The power of collaborative learning

Empathy Lab @StHildasBushey | Janet Rosewall

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Janet Rosewall has been teaching for 28 years, 24 of them at St. Hilda’s @StHildasBushey as English Coordinator. She is also the Art Cordinator and a form teacher. Janet has a particular passion for reading and poetry  and inspiring children to love them too.

St Hilda’s School has become part of the EmpathyLab project. EmpathyLab aims to inspire schools to help children build the core life skill of empathy, by using words and stories more systematically. We are developing approaches with a dual focus on literacy and social/emotional skills.

St Hilda’s is one of a small group of 12 Pioneer Schools from across the country, who from September 2015-July 2016, are exploring some key lines of inquiry.

How did we become involved in this massive and exciting project? It all began in May 2015 when The Guardian ran this article by Miranda McKearney OBE that asked some very interesting questions, such as:

  • Why is empathy important in schools? What issues do schools face where increased empathy could help?
  • How can words and stories be used more systematically to develop empathy skills?
  • What tools and training do teachers and parents need to deliver this successfully?
  • How will an increased focus on empathy improve literacy skills?

Photo credit: Flickr

The last of these questions really struck me, and I began to think about books that I use in English lessons, and recommend to our girls in the library, that I know really make them have strong feelings about the lives of the characters they encounter within them. I’m sure that we can all recall books that made us cry, or read on desperately turning pages to find out if it was all going to turn out well for the characters that the authors made us care about (The first time I recall doing this was with LM Alcott’s Little Women) and recognising these emotions and empathising with the characters in stories. I have long believed and encouraged this as a key skill in developing literacy, so I emailed Miranda McKearney with ideas and books that I use.  She got in touch and invited me to join the EmpathyLab group, to which to excitedly agreed, not realising just how huge this project was to be, or where it was going to take us! But I’m glad that I did as it’s so interesting and inspiring. Melanie Charles and I went to the Open University campus in Camden for a day’s training in November to meet the other pioneer schools and we came away buzzing with ideas.

There were many exciting ideas presented to us during the day, but I would like to share with you a few highlights.

We had some interesting child development input from Robin Banerjee, who is from Sussex University’s psychology department. He touched on subjects such as seeing classroom dynamics from a child’s point of view, popularity, consumer and celebrity culture, and how developing empathy can help with classroom behaviour management. He spoke passionately about how learning to read involved talking about books, which requires engaging with others and understanding their mental states. He is hoping to develop ideas about using conversations around stories to improve empathy, and linking the idea that children with emotional well-being and social inclusion are those who are the most academically engaged in our classrooms, and so most likely to achieve.

Teresa Cremin, who is part of the children’s literacy department of the Open University based in Bristol, was an inspiring speaker and introduced us to the idea of Reading Aloud +, which is giving  focus to embedding reading for pleasure and seeing learning as a social activity, also linking literacy to behaviour management.

A representative from CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) was speaking about how literacy and empathy are symbiotic. She was passionate about teachers using high quality texts that inspire structured talk, as understanding a fictional narrative relies on understanding ourselves.

There was some very interesting material that we looked at showing how an emphasis on empathy in school is something that OFSTED is very keen to see.

All of these powerful ideas and many more already reflect a lot of the good practice that is going on in our school through the emphasis on our Value of the Month (respect and tolerance have featured this term), encouraging growth mindsets and GRIT ( Get Really Into Trying), praising effort in the classroom alongside achievement which makes it difficult for children to fail, and using high quality texts in the across the school. By trialling and developing some of EmpathyLab’s materials and documenting these activities Melanie and I hope to be able to measure an improvement in literacy through enhanced emotional engagement with texts. Along with this we would like to see how an increased focus on empathy can help smooth out those little niggly arguments that can arise and escalate in schools.

One of the things that our school is particularly going to focus on is applying the skills of developing characters when writing stories. I asked our visiting author Jacqueline Harvey in October to base her writing workshops on how she brings characters alive and she had also noticed how young writers find this difficult and need specific teaching to achieve it well. At a similar time to reading the article in The Guardian, I stumbled upon a TED lecture online that was given by a writer who works for Disney/Pixar who was describing how he writes successful play scripts to use in films such as Toy Story and WALL-E and Up, and the message seemed to be the same as I have been trying to use and have noticed in other fiction genres: he make his audience care about the characters. This use of empathy to improve writing skills in the classroom can easily be applied at all levels right down to KS1 and is a key skill that I want to track in our school with the help of EmpathyLab.

We have already begun to put some this into action by meeting with SMT to discuss the impact on the School Development Plan, reviewing our English and PHSEE schemes of work and planning, discussing the materials we are going to use, putting up displays and planning staff inset for January to spread the word about this exciting project.

Watch this space ….

One thought on “Empathy Lab @StHildasBushey | Janet Rosewall

  1. This sounds like an interesting project. Will follow with interest and look forward to reading some of the pupils work. Always good to read about an enthusiastic teacher.


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