BOOKS: Teaching Compassion

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2001:

Teaching Compassion: A Guide for Humane Educators, Teachers and Parents
by Pamela Raphael with Libby Coleman, Ph.D, and Lynn Loar, Ph.D
The Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education
(1826 Clement Ave., Alameda, CA 94501), 1999.
130 pages, paperback. $24.95 includes postage and handling.

Humane educators, myself included, used to share techniques about how to tactfully get the kids to stop telling their stories and pay attention. Pamela Raphael realizes that the stories are the lesson. She helps children turn their stories, such as “I had a dog once, but it ran away,” into poems about animals. These poems let the children express their strong emotions, their needs, their hopes, and sometimes their dark secrets about the pets who have been in
their homes. Examples are scattered throughout the book and are fascinating reading on their own.

The Bad News

Only four humane education lessons are described and one is on hunting. Pamela Raphael, the primary author, lists “debating hunting” as a segment of the lesson plan and a skill students learn. However, in her narrative description of the lesson, the debate seemed to happen by chance, due to the unplanned presence of a pro-hunting teacher. Humane educators must be aware that a stacked-deck presentation, on any hotly contested topic, can get an entire
program thrown out of most school districts. Sometimes all it takes is one parental complaint. That would be a needless shame. Most kids, after hearing both sides of the hunting debate fairly presented by informed adults,
land firmly on the side of the animals. So why risk even the allegation of unfairness?

Another misstep was the book’s claim that “In order for students to benefit from the pet overpopulation lesson, it is
important for a trained professional to conduct a sex education class before the presentation.” That will go over big with schools, especially in conservative districts!

I am baffled that the authors seem to think most teachers and humane educators can calmly handle stories of abuse and neglect, but cannot simply state that spaying and neutering are operations that prevent animals from having litters. I find that kids are usually content with that. And I could more easily handle a question like, “Do they cut off their…ya know?” than a child sobbing “My daddy strangled my cat. Is it okay that I hate him?”

A stronger editor perhaps was needed. For instance, school administrators and other readers might like to know the backgrounds of the authors. The reader will gradually discover Pamela Raphael’s position and employer. Her career history and training are not noted. Only contributor Lynn Loar’s occupation and field are explicitly stated.

Many other questions of interest to humane educators are not addressed:
* How were these presentations set up in the first place?
* What were the expectations of the administrators and teachers?
* How often did Raphael go into each classroom, and for how long?
* How extensively field-tested were the lessons?
* How did parents react?
In one homework assignment, students are to present humane information to their parents. The next day the students with unresponsive families are urged to discuss with class members how they can become effective in helping their families to be more empathetic and responsive–which practically invites parental opposition to the program.

At times Raphael left me hanging, mentioning a disturbing thing a child said, e.g. “My brother threw my cat against the wall last night,” but not commenting on it. I want to know what Raphael said in response! I was confused at times about the flow of the lessons: when did the children do art, how are the vocabulary lists used, and how do the poetry lessons in the Appendix fit in with the other poetry assignments?

The “Skills Learned in this Lesson” sections seem contrived, a common fault in supplementary curriculum materials, and not very useful for educators who today expect to see national standards addressed. The book could have been strengthened with some insights from brain research on the impact upon learning and behavioral change when  students’ emotions are engaged.

The Good News

Raphael’s descriptive writing rings true with my experiences as an educator: “When I ask children if animals have feelings, they look at me as though I have just asked the stupidest question in the world.”

Her vivid writing creates almost a verbal video of the classroom scene. Through her detailed accounts, Raphael makes
evident that humane education has changed, but what has changed is not the lessons. Without the poems and stories, which are Raphael’s forte, the four humane lessons described are not much different than many typical humane education presentations of recent decades. What has changed are how children react and how educators need to respond.

For instance, bringing a cat or a dog into the classroom used to be a fun event for the kids and one sure to detract from
whatever point the humane educator intended to make. Raphael illustrates that in teaching some of our children today, the animal is making the point, not the instructor; and sadness, not happiness, can be the overriding emotion. “Children may not even be aware of their sad feelings until they are faced with a vulnerable animal,” she explains. “Close interactions with animals frequently bring long-buried feelings to the surface, where they are more accessible and therefore more easily understood.”

One of Raphael’s great strengths is that she listens to children’s reactions, even when painful, and encourages them, at some risk: “After Tonja’s revelations, students became agitated and overwhelmed by their emotions. Chaos resulted. I quickly decided not to control the class in order to see where their powerful feelings would lead. I let the chaos become a river of outraged voices.” Note: Chaos scares school administrators. It scared me as a teacher too!

Raphael writes of the animal abuse stories children told her: “Stories like these continued until I realized that every child in that classroom had recently either witnessed the abuse of an animal or had abused or killed an animal himself or herself…In ways that were almost confessional, they unburdened themselves. Words boiled up and out of their mouths faster than they could articulate them. They knew they had done something very wrong, but didn’t know who to
tell or even how to tell it.”

But what do you do when all you see is a classroom full of red flags?Regrettably, only 18 pages cover “confessions of abuse” and “how to cope with revelations of neglect and abuse.” However, elsewhere Raphael does address how to empower children toward finding solutions, after awakening their strong emotions. She also shares role-plays she devised to help children who have witnessed abuse, and advocates the use of poetry as a healing device.

Despite the guidelines in the book to help teachers and others know what to do when a child reveals abuse or neglect, and despite the examples of how Raphael helps children who are overcome with emotion, I think many of us would react more like Mr. Trevor, a teacher who “was so startled by his students’ unprecedented show of emotion that he asked the school psychologist to talk with his class immediately after lunch.” We don’t feel prepared and aren’t sure how to best help the children. Raphael states that some teachers react with a willingness to speak with students, but that others “reacted with complete denial accompanied by an unspoken but clear message that they did not
want to get involved with students and their families on this level.”

Why do we feel unprepared? One example resonates with my recent experiences with abused children: “A sexually abused child may find the animal’s exposed genitals disturbing and may perceive its grooming as sexually provocative. Caught off guard by an emotionally charged situation, the child may start talking about other experiences of nudity,
oral-genital contact or other sexual activity. The humane educator should be prepared to deal with revelations of neglect, domestic violence and sexual abuse.”

Teaching Compassion does NOT fully prepare you. I don’t think any book could. But it convincingly reveals the need for preparation. It also demonstrates how ordinary humane lessons, combined with poetry, can bring to light the inner world of children. Too often it includes the seeds of violence.

What to do with it

So should humane educators begin incorporating Raphael’s use of poetry and her role-plays into classroom presentations? In my opinion, no. My belief is that the first priority for humane educators should be helping to transform educational institutions so that they claim humane education as their own task.  Passing laws mandating humane education at the elementary and secondary levels has not worked. Neither have we effectively reached all the children we need to educate in attempting to reach as many classrooms as possible ourselves.

Teaching Compassion is a much needed book that may inspire fulltime teachers and counselors to claim humane education as something they now want and need to be doing. Studies of “the link” and the “cycle of abuse” have helped open some doors. This book will open some that remain closed.

If you are a humane educator, you can use this book as a catalyst to discussion with school psychologists, social workers and administrators about collaborating to provide humane education training. Seek grants to enable your collaborative team to write a locally appropriate curriculum, using stories, poetry-writing, discussion and role-play as Raphael recommends. Connect the lessons to national standards. Then devise participatory training to help teachers further learn to respond to student revelations, compassion, and needs. Budget for classroom coaching as follow-up.
My hope is that Teaching Compass-ion will help those who are only marginally concerned about animal issues to share the vision of 19th century humane educator George T. Angell that humane education is “working at the roots” to eliminate cruelty and violence, and is every teacher’s job.

–Patty Finch
[Finch, a former classroom teacher and later director of the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, is now a teacher trainer for the Maricopa Community Colleges in greater Phoenix, Arizona, focusing on inner city educators, through a U.S. Dept. of Education grant.]

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