Compassion in the Classroom

by Nancy Kellum Brown

One of my personal goals every school year is to teach my students about compassion—not just what it is, but how to live compassionately. Compassion is such a great word. It has such a simple, yet powerful, meaning, defined by Merriam-Webster as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

If we plan to change the world, compassion will need to play a significant role in our lives. Overwhelmingly, our children are taught to watch out for number one, and to do what is convenient, not right. We are teaching them that it is normal to destroy the fragile balance on this Earth, our home.

In an attempt to steer youth in a compassionate direction, I integrate environmental and biodiversity-based projects that allow students to see and understand the issues our planet is facing. The goal is to encourage them to make more informed, thoughtful decisions about their actions and become better overseers of the planet.

Teaching teenagers the importance of biodiversity in all the word’s biomes is critical if we want to make a change in how they view their connection to the natural world. Every six weeks, I give my students a two- to three-day environmental project that is completed in class. This work is in addition to their normal curriculum. These projects are fun and educational. They are my attempt to instill a true sense of what is happening to wildlife around the world and the catastrophic impact humans are having on this planet. Some of the topics have included invasive species, disappearing apex predators, overfishing/bycatch, disappearing wetlands, bees, the palm oil industry, big game hunting, and chemical run-off.

Students perform research for a couple of days and create a project that allows them to express how they feel about the situation from their perspective. They are required to complete a small write-up, and then complete a creative expression of their choosing. Some students write a report. Others have created comic books, children’s books, songs, poems, speeches, paintings, and sculptures of wood or papier-mâché.

I also always offer extra credit for activities that benefit living things or expand the students’ knowledge about environmental or conservation issues. I encourage my students to take action and make a difference. Some have picked up trash on the streets and creeks/rivers, planted native plants, volunteered at our community animal shelter, collected donations for wildlife rehabilitation centers, built bat houses, and volunteered at green festivals. I also encourage students to watch documentaries about wildlife and the environment and create short reports or make their own video or documentary for extra credit. Most of the time, students want to add an art project and share their knowledge with classmates. Many have chosen to write to lawmakers about pending legislation concerning animal welfare and environmental laws, and several have become very passionate about the conservation of wolves and bears in the United States.

After our state testing is completed at the beginning of May, my class completes a conservation project that is mainly focused on animals. This final assignment is a two- to three-week project in which the students must research a topic of their choice, then create a project that is nonacademic—meaning the student has to create something that does not include writing a report or creating a PowerPoint. I urge them to choose a topic they feel passionate about and express it in a way that shows their creative side. This project is my favorite of the year, since I am always amazed with the students’ creative thinking and encouraged by the topics they choose. By the end of the year, the students instill hope in me that these adults of tomorrow will not only develop a new perspective, but will also alter the perspective of others and help them consider their own obligations toward the planet.

Students usually have their choice of topics unless there is something specific I would like a student to research. This past May, I challenged one of my students to address a topic that was near and dear to his father’s profession. This student was smart, funny, and respectful, and his father is a well-known and very accomplished taxidermist. He often shows me photographs of his dad’s work, which has included a lion, giraffe, elephant, and many other beautiful and endangered animals. I asked him to do his project on the effects of big game hunting.

The projects this year were amazing. I had a young man who created a project on the fur industry. He made a little closet that included tiny (faux) fur coats on little hangers. Inside each fur coat, there was a picture of what really happens to the animals in a furrier. It was eye-opening and brilliantly illustrated the situation.

A young lady completed a project called “Shamu” about the captivity of orca whales. She made all of the whales out of paper and paint. Her creativity was exceptional and her message was powerful.

Dolphin hunting was the topic of another project. It was wonderful. The young lady built the boat out of Popsicle sticks and molded each dolphin out of clay. It was a great visual for such a deplorable event. The little boat made a big statement.

Many of my students chose to do canvas paintings that depicted their interpretation of different types of human impacts on the Earth. I was very impressed that 13- and 14-year-olds were able to create work with such depth. I was so proud that imagination, out-of-the-box thinking, and compassion were evident in their work. I am hopeful the same type of compassion will help them advocate for the speechless in the future.

I am confident that my students will leave with a new love of science, but I am encouraged that my students will also leave with a new respect for our Earth and compassion for all species. I pray that some will become champions for the animal kingdom.

Nancy Kellum Brown teaches 8th grade science at Charles Baxter Junior High School in Everman, Texas. In 2016, she won the Texas Medical Association’s Ernest and Sarah Butler Award for Excellence in Science Teaching and was named to the national honor roll for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Teaching.