social, emotional, and moral feelings, another process that compliments yet separate from compassion arises naturally, the students' ability to utilize STEAM and 21st Century Learning Skills as tools in their learning process. That process generally starts with asking questions that may lead to investigations. Investigations can take the shape of scientific experiments, research online, reading a book, doing a focused drawing, or measuring and/or calculating. These investigations and research may naturally include the need to communicate or collaborate with another, possibly find solutions to a problem, or the need to sort through data in order to figure out what is a necessary next step. As adults, we naturally draw on science, technology, engineering, art, and math and 21st Century Learning Skills when faced with real-world problems or questions. Think about a time when something broke in your house. You probably started with a question, “why did that break?” then you were then encouraged to fix it. Whether you are fixing it yourself or calling on a professional there were certain steps you needed to follow. What professional is the right one, where are they located, how do I get ahold of them, what do they need to do to fix my problem, what will it look like when they are done, and how much is this going to cost me? Each of these questions leads to an investigation. It is natural and a part of how we think.
Our last of the three projects, our School of Compassion study on Earth, is led by our Green Team. The Green Team is a collaborative group of 4th and 5th-grade students who lead and facilitate environmentally sustainable practices and model stewardship for our school and our environment. Members of the Green Team are catalysts in the classrooms and advisers to faculty, staff, parents, and partners and are facilitated by the Director of our Environmental Programs, Rachel Beck. Students conduct meetings one afternoon a month to plan, work on projects, meet with community partners, and participate in environmental learning experiences. Additionally, there is a commitment to weekly service-learning mornings where each member of the Green Team comes to school early one morning a week and carries out necessary tasks related to our Green and Healthy School objectives.
The Green Team picks a project at the beginning of the school year. This project is a way to improve or implement a practice of environmental stewardship on the school grounds. The team is responsible for developing investigative questions, researching, interviewing, and disseminating information in the form of programming to the school in order to create a whole-school approach to their project. Through their work with partners, staff, faculty, and students; the programming they create generates student interest and the understanding of our place in the world and our responsibility to the earth.
Our compassionate learning and exploration never stop, there is no end. A child at Virginia Chance School will experience what it feels like to not only receive compassion from another but to also know what it feels like to practice compassion and demonstrate kindness towards another. We are a school of compassion.
Our school-wide thematic studies pull together compassion into a learning process, however do not forget how the small, everyday moments can make a big impact. Sharing a smile, holding open a door, and a kind word is all we need to practice compassion and be people of compassion. Here are some ideas for Home: