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Brooklyn, NY Professional Development Day - An Exciting Exchange of Ideas for Educators

Teachers Discover Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum, Get Glimpse of a Better World

“Neuroplasticity means empathy can be taught.”

To some, this statement, spoken by Deb Swink, Senior Associate at Yale University’s School of the 21st Century and National Trainer for the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum, may come as a surprise. But it was no surprise to many educators who attended a recent training session on the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum. The session was hosted by the principal of PS/IS 377 in Brooklyn and included principals, counselors, teachers and parent educators from several other schools. These educators have started implementing the Mutt-i-grees Curriculum and said they were already seeing changes in students as a result of the Curriculum, which focuses on teaching empathy, self awareness, cooperation, decision making and, of course, the very much there is to be learned about Mutt-i-grees.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change. Neurons and neural networks establish connections in response to new experiences and new information. One of the most exciting developments in education has been the realization that when we teach and nurture empathy and other social and emotional skills, and when we provide students with opportunities to think about others, we not only impact student behavior, we are influencing changes in the brain.

The trainers at the session included Deb (who also serves as Special Education Director for the Clinton, Shirley and South Side school districts in Van Buren County, AR), along with Mutt-i-grees Educational Programming Manager Jim Messina and Early Childhood Special Education Director/Peer Trainer Judy Clay (from the Arch Ford Education Cooperative in Conway County, AR).

Deb said that in addition to improving student behavior, the Curriculum has a positive impact on the academic performance of students (from Pre-K through 12th Grade) who are using it. The reason for academic improvement is the positive effect that the Curriculum has on children’s engagement; they are excited and enjoy being in school, especially on days when the Curriculum is taught.

The Mutt-i-grees Curriculum is designed to facilitate its use in the school: The lessons are easy to implement, and they align with Common Core Standards. Each one of the lessons includes several different activities teachers may select from, so several of the Common Core State Standards may be applicable.

This point was made by Jim Messina, who was one of the trainers at the session. Jim, until recently a classroom teacher himself and one of the teacher advisors in the development of the Curriculum, also spoke about his experiences in implementation. He began with weekly lessons – “Mutt-i-grees Mondays” – but students wanted more, so he found himself teaching Mutt-i-grees more than once a week, to the delight of his middle school students.

The training team, which included Judy Clay who specializes in early childhood, emphasized the need to teach empathy as a skill; a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study on “the empathy deficit” indicates that an increase in social and emotional difficulties over the years has been a very real problem. The recent study reveals that people have become 40% less empathetic today than in 1979, with the steepest decline having occurred in just the past 10 years.

The reasons are complicated, but Deb and Judy pointed to the many tangible emotional challenges our newest generations face, citing the CDC’s 2005 survey of “Youth Risk Behavior.” The study shows that as many as 7.9% of U.S. students reported having recently been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property. Many of these students are literally afraid to go to school. An alarming 28.5% of those surveyed reported having recently felt so sad or hopeless that they had stopped participating in some of their usual activities. Therefore, “We can’t just be about academics anymore,” Deb said. Unaddressed social and emotional challenges threaten a young person’s likelihood to even attend school, much less perform well there.

One way to have a positive impact on students—not only socially and emotionally but also in terms of academic performance—is to engage them in topics and activities personally of interest and concern to them. Toni Mancini, an English teacher at Martin Van Buren High School and founder of the school’s Humane Club, said that after she’d assigned her students to read the first chapter of W. Bruce Cameron’s work of literary fiction, A Dog’s Purpose, they begged to be able to keep reading it. Another lesson she uses asks students to choose a real shelter animal and write in detail about how they imagine that particular animal’s past, present and future. Students do additional research, such as looking up diseases that the animal may have suffered or may have been at risk of developing. Because her students who write especially strong pieces get to meet the animal they’ve described, most are engaged with the work, which positively affects their critical thinking. “They make connections to the human condition,” Toni said.

Students have become so interested, Toni told the other teachers, that some have become involved in intensive internships at North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington, NY, allowing them to learn more about a variety of careers. Another sign that students care about the animal-themed assignments, Toni said, is that the puppy mill posters that students create “are the only posters that are never ripped down.” After one poster came loose, a student who was long believed to be the toughest of the bunch saved it from being trampled. “Miss, this fell,” the student told her, carefully handing it over to her.

Todd Marks, who teaches Pre-K through 5th Grade at PS/IS 377, told the group that the number of behavioral “incidents” reported at his school has gone down since they’ve begun using the Curriculum. He also passed around some work that his students had produced through lessons based on the Curriculum, including an “emotion chart.” One thing Todd liked about the assignment was how it could be adapted for use with children of a variety of ages. The very youngest children could draw pictures; students who were a bit older learned vocabulary and synonyms, using descriptive language to convey a range of emotions. More advanced students wrote full sentences or several paragraphs.

Parent Coordinator Gloria Morgenstern of P.S. 239 in Queens told her educator colleagues that she’d already noticed the Curriculum “teaching kids to be kind to each other. It’s helped a lot,” she said. Gloria passed around student work as well. In creating their “mistake charts,” children were able to identify and learn from past difficulties. Doing so also helped them to feel more accepting of themselves, understanding that everyone, including their classmates, makes mistakes.

Deb and Judy, who have decades of teaching experience behind them, told the teachers that they’d encountered many students for whom they believe Mutt-i-grees has made a big difference in attendance and even in whether the students ultimately stayed in school. Beyond school and into the community, Mutt-i-grees students who are in junior high school or higher, Deb said, have also become “a voice for social change.” For example, several ‘tweens in Arkansas have plans to meet with their local City Council in order to turn their local animal shelter into a no-kill facility. “These are junior high kids!” she said.

Deb explained that with the Curriculum playing such a large part not only in keeping students interested in attending school but also getting them interested in being caring members of society, “Devoting 30 minutes to this gives you so much payback later.” She told her fellow educators, “Mutt-i-grees has been the single most exciting thing I’ve done in an entire career.” In fact, she said, “It’s revived me as a person.”