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Between the Lines

Kim Anderson, MSW, LCSW, ATR-BC

Robinson Elementary: Challenges and Empathy

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of joining a group of elementary students, their teachers, and student helpers to discuss Challenges and Empathy. It was a beautiful experience and I am so appreciative of Tom Butler and the Kirkwood School District for inviting me to spend time with these inquisitive and generous young people.

Mr. Butler designed this summer school experience to enhance students’ understanding of difference and to enrich empathic response to differences which challenge our notion of ability, potential, and promise.

I was invited to speak about my own differences. I’m a talker but I’m also a listener. Most often, I am grateful Witness to the wonders of awakening and transformation. On this day, I talked about how my scars came to be but also asked if my young audience felt they had challenges of their own. (I was interested to note that several of them had the challenge of siblings with Autism who “messed with their stuff.” I do not like having my stuff messed with either and had much empathy for this.)

As an art therapist, I’m inclined to introduce art and invite my audiences to participate in making art in response to our discussion. I invited the kids to complete the following sentences: My name is _____, I know _____, I feel _____, I wonder about ______, and I am _____. I didn’t have a chance to see all of them, but I think my favorite was “I wonder about the moon.” I was most impressed with how many completed the last sentence with words like “handsum!” “bootiful,” or “smart.” This reflects the kind of atmosphere Bonnie Davis and I advocate in our book, Creating Culturally Considerate Schools: Educating Without Bias (Corwin, 2012).

Among other things, culturally considerate school environments: demonstrate awareness of the many cultures represented within the school community; give voice and consideration to all students; welcome all types of families; show interest, empathy and respect for each faculty and staff member; advocated respect and reverence of individuality.

After the students completed their sentences, they were given a circle with faint quadrants and invited to make an art piece from the things they wrote. Unlike adults who accept this invitation in training workshops, there was no hesitation and few questions. Crayons, markers, scissors and glue flew. The

room buzzed as they shared and discussed the wholistic self-portraits they produced.

My scars faded as creativity was unleashed. Art is a great equalizer. As our time together came to a close, one young man asked if he could tell me something. “This is the best performance we’ve had yet!” he said. I thanked him and asked if I could shake his hand. He stuck out his hand. “Or maybe a high five?” I asked. He raised his hand and indulged me. I then held out my palm. He smiled and shook his head in that way kids have of conveying lame, Miss Kim, but you're still pretty cool. “Whatever,” he said and turned to meet up with his friends.

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