Upper School Students "Cultivate Empathy"


When trying to empathize with another person’s struggle, we often hear the suggestion to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Earlier this year, Chapin students did just that in an Upper School FOCUS course called Cultivating Empathy. Inspired by the work of Anna Deavere Smith, an actor and playwright who held a series of Professional Community workshops at Chapin in 2013, Chapin created the course with the goal of fostering empathy amongst students through interviews and dramatic portrayals.

Class 10 and 11 students enrolled in the course, led this fall by Director of Studies Ilana Pergam and drama teacher Sarah Bellantoni, interviewed a variety of individuals including family members, Class 3 students and Professional Community members, all the while sharpening their listening and portrayal skills. The course culminated in a final project inspired by the recent social media campaign #MeToo and the surge of sexual harassment allegations reported in Hollywood.

When brainstorming topics for this final project, the students found themselves stuck on one question in particular: Why don’t people believe women? This led them to the research question: How does gender affect how our story is heard/perceived?

To answer this timely question, each student was assigned a stranger to interview. But first, they learned how to ask questions that would encourage someone to reveal something deeply personal. With help from special guest Joe Salvatore (a Clinical Associate Professor of Educational Theatre at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development), the class built upon the skills they had honed throughout the course by crafting interview prompts that would elicit stories instead of one-word answers. As they completed their interviews, the results were just what they had hoped for. 

One student interviewed a Chapin grandmother who shared that her college professor was surprised that, as a woman, she would enroll in a chemistry class. She relayed her shock at his comments and explained that she was and is proud of her gender and didn’t let it stop her from taking the class. “My parents used to say to me, ‘you are not better than anyone, but no one is better than you,’ she shared. “I genuinely took that with me, so in every circumstance I assumed that whatever I brought was valid and whatever they brought was valid.”

In another interview, a woman who works in finance explained that throughout her career she has noticed that clients tend to be more receptive to her message when she is wearing a dress and her highest heels, as opposed to a business suit. “Women are expected to maintain a certain demeanor,” she explained. “If your hair is messy, you are judged. If your voice is too high, you are judged.”

A transgender teen shared that their thoughts and ideas (even when incorrect) are more highly valued when they present as male, and their amazement at how much harder it is to be heard when presenting as female. A man working in science offered that as a ‘male feminist’ he is ashamed of his gender and often asks himself ‘Why am I male?’ A female sex crimes prosecutor explained that she constantly reminds her daughters to trust their instincts and run away when things don’t feel right, since women are often conditioned to be polite to others even when they feel unsafe.

Each interview contained a powerful message that affected the students and teachers alike and sparked thoughtful conversations about gender. After they had reviewed their interviews, students selected the one-minute clip they felt was most compelling and prepared to reenact it.

First, the students carefully transcribed their clips word for word (including ‘umms’ and ‘errs’) and double-checked them with their teachers to ensure accuracy. Next, they scored their transcripts by noting any vocal changes like pitch, speed, and intonation as they occurred. Then came perhaps the biggest challenge of all… committing the transcript to memory, including words, movement and tone of voice.

“The idea is that through this process you sort of leave yourself behind,” Ms. Bellantoni explained, “and that by embodying their words and body language, you will truly be able to empathize with another person.”

After studying their transcripts and going “off book,” each student met with Ms. Pergam and Ms. Bellantoni for a one-on-one coaching session. With the teachers’ guidance and suggestions, they were ready to perform!

On the final days of the class, the students shared their portrayals with their teachers in the Berendsen Room, reciting their transcripts from memory while mimicking everything from tone of voice and hand gestures to posture and pauses. The results were powerful as the students truly captured the spirits of the people they had interviewed with depth of emotion and understanding.

“The students learn through this class that every single person has a story worth hearing,” Ms. Pergam noted. “Those stories are gifts because they widen our lens on the world and deepen our capacity to feel for others, maybe even causing us to come to a new understanding of ourselves.”