Whenever something horrifying happens, like the events in Orlando over the weekend, I tend to go into a temporary tailspin.  My religious and political convictions are best summed up as “Get off Facebook and make somebody a sandwich.”  I immediately look for something I can do, some concrete action I can take that will counteract the evil in the world.

This summer, I signed myself and my son up to volunteer at a shelter for LGBT teens. But during the school year, things are both harder and easier. Harder, because there are more obligations and less time to fulfill them. Easier, because I get to spend my entire day doing what I believe is the most important work I can find; helping to produce more compassionate, open-minded people who can heal a broken world.

There are a lot of ways to encourage compassion in kids, and a lot of people can provide way better-documented research than I can.  But here are some methods I’ve tried over the past ten years in the middle school classroom that have helped develop kinder, more empathetic students.

1. Choose books carefully.

There are so many great books for young readers that encourage the development of a social conscience.  I mean, really any book can facilitate conversations about relationships and bullying and empathy, but some novels make it incredibly easy. I especially like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Crossing the Wire, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, since they all include themes of both personal isolation and systemic oppression. It gives the kids a chance to consider things from new perspectives, and all those novels have characters that are exceptionally relatable. It’s like the folks who hate gay people until a friend comes out of the closet; really good novels give you friends—albeit fictional ones—who come from different walks of life and expose you to a wider reality.  Kids desperately need that, and they love it. I’ve never had a class be less than enthusiastic about any of those books.

2. Talk about real problems…and possible solutions. 

This can be tricky, and requires an awareness of your students and their cultures. I’m not advocating letting your sixth graders read first person accounts of human trafficking victims; the goal is to raise awareness, not provide the counselor with more job security. But kids can often handle more than we give them credit for. One of my favorite class discussions this year centered around transgender bathrooms and same-sex marriage. The kids brought it up, and I was hesitant to allow the discussion to continue, but they were amazing.

Last year, after we read about undocumented immigrants and watched a documentary, the kids found a school nearby for newly arrived immigrants and got a bunch of school supplies donated. Another group in that class wrote a grant for technology that would allow deported parents to Skype with their children who remained in the United States. Although they didn’t get the funding, it was an incredibly meaningful experience, and one they still talked about after they left my class.

3. Practice perspective-taking.

This one’s easy, because it hits tons of standards while also building some social awareness.  Also, the kids tend to enjoy it. Assignments like writing a journal from the perspective of a character in a novel or creating a social media page for a character forces kids to consider things from an alternative point of view. For middle schoolers, who tend to be positioned firmly at the center of their own universe, this is a priceless skill that helps them relate to their classmates and understand their own thought processes and motivations.

4. Provide opportunities for awesomeness.

For the past three years, the seventh grade team at my school has run a Kindness Ninja program. There are three or four teachers involved, and once a month each teacher takes a group of 10-15 kids to volunteer in the community. We’ve worked at a women and children’s homeless shelter, socialized feral cats, played with low-income daycare kids, and spent time with the elderly in a retirement home.

My kids are all poor and come from disadvantaged communities, and this chance to be the giver rather than the recipient is unbelievably powerful. We generally have about 45 kids involved, but every year at least 70 kids apply. One hour a month changes how these kids see themselves. I won’t lie; it’s a pain. I dread my trip to the retirement home on the second Wednesday of every month, because it means I have to stay late and make sure my own kid is looked after and drive the rickety, terrifying school van through rush hour traffic filled with smelly kids. And it is always, always worth it.

Everybody has both the power and the responsibility to make the world better, but teachers are uniquely positioned to do so. We get to reach out to hundreds of kids and empower them to make a difference…surely at least a little of that will sink in and bear some fruit somewhere down the road! Unfortunately, we don’t have a set of national standards for empathy or compassion or kindness.  But until we do, we have to keep working that into the curriculum and raising Kindness Ninjas who will gradually overtake our schools, our communities, and our institutions. How about you? How do you raise awareness and compassion in your classroom?

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