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Tiana Silvas on Fostering Empathy and Understanding Among Students


From the depth of need and despair, people can work together, can organize themselves to solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength.—Cesar Chavez

After a long day of teaching I walk around the classroom picking up pencils and scraps of paper. Some pieces of paper have scribble notes that make me smile. Students exchange jokes or attempt to create meaningful emojis. Other times the scribbles make me stop, wonder, and worry. One note shows two stick-figure drawings with one image’s face scratched out. Other scraps of paper have words like “I don’t like . . .”  What did I miss today? How will I handle this?

A classroom is an intricate web of delicate strands woven together. We’ve all experienced the highs and lows of students’ emotions; for students to grow academically, their emotions have to fit just right to form a supportive and safe environment. All students have social, political, and cultural differences. As a teacher, this makes creating safe spaces even more challenging.

Over the course of this academic year, I started thinking about whether I could use writing time to nurture relationships among students. I was wondering if a writing partnership between students who have a misunderstanding with each other might be a way to foster a safe space to explore the power of their personal story, while creating a bridge of understanding with each other. Georgia Heard said writing can “help our students open their eyes to the beauty of the earth, restore a belief in the power of language, and help them begin to understand the truths inside of them.” Many times these histories remain hidden for years before surfacing. Can students afford to wait for the “right” time to feel safe enough to write their truth? What exactly is a safe classroom space?

A safe classroom can be a place in which disagreements can occur and a student's truth can be spoken. A safe classroom is a place where students can listen, talk, and express their individuality, feelings, and experiences with a community of learners committed to understanding one another. As individuals, we do not have to agree on everything, but we should acknowledge and respect that each person carries his/her own truth.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk discusses how talk is one form of healing by referring to it as the “top down” approach. This is described as individuals using talk to reconnect with others and utilizing talk as a way to understanding their adverse experiences. What if writing partnerships could extend their purpose by adding a layer of social-emotional support through talk? What if writing partnerships can open a door of understanding between students in order to support an empathetic writing community?

I started playing around with the idea of creating partnerships to support students’ social-emotional growth. One day I found an entry point as I read the poems the students had written. One student wrote a poem about staying strong and not letting anything bring you down. He wrote this poem to symbolize the strength of his mother. He wanted the world to know that his mother was a force of strength and the foundation of the family.

Don’t Let Others Bring You Down

Don’t let others bring you down

  There will be someone who will try to

Bring you down

But, don’t let them or else you won’t

Know your true self

People want to bring you down,

Because they think they have more power than YOU

 But show them that they can’t,

Bring you down by taking a step up for yourself


Believing in yourself

So you could

Be proud of who you truly are.


At the same time, another student was writing a poem about how he wanted people to be themselves and stay strong. 





Why do people try to be

be who there not?




Why do they make fun of people?

They have a choice,

you know.

But they need to go to the right path.




Stick up for yourself.


These two students made a choice this year of not getting to know each other outside of what was expected in class. When I noticed a connection in their writing, I decided it was time to see what would result from the pairing.

I coached the partnership conference through a social-emotional lens. As a support, I provided questions for students to use as a starting point:



  • What did you discover about yourself?


  • Why did you choose to write about...?


  • Do you think others feel the same way as you?
  • What is this writing making you think?


  • What did you learn about the person?


  • How has this piece changed the way you see or think?


Here’s the transcript of the resulting partnership conference:


Student A: So I read your piece today. Overall it was pretty good. I liked how you added craft, because I saw your checklist and noticed that you had craft as a goal. And I definitely saw that you put some figurative language in it. And . . . um . . . I like that because the words are very powerful. I was wondering why did you write about this? Did it ever happen in your life?

Student B: No, but I just wanted to write about this; it was just something that came into my mind. I wrote about.

Student A: Did it happen to any of your family members? Because you can’t just come up with something like that. There is something behind it.

Student B: (hesitates) Kind of . . . my mom.

Student A: What happened with her?

Student B: Um . . . it’s kind of personal.

Student A: Okay. I also think next time you could put more punctuation or line breaks.  

Students B: Why?

Student A: I was thinking that when I read it. I read, ”don’t let others bring you down because they have more power.”  

Teacher: Show him.

Teacher: (to Student B) Is there anything you would like to add or respond to?

Student B: Uh . . . no. I noticed that you used a storytelling voice to express the theme of the story.  

Teacher: What was the theme?

Student A: To not make fun of people.

Teacher: Remember to look at your partner. This is conversation.

Student B: How did you come up with this?

Student A: I came up with it because sometimes people say things to me that I don’t like.  


Student B: Why did you structure it this way?

Student A: I feel like I did this structure to make it powerful. When you just hear the one word on a line. It makes the reader stop and listen.

Teacher: So, do you two see any commonalities in your writing?

Student A: I see how it's common that people in this world feel.

Teacher: Say more about that.

Student A: Both of our pieces, we don’t want others to bring you down. This can happen to a lot of people in this world.

Student B: I see the same thing. I kind of connected that the pressure is the same.

Teacher: What did you learn about each other today?

Student A: You never, I didn’t know that this happened in his life.  

Student B: I learned that some of our problems are similar.

Teacher: Is there a new perspective you gain from this conference?

Student B: I learned that writing can be used to express feelings. (Long pause) When people say things, it really bothers him.

Teacher: Are there any assumptions you had before that might have changed?

Student A: I never knew much because we aren’t around each other. I guess, you should always be nice to people. Two wrongs don’t make a right. And one wrong doesn’t make a right.

Teacher: Did you know you had this connection before?

Both students: No.

Teacher: How does that make you feel?

Student B: More empathetic.

Student A: I never knew. I can understand more.

After the partnership conference was over, both students walked away from each other in silence. They each left with their writing and new insight. As the workshop continued, I noticed the two students glance over at each other. Later I asked one of the students, “What did you think about the partnership conference yesterday?” Without looking up from his notebook, he responded, “In writing you can write about whatever . . . writing has a powerful meaning. I express myself more using a pen and paper; I feel safe. With writing, I can use my words and my emotions to share my world and help others understand me. It also helps me be more empathetic.”

We must encourage students to embrace their truths and engage in reflective dialogue with one another with the hopes of creating safe classroom spaces for students to grow, connect, and understand. As teachers, we are one part of the intricate web; purposeful partnerships are powerful threads supporting all students academically and emotionally as they discover the truths of one another. Our classrooms are hibernating for the summer; this might be the time as educators to reflect on our next steps and how we can reimagine our writing workshop.

TianaTianaSilvas_heinemann_fellows_2016_0025 considers effective teaching to be an intersection of continuous co-constructed learning, self-confidence, and lifelong leaders that emerge from teacher teams and classrooms. Silvas feels that the best way to grow as an education leader is through experience in the classroom saying, “I continue to lead from the trenches.” She says “true leadership isn’t what you do in the moment, but the legacy you leave behind.” TIana is a 4th Grade Teacher, and former Literacy Coach at PS 59. 

Topics: Education, Heinemann, Heinemann Fellows, Literature, Reading, Tiana Silvas, Writing, Collaboration, Comprehension, Conferring, Differentiated Instruction, Language Arts, Literacy, Poetry, Student Texts

Date Published: 08/02/17

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