Mrs. Elliott and Mr. Kanamori's Empathy Teaching Methods

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In the mid-1960’s in a small rural mid-western town, one teacher sought to give her 3rd grade class an experience that would stay with them for life. In the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Mrs. Elliott saw a white news reporter interviewing a black man. One of the reporter’s questions to the man was: ‘Who is going to control your people?’. An educator and active anti-racism activist, Mrs. Elliott decided to combine a lesson plan about Native Indians and Black History month. She wanted to teach her all-white students what it would be like to walk in a colored child’s shoes. That was the first year of her racism exercise. Mrs. Elliott went on to spend decades teaching hundreds of children and adults the perils of prejudice.

Mrs. Elliott’s classroom already knew that racism meant. They knew that there were many places in the United States that viewed blacks and other colored people as dumb or ignorant and were treated unfairly. But to ensure that her students really knew first-hand how unfair the treatment was she used a simple method: pit blue-eyed children against brown-eyed children and pointing out arbitrarily established differences to create a hierarchy.

‘The Blue Eyes and Brown Eyes Experiment’ was viewed as both powerful and unethical by her peers and parents because she created a segregated environment in her small third grade classroom. She split the class in two categories, according to eye color, and told the children that one group was superior to the others. On the first day, the blue-eyed children were superior. The brown-eyed children were not to drink from the fountain or play on the playground with their friends. The brown-eyed students did not get to go back for seconds at lunch, only the blue-eyed children could. The students even had to wear colored collars that would make them stand out from their peers even more. The students eventually turned against each other and friends began to fight simply because Mrs. Elliott implied that the blue-eyed children were superior. The next day the roles were reversed and the brown-eyed children were superior. And even though the brown-eyed children, with the previous days’ emotional wounds still fresh, behaved just as badly toward the blue-eyed children as they had been treated. Mrs. Elliott noted that in the span of 15 minutes her once loving and caring group of children turned into vicious little monsters.

“The second year I did this exercise, I gave little spelling tests, math tests, reading tests two weeks before the exercise, each day of the exercise and two weeks later, and almost without exception, the students’ scores go up on the day they’re on the top, down the day they’re on the bottom, and then maintain a higher lever for the rest of the year, after they’ve been through the exercise” (‘A Class Divided’).

The experiment proved to be a huge success and was repeated annually for well over a decade; but the teachers’ approach would be considered unethical today in 2020. Even into the 1970’s, her coworkers and parents around the world felt she did irreparable harm to white children believing that black children have grown up to be accustomed to receiving such hateful criticisms. I believe that the results of the experiment outweigh the harm that was done immensely. The students took turns being the superior eye color as well as being a minority. When confrontation arose among the students, she addressed it head on and made the students stop and think about why they were looking down on their friends. Every student learned how it felt to be a minority and it made the children’s view on racism clear; that they understand that it mattered who people were on the inside rather than by their skin color. Ms. Elliott’s tactic was a very direct, in your face approach which echoed the sentiment of the violence that was prevalent in the country at the time of Dr. King’s passing.

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Fast forward 40 years across an ocean to the small village of Kanazawa in Northwest Tokyo. Mr. Toshiro Kanamori prepares to take his 4th grade students on a year-long journey to discover the importance of teamwork, community, openness, coping with loss and how hurtful bullying can be.

A major highlight of the Mr. Kanamori’s method is empathy and how to foster that in children. In the beginning of the year, he asks the children what their goal is for the year and them in unison state, “To be happy!”. During the year, he has students write notebook letters and every day three children stand up in front of their classroom and read their letter out loud. These letters are what the children are thinking and feeling at the time and gives them an outlet to express themselves. It is a very relatable as the children get an insight into their classmates’ personal life and allows them to experience the emotions together. I think this exercise allows the children freedom of expression and standing in front of their class teaches public speaking skills they will later use in life. In one session, Mr. Kanamori knows that a student is struggling with the memories of her deceased father and uses this teaching method as a way to help his student open up about her loss.

On speaking about empathy, Mr. Kanamori explains that there is an expression that he loves that says: ‘Let people live in your heart’. When people truly listen to your stories, they will live in your heart forever. In the documentary, Mr. Kanamori shares that he believes that people value life a little less every day. It's his goal, and he believes it's his job and the job of other teachers, to show how precious every life is.

A little more than halfway through the semester the class encounters an episode of bullying. Students are laughing and criticizing classmates based on poor test scores and those having issues with their homework. Mr. Kanamori believes that bullying is contempt and hatred, and completely indefensible. In this example, Mr. Kanamori has an idea of who is doing the bullying but wants them to confess it on their own. He gets very angry with the children and lets them know that hiding behind ‘pretty words’ is blaming everyone but themselves. They have to take responsibility for their own actions. This is in contrast to Mrs. Elliott’s method in which the bullies were ‘designated’ based on the blue vs brown eyes color experiment; and Mrs. Elliott herself is considered a bully. After several days the truth finally emerges in the letter writing. The students who were spreading lies and gossip realize just how hurtful their comments and actions were. One girl wrote that since she did not have a hard time with school that she did not see what the problem was or why it was so shocking. Looking back the bullies see that they failed on their class motto: be happy. Another student is able to show empathy to a bullied child by recalling how she felt being bullied in daycare. That bullying instance also caused her to be afraid to stand up for her friend because she was afraid that she would be bullied again. The lesson for the day was that everyone is vulnerable. We must admit it and go on.

The teaching methods employed by these two are strikingly different and similar. Mrs. Elliott used an experiment in which she segregated her class and explained to the children what would be taking place, even going through a small debriefing. I don’t believe that their sing-song verbal consent would be considered appropriate by today’s standards. Mrs. Elliott even placed herself into the ‘superior’ grouping on both occasions to steer the experiment as the ‘lead bully’. Mr. Kanamori on the other hand stood back and watched his classroom naturally flow through these ‘superior’ groupings and stepped in to determine what cause the bullying and showed his class how to learn from it. They say that great teachers were able to connect theory with life. This is precisely what Mrs. Elliott and Mr. Kanamori was able to accomplish. They are able to practice and emphasize compassion and show how the children are able to grow emotionally from their teaching methods.

Works Cited

  1. “A Class Divided”, Directed by William Peters, PBS Frontline, 1985.
  2. “Children Full of Life”, Directed by Noboru Kaetsu, NHK Gravitas Ventures, 2003.
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