Eighth Graders' Final Culminating Event Answers the Question: "Can we practice empathy?"

They are about to graduate, but that didn’t deter them from one final culminating event. In a project that truly pulled together all they had learned in the nine years they were here at Speyer, our eighth graders studied Advocacy as their last Humanities unit. Humanities teacher and Deputy Head of School Mr. Deards challenged them to start an analysis of another person’s plight, first by asking, “Do I understand what it is to live his or her life?” He has more on this amazing final culminating event!

There are a number of reasons why the eighth grade humanities year ends here. It represents a confluence of themes built up at Speyer over up to nine years. Facing an uncertain world, facing an exciting, thrilling, technologically mesmerizing, magical, but uncertain world, we wanted out kids to have a Speyer suite of skills (to supplement, not replace, superb academics). These included:

Can they collaborate? Can they work hard? Can they be creative? Can they identify when help is needed and ask for it? Can they apply existing knowledge in new situations? Can they advocate for themselves and tell a compelling story?

Our last unit was on Advocacy. We challenged ourselves to start any analysis of a person’s plight by asking, “Do I understand what it is to live his or her life?” This is hard. This is painful. And it requires a transfer away from the data and statistics to something messy, dirty, human and real. Imagine if, to understand homelessness, you took $10 and committed to live on the streets of NYC for a month with no other resources. What would you understand at then end of that time? We sought virtual ways to try and do just that.

But we also aimed to touch, trigger, and hopefully deepen two mission critical elements of a Speyer education. First, can you understand what and why another person is thinking and saying (even if you abhor it) and do you respect their personhood (even if you disagree vehemently with what they stand for)? Can you practice empathy? Because without it, how do we heal this country or this world?

And second, are you ready to make a tentative, but irrevocable, commitment to Social Justice in your life? Will you use your articulate voice on behalf of those with no voice? And what skills do you need to do that?

The kids chose topics that resonated with them (income inequality, educational inequality, and the plight of undocumented immigrants), researched them, and presented some searing curriculum to classmates. They then put these plays together. The aim is to communicate to their audience, their families, what the actual experience of their chosen form of marginalization is, and to have them feel something too. 

The eighth graders shared hurt and insight and joy and frustration, and these children have built a uniquely safe space where respect allows real authenticity and courage to flourish.

And truly remarkable this final culminating event was.  The result? Plays and performances were impactful, moving, and complex. Congratulations to all of our eighth graders and to Mr. Deards!