A google search of the word “empathy” reveals over a billion results. The term, which means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, has become somewhat of a buzzword. Research by one of Episcopal’s own has shown that the concept is much more than just noise.
Martha Guarisco, a sixth grade English teacher with a love for young adult fiction, didn’t set out to study empathy and how a book can help foster it. It was a passion for a transformative book and being at the right place at the right time that led to a two year study with the results eventually being published in three journals and cited by many others.
In 2014 Martha attended a Youth Adult Literacy Conference where she participated in a break out session on how the Harry Potter series has boosted empathy among young adult readers (Harry Potter is another of Martha’s loves). Afterwards, she approached the guest speaker – Dr. Louise Freeman – to discuss how Martha could replicate empathy research involving a study of the novel “Wonder” by Raquel J. Palacio. That conversation sparked a study that has yielded insightful results.
Dr. Freeman advised Martha on how to measure the students’ empathy in the areas of perspective taking, emotional transport and theory of mind. Martha was amazed to discover that many of the psychological concepts correlated with common educational terms. For example, perspective taking translates to point of view in literature. Psychologists refer to a person’s tendency to transport into a fictional world as the Fantasy Scale. In English class this would be considered the reader’s engagement with the story. The psychological term “sleeper effect”, meaning it takes time for something to happen, might be called deep learning in education. Making these connections helped Martha realize that empathy is taught in the classroom without teachers even realizing it.
For the study, students took part in scenario tests and self-reporting on how a situation made them feel. They also took the eye test in which they were asked to look at someone’s eyes and guess how that person felt at the time. After the initial testing was complete, the students read the book “Wonder”. Martha taught the book as she would any other, including art projects for visualizing aspects of the book and even bringing in school counselor Alicia Kelly to discuss empathy in more detail. Afterwards students repeated the tests to compare the impact.
Martha says the results were exciting. After studying the novel students were shown to have positive changes in regards to perspective taking. This means students were better able to understand someone else’s perspective simply by reading a novel. With such success after the first year Martha conducted the same research a second year with a few changes. She allowed students to choose between Palacio’s “Wonder” and “Crossover” by Kwame Alexander. She also allowed some students to read the novels on an electronic reader while others read traditional books.
The second year results were equally as enlightening. Again the students showed marked increases in perspective taking and thus, empathy. But what Martha found even more interesting was that while both boys and girls were excited to read the books electronically, the results showed their overall comprehension decreased and there was less empathetic growth.
As an English teacher and parent all of this resonates with Martha on several levels. She says the experience confirms the significant responsibility adults have not only in suggesting books for young readers, but also in recommending reading formats. She says the research has certainly made her more cognizant in choosing books for her classroom library. She is sensitive to the fact that every child needs to see a positive reflection of themselves in a book, but that they also need to see a wide range of people different from themselves. Thoughtfully selecting these books allows students to have more intentional conversations about issues such as race, class and gender.
How do we keep this focus on empathy so that it’s not just a passing fad or buzzword? Martha says the English teacher inside her says keep reading! She says exposure to great stories and experiences will create an awareness of the world’s diversity and the variety of perspectives that exist.
Episcopal educators are doing amazing things inside and outside of the classroom. Martha’s research is just one example of the expertise these professionals provide. Check out Martha’s research here.
Looking for additional reads to encourage empathy? Here are a few of Martha’s suggestions:
Numbers were the name of the game recently as Episcopal played host to the Mu Alpha Theta Math Tournament. This year’s tournament was double the size of last year’s with 346 students from 24 schools represented. To grow in size so quickly is a true compliment to the Episcopal Mathletes who organized and planned the entire event.
A math tournament has a game day feel. There is suspense, excitement and enthusiasm as students take individual and team tests in algebra one and two, geometry, precalculus and calculus. Students huddle together in team challenges to work toward the answers with a sense of focus and concentration. Individuals pour over test questions with determination. At the end of the day, trophies are awarded to the top students in each category and everyone celebrates a common love of math.
It is this love of math that equates to unlikely friendships and connections, creating a community for these students. Upper School math teacher Hester Sofranko says one of the best components of being a Mathlete is the camaraderie among teammates and competitors. She says students who wouldn’t normally interact, become close while solving problems together. As is often the case, common ground is found through a shared passion.
“This is a chance to come into their own,” said Sofranko. “Students are able to recognize their own potential.” The Episcopal Mathletes truly lived up to their potential with the recent tournament. The group organized the entire event doing everything from writing the tests to choosing the trophies. Sofranko says the only thing they didn’t do was calculate the competition results. For the second year in a row the event was such a success that the Mathletes were able to donate $500 from the proceeds to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.
While the Upper School students were busy making sure such a huge tournament functioned smoothly, the Middle School students were representing Episcopal competitively, with tremendous results.
The results are in!
Membership in Mu Alpha Theta creates a sense of pride for the Mathletes as it is a Mathematics Honor Society requiring students to maintain a 3.0 GPA. In addition, Episcopal Mathletes compete nationally in the American Math Competition with the hopes of qualifying for international level tournaments in the future. All of this can translate into college scholarships and admissions.
It’s a great feeling when you can find your community and celebrate your talents at the same time. For the Mathletes, this happens because of their command of calculations. They truly are a community uKnighted.
Remember back to your first semester exams in college. You may still have been reeling from transitioning to adult life, much less acing that Physics 101 class. You likely spent long hours in the library, the coffee shop or your dorm room pouring over notes and textbooks. In addition to pouring over notes, you likely poured many cups of coffee to accompany the highlighters, calculators and laptops that were strewn about. Today’s college freshmen are discovering that the hustle and bustle of wrapping up those first few months away can certainly be overwhelming and stressful. But soon they’ll peer into their mailbox and find a familiar Knights emblem on a box personally addressed to them.
Similar to an old friend or a well-loved, tattered and worn stuffed animal, a care package from home has the power to calm and comfort. The Episcopal care package tradition stretches back at least twelve years with sixth graders handcrafting items for the previous year’s graduating class.
This year, the Class of 2017 is receiving boxes stuffed with mint wreaths, sock snowmen, homemade cookies, notes from Lower School, snowflake paintings and even a prayer for exam times. There was excitement and joy as the Class of 2024 created these tokens of love this week. Students laughed as they stuffed rice into socks for the snowmen and they squealed as they squeezed the slime into a stress ball for pre-exam tensions. They were also confident that their gifts would be well received and even hopeful that items such as the peppermints inside would help the alumni to study and focus.
These care packages take considerable time and effort to plan, prepare, create and mail, and that time is certainly worth it to remind the recent graduates that they are still a part of the Knights family. Hopefully, each box generates a smile as the college freshmen feel the love and support of the Episcopal school community surrounding them. Whether the packages are received in chilly Cedar Rapids, Iowa; sunny San Luis Obispo, California or even in a purple and gold dorm room closer to home, the message is the same. We wish you well. You make us proud.
We are truly a community uKnighted!
I write at the end of a weekend spent recovering from and contemplating the highs and lows of this year's 8th grade trip to the Mo Ranch Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) in the hill country of Texas. Upon arriving home close to midnight on Thursday evening, I found that beyond the fatigue I was feeling from a week of physical activity and the long bus ride back to Baton Rouge, I also experienced a sense of both relief and gratitude for another successful experience at Mo. Having released our students to their parents, who enthusiastically welcomed them home; responsibility for almost ninety students had shifted back to their families. Certainly, I was grateful to be free from that weighty load, but more than that, I was and continue to be thankful for the opportunities the trip provided for our students and the ways that I can sense that they have grown as a result.
In our middle school, the progression for grade-level travel begins in sixth grade through two day-long experiences, a friendship retreat in the early fall and a service learning day in the spring. In seventh grade, our students travel for three days to a large southern city (most recently Atlanta) to experience activities with both curricular connections and opportunities for fun and fellowship. The 8th grade Mo Ranch ELP experience is the culmination trip, a chance for students to experience even greater independence through a longer stay away from home.
All three trips require students to practice self-control and cooperation, to demonstrate good manners and behavior as they interact with bus drivers, venue docents, service personnel, and instructors who are not their regular teachers. Additionally, time away from school with their friends and classmates stretches our students’ capacity for patience, tolerance, and empathy in ways that benefit them individually and as a class. The time also provides the students with opportunities for both self-awareness and discovering more about their classmates and teachers. This social and emotional learning helps to solidify class identity and bonds of friendship, an added benefit for our school community as students prepare for the demands of upper school.
After more than three decades of experience with school trips, it seems reasonable to assume that traveling with middle school students would become routine and monotonous for me. The reality is that I still learn much that is valuable from these experiences, both about myself and about my colleagues and our spirited, multi-talented students. Undoubtedly, our travel experiences are demanding for all involved, but unquestionably, they are worth it, and we will continue to make them happen for our middle schoolers.
Lucy Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Millsaps College and a M.Ed. degree from Louisiana State University in school counseling. Additionally she maintains credentials as a Licensed Professional Counselor. After one year of teaching in the East Baton Rouge Parish School system, she joined Episcopal’s high school faculty in 1979. She has served Episcopal in a variety of capacities: high school English teacher, Upper School Counselor, Upper School Division Head, middle school English teacher, School Counselor, and her current role, Middle School Division Head. Throughout her tenure of leadership in the Middle School, she has taught sixth grade religion. She is the proud parent of two Episcopal alumni.
Congratulations to the 2016 / 2017 Penniman Scholars!
Katherine Fivgas ‘23
Ruby Friloux ‘22
Lucy Silverman ‘21
The recipients were recently honored with a luncheon hosted by Head of School Hugh McIntosh and Margaret Penniman Boudreaux, Class of ’76 graduate and current teacher. The Penniman Scholars are selected each year by the grade level English teachers and presented to the outstanding English student in each Middle School grade.
The first Penniman Award was given in 1988 to Lee C. “Buster” Kantrow and Cathy White Engle. The fund was established by G. Allen Penniman, Jr. in remembrance of his wife Mary Virginia Crain Penniman, who had a passion for English studies.
Congratulations to Burke Tarleton, Alan Tran, Blaise Richard, Trey Lambert, Reed McMains and Lance Clark for proving they know the most about the novel "Booked" by Kwame Alexander.
Aldrich Library was recently the scene of trivia, sharing and excitement. No, this wasn’t a teenage discussion during flex or a game of Clue. It was the first meeting of the Project LIT BR group.
Project LIT, or Libraries in Communities, is an idea sparked from the imagination of Jared Amato of Nashville, Tennessee. The program is Amato’s answer to serving children in what is known as a book desert – areas with little access to libraries or bookstores. Since its inception last year, Project LIT has set educators on fire throughout the south, with many adopting some version of the program for their school.
Now Episcopal Middle Schoolers are the first in Louisiana to join the fun. Sixth grade English teacher Martha Guarisco discovered the Project LIT information, and being a reading advocate herself was inspired to bring it to Woodland Ridge. “We want to celebrate and promote literacy,” she says. “Even reluctant readers can be changed with the right book.”
Students were not reluctant to get on board. In fact, Martha wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when launching the program, but after putting out invitations to join, sixty (sixty!) sixth graders voluntarily signed up to help. The volunteers organized a trivia contest based on the novel "Booked". The pre-teens revelled in the contest, eager to answer and eager to share.
In a school where reading is commonplace and normal, it may be hard to imagine a Project LIT program. However, Martha says this is the perfect opportunity to help students understand that having a book is a luxury for some and that not everyone has access to reading. Project LIT programs across the south are organizing and maintaining free mini-libraries in book deserts to share the love of reading with others. These mini book depots allow members of the community to take a book and leave a book at their leisure. The hope is to reduce any barriers to reading that may exist because of inaccessibility.
After the trivia contest, it seems Project LIT BR is off to a great start. Going forward the group will seek out ways to better define their program with community service aspects and of course, more reading.
You can read more about Project LIT BR and follow their activities at @ProjectLITBR.
Middle School Robotics
Middle School Robotics Club members trade flex time for building time. Lance Clark and Glynes Hill recently spent time tinkering in the NuVu Design Studio. The duo enjoyed working with the same set-up as members of the First LEGO League Team.
Why Middle School Sports?
“This is the first time they put on an official school jersey, giving them the chance to represent the Knights with pride. Middle School sports teaches them to be good athletes and prepares them well for varsity.” Coach Brenna Perez says Middle School sports are pivotal in a young athlete's life.
Knights’ flag football gives fifth and sixth graders an introduction to the basics of football and what it means to be a school athlete. The team takes to the field again on Saturday at 8 am and 9 am after coming off of a winning weekend at their last outing.
The Middle School football team is comprised of seventh and eighth graders eager to develop skills and talents in preparation for varsity level action. These students played their first home game against Most Blessed Sacrament recently coming up short with a final of 16 to 6. We look forward to the rest of the season.
The Middle School cross country team hits the road this weekend for the Battlefield Run in Port Hudson.
In addition, the Middle School swim squad has already made a splash. At a recent meet the girls swam for first and the boys placed fourth. Episcopal earned 13 overall top ten swims.
Want to be a part of the Middle School action?
Now is the time to sign up for Middle School basketball, soccer and wrestling. Contact the coaches now to get involved.
Go Middle School Knights!
I remember back when I was a preteen and enjoyed using three way calling - yes, a high tech feature - to connect with multiple friends. We rode bikes to the nearest playground to hang out, and our main video game systems were Atari and then Nintendo, with two player options if your friend was right beside you. Today's preteens are finding their playground online - it's called instagram, Snapchat, twitter, and a variety of other venues. Video gaming is now digital, connecting teens all over the world. Times and interests for adolescents haven't changed but the WAY they connect has shifted. The online world available to teens brings a host of new challenges in parenting.
As an adult, I enjoy technology, browsing Pinterest and Facebook in the grocery store line or while relaxing after work. The dangers that those leisurely activities present are few. But what dangers do I worry about for our children online? As a middle school counselor, my primary concerns are the physical and emotional well being of our students. Cyberbullying, online predators, and exposure to violence and pornography can be damaging to their physical and emotional well-being.
How can we, as parents, help our children navigate their digital world safely? Here are some suggestions:
For more discussion on safety in the digital world, join the Episcopal Counseling Team for a book study of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and survive) in their Digital World by Devorah Heitner, PhD on October 19th at 10 A.M. in the Alumni House Parlor Room.
Common Sense Media- https://www.commonsensemedia.org/
Teen Safe https://www.teensafe.com/
Bailey, Tricia “Talking to Your Kids About Social Media Safety” retrieved from https://identity.utexas.edu/id-perspectives/talking-to-your-kids-about-social-media-safety
Heitner, Devorah (2016) Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. New York, NY: Bibliomotion, Inc.
Alicia Kelly has served as a School Counselor at Episcopal since 2001. As the Middle School Counselor, she has a passion for helping preadolescents reach their potential, academically, emotionally, and spiritually. Alicia holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, Masters in Health Sciences - Rehabilitation Counseling, and is a Certified School Counselor.
The first time I heard about One Word goal setting was from my smart, inspiring sister-in-law. The basic idea? Instead of using time-oriented, achievable, measurable goals as inspiration, choose just one word to focus on, to become a personal motto, a mantra, something that captures your passion.
This year, I decided to start the school year with a One Word activity. After explaining my choice to my students (POSITIVE), I asked them to pick a word for themselves. They wrote an explanation for the word they’d selected, giving me a quick way to gauge where they are as writers. As is always the case with meaningful writing, they showed me much more than their knowledge of punctuation and sentence structure.
They showed me their insight. One student chose SMILE as her word. “When I am happier,” she writes, “I accomplish more.”
As I rushed to get the last of the words displayed in time for Parents Night, it occurred to me that it’s not just my students who are entering a new phase of life. Parenting middle school children seems to require a new set of skills, a host of new strategies. Our children are growing and stretching themselves right into young adulthood, and what worked effectively just yesterday can seem like a lesson in futility today.
As parents of middle school kids, what one word might we choose? Honestly, there’ve been days my best inner pep talk boiled down to this: SURVIVE. So I asked three of my favorite moms what one word they’d suggest.
Mary Ellen Stickle, my book-loving aunt from Pennsylvania, has ushered three boys into adulthood. Even though some of the struggles they faced in middle school were things she thought she’d want to forget, she now sees them as stepping stones to the men they are today. Try to view struggles as accomplishment.
Simone O’Connor, a clinical social worker who’s been working with adolescents for years, recommends the word accept. Learn to accept the mood swings and inconsistencies of your middle schooler rather than fighting against them.
Carrie Sheppard offers this practical parenting hack: Find humor in the chaos. “If I don’t laugh,” she says, “I will cry.”
If you’re a new middle school parent, welcome. I wish you years of laughter.
Martha Guarisco is a National Board Certified English Language Arts teacher and freelance writer. Prior to joining the faculty at Episcopal 13 years ago, she taught in Ascension Parish, where she was Teacher of the Year. She earned both her BA in English literature and her M.Ed. in English education from Louisiana State University. One of her particular areas of recent study is literature’s effect on adolescents’ empathy development.
Lower School children are accustomed to the adults in their lives telling them what to learn, what to study and when. This begins to change when students reach sixth grade.
Middle School students are given the power of choice when it comes to the elective courses they wish to study. Choice for students of this age is very important and can have a significant impact on them, making them more connected with and engaged in what they are learning. As eighth grade student Analise explained, she was “super excited” when she was asked to make choices about her coursework in preparation for sixth grade. Analise wanted to experience much of what Episcopal has to offer, so she enrolled in dance, drama, band, Nature by Design, musical theater and French. She also ran cross country and track and played soccer and volleyball as she explored our Athletic Program.
Allowing students the power of choice with electives exposes them to new experiences that could lead to unexpected results. For Analise, this occurred in the Nature by Design course, which initially made her nervous because it was unknown territory for her. Eventually, she surprised herself when her design knowledge grew and she created a rain stick that earned high marks from the teacher and boosted her expectations of what she could achieve.
Over the course of her time at Episcopal, Analise has discovered a love for theater and plans to continue studying drama into Upper School. This is common among our Middle School students as they learn more about their interests through exposure. Because of the excitement and passion generated by this sense of discovery, most students go well beyond the arts elective requirements needed to graduate.
Episcopal sixth and seventh graders select four arts electives per year, with classes taught once per quarter. Course requirements may differ depending upon the students’ focus, such as band or choir. Eighth graders, who move to a semester schedule, select two arts electives per year. Because the courses are offered multiple times throughout the year, we are able to accommodate most students’ desired choices.
Arts are a pillar of an Episcopal education. We believe that students benefit from the creative expression and emotional outlet provided by studying the arts. In addition, these electives help students develop empathy and teamwork skills, which are critical in the development of middle schoolers. Episcopal employs professional actors, directors, producers, dancers and composers to teach their craft to our students. This level of talent and experience sets us apart in arts education and allows us the opportunity to offer a variety and depth of experiences that are second to none.
At Episcopal we also understand the importance of being a global citizen and what that means as far as exposure to world languages. Because of this, Middle School students also have the power to choose which world language they want to explore. Our Middle and Upper School language teachers are passionate about other cultures and provide courses in French, Latin or Spanish. For Analise, the choice was French and she has been pleased with that decision.
The Episcopal School of Baton Rouge’s mission is to nurture and develop the whole child -- spiritually, intellectually, morally, physically and artistically -- through challenging academic and co-curricular programs which prepare graduates for college and for purposeful lives. Providing our students with the power to choose and delve further into the arts and world languages fits well with this goal. To learn more about the elective and world language courses offered at Episcopal and how they can enhance your child’s school experience, we invite you to schedule a visit with us today.
holds a B.A. degree in English from Millsaps College and a M.Ed. degree from Louisiana State University in school counseling. Additionally she maintains credentials as a Licensed Professional Counselor. After one year of teaching in the East Baton Rouge Parish School system, she joined Episcopal’s high school faculty in 1979. She has served Episcopal in a variety of capacities: high school English teacher, Upper School Counselor, Upper School Division Head, middle school English teacher, School Counselor, and her current role, Middle School Division Head. Throughout her tenure of leadership in the Middle School, she has taught sixth grade religion. She is the proud parent of two Episcopal alumni.