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Nurturing Lovers and Doers of Justice – 4

What sorts of learning experiences make it more likely that young people will become lovers and doers of justice?

If we hope to encourage students to be lovers and doers of justice, we need to craft learning experiences that make it more likely to happen. These learning experiences should be “peopled with authors, and characters who . . . provide a window to the world” (Christensen, 2009, p. 6) because it is in the experience of the world that wisdom is learned. “Wisdom is not something that can be learned in the abstract. It is not a set of universal principles that can be applied to any situation. Wisdom is situation specific. It is discipleship in the real world, in culturally situated, historically defined contexts. It is in the knowledge of the individual and particular that decisions are made and actions taken. Curriculum as journey toward wisdom does not reduce the world to manageable, disconnected bits predigested for the learner. Rather, students encounter whole things in their many-sidedness . . . “ (Brouwer, 2012, p. 83). This may require that traditional subjects such a math be reframed to make room for issues of justice and injustice to emerge (Gutstein & Peterson, 2005, p. 2). We need to craft learning experiences that focus on key moral and ethical issues within our learning communities, our immediate communities and in society at large. We need to bring the sufferers into the learning community and/or transport students to the sufferers (Vryhof, 2011, p. 31). Worldviews emerge out of life and experience (Stassen, 2006, p.27).

The learning experiences we plan and the pedagogical practices we employ must make space for students to become “solutionaries” – “conscientious choice makers and engaged change makers for a restored and healthy and humane world for all” (Zoe Weil TEDx Talk). “Schools and classrooms should be laboratories for a more just society than we live in” (Bigelow, 2001, p. 1) “What has life become if we are so reduced to doing what we are told to do that we cannot rise to the challenge of being personally responsible” (Abbot, 2010, p. 216 – ebook)? Framed by essential questions such as ‘Why do people abuse their power over others?’ or ‘What are the most important rights to protect?’ or ‘What is the connection between justice and health?’ and fueled by such pedagogical approaches as inquiry learning and problem-based and project-based learning based in real world situations, we can give young people the opportunity to work at “deeds of deliverance, not just feelings or attitudes” (Stassen & Gushee, 2003, p. 336). “Problems invite purposeful responses [which] . . . underscores that most important in the encounter is normative action, not detached contemplation of propositional truths. Purposeful response is a move toward maturity, toward growing in wisdom . . . to the formation of persons who not only know the right thing to do in a situation, but who are disposed to do it. (Brouwer, 2012, p. 85-86). Engaging in such learning experiences may help young people discover their passions and become “people who will say, This is bad and I’m going to do something about it, I’m going to change it” (Stassen quoting Faulkner, 2006, p. 141). What greater gift can we as teachers give youth than the space to be salt and light in the world, to enact the kind of ‘sampling signs’ that Jesus did to bear witness in word and deed to the coming of the kingdom? Are we prepared to make space for this in our learning spaces?

Learning to be lovers and doers of justice, learning when and how to say yes and no requires a skill set that includes the ability to innovate, create, problem-solve, persist, and communicate effectively. The inclination and ability to collaborate, to change one’s mind, to empathize, and to discern are vital.


Abbot, John (2010). Over schooled but under educated: how the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents – e-book. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Bigelow, Bill (2001). “Teaching about unsung heros: encouraging those who fought for social justice” in Rethinking our classrooms, Vol 2. VT: Rethinking Schools.

Brouwer, Elaine (2012). “Curriculum as a journey toward wisdom” a chapter in Metaphors we teach by: how metaphors shape what we do in classrooms, eds. Badley, Ken and Van Brummelen, Harro. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock.

Christensen, Linda (2009). Teaching for joy and justice: re-imagining the language arts classroom. Milkaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

Gutstein, Eric and Peterson, Bob (2005). Rethinking mathematics: teaching social justice by the numbers. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools

Stassen, Glen H. (2006). Living the sermon on the mount: a practical hope for grace and deliverance. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Stassen, Glen H. & Gushee, David P. (2003). Kingdom ethics: following Jesus in contemporary context. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Vryhof, Steven (2011). Affirmations 2.0: Christian schooling for a changing world. Grand Rapids: Christian Schools International.

Weil, Zoe (2011) TEDx Talk –


elaine brouwer, Alta Vista




Nurturing Lovers and Doers of Justice – 3: from empathy to compassion

In the last paragraph of Nurturing Lovers and Doers of Justice – 2, I said:

“The experience of the student in the learning space and the learning experiences in which they engage must foster compassion. . . . Lovers and doers of justice are moved by their surroundings. . . . This requires a culture of paying attention. Compassion leads to caring engagement that must begin in the learning space among those that inhabit that space.”

As a follow up to that post, I think it is important to distinguish between sympathy, empathy, and compassion – especially between empathy and compassion which are often used interchangeably.

Wiggins and McTighe identify empathy as one of their six facets of understanding. “It is not simply an affective response or sympathy over which we have little control, but the disciplined attempt to feel as others feel, to see as others see.” Empathy is the “ability to walk in another’s shoes, to escape one’s own responses and reactions so as to grasp another’s.” (Wiggins and Mctighe, 2005, p. 98) Empathy is a form of insight that involves the ability “to get beyond odd, alien, seemingly weird opinions or people to find what is meaningful in them.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.99) Empathy involves not just a change of mind, but a change of heart that requires “respect for people different from ourselves” which causes us to be “open-minded. To carefully consider their views when those views are different than ours.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.99)

They continue their discussion of empathy by saying that developing empathy requires confronting students with strange or alien texts, experiences, and ideas to see if they can get beyond what is off-putting. But especially important in developing empathy is insight gained from experience be that direct or simulated. “The absence of such experiences in school may explain why many important ideas are so misunderstood and learning is so fragile, as the literature on misconception reveals.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.100)

Developing empathy requires overcoming egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and present-centeredness. (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p.100)

Clearly, developing the ability to be empathetic is crucial to any discussion of nurturing lovers and doers of justice. However, we need to take developing empathy a step further.

Langstraat and Bowdon in “Service-learning and Critical Emotion Studies: on the perils of empathy and the politics of compassion” say, quoting Martha Nussbaum, that empathy entails an “imaginative reconstruction of another person’s experience without any particular evaluation of that experience.” However, again quoting Nussbaum, compassion is a much more specific, painful emotion “occasioned by the awareness of another person’s undeserved misfortune. . . . Compassion is usually more intense and entails both judgment and action, unlike empathy which may result only in a judgment.” (Langstraat and Bowden, 2011, p.7)


Empathy says: I feel bad for that person.

Compassion says: I feel bad because this is unjust and I am going to do something to change that injustice. (Langstraat and Bowden, 2011, p.7)



  • includes identification with other humans
  • that leads to an evaluation of injustice and suffering
  • which results in ethical actions in response to that evaluation.


While empathy involves feeling and thinking, compassion involves feeling, thinking, and acting. Compassion leads to caring engagement.


I think our classrooms provide many opportunities to develop empathy but how many of those opportunities foster compassion? Perhaps using the following questions to evaluate the opportunities/experiences we provide can help us extend developing empathy into the realm of compassion.

  1. Did this activity or experience give students the opportunity to identify with others?
  2. Did this activity or experience give students the opportunity to evaluate what caused the injustice and suffering?
  3. Did the learning experience provide the opportunity for ethical actions in response to the critical evaluation?


The definition of compassion is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is hurting, in pain, or has misfortune and is accompanied by a strong desire to help the suffering.

Jesus Christ is the greatest example of someone with true compassion.


Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay (2005). Understanding by design 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Langstraat, Lisa and Bowdon, Melody (2011). “Service-learning and critical emotion studies: on the perils of empathy and the politics of compassion” in the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning.

Asking Good Questions – 2

In a previous post about ‘Asking Good Questions’ I highlighted the work of the Right Question Institute  which is dedicated to making it possible for all people to learn to ask better questions and participate more effectively in key decisions. I want to follow up in this post by pointing to an example of how their Question Formulation Technique (QFT) can be used to engage students in topics related to African American History Month.

“Black history month is a great opportunity to celebrate the many accomplishments of Black Americans. It is also important to closely examine these accomplishments and their surrounding context.”

History Detectives: Voting Rights in Mississippi, 1964 is a lesson that incorporates QFT as a part of a lesson on voting rights in the 60’s. The lesson is framed by:march-on-washington-1963-300x200

Enduring Understandings

Democracy demands that all voices be heard.

People in Missisisippi have risked everything for the right to vote.

Essential Questions

  1. Was Freedom Summer necessary to secure voting rights?
  2. Why hasn’t suffrage been universal throughout U.S. history?
  3. How do you fit into the story of maintaining voting rights for all in the United States?

As part of setting the context, students were asked to generate every possible question they could imagine in response to the Question FocusPeople in Mississippi have risked everything for the right to vote. The instructions for this section of the lesson:voting

Have students, working in small groups, generate every possible question they can imagine related to this statement. There are no wrong questions. They should not discuss the questions — simply list as many as possible. For example, “Why did the risk everything?” “What did they risk?”

Once the groups have at least 15 questions each, have students review their lists and pick the three questions that are most important to them. Explain that these are some of the questions they can explore as they engage in this lesson.

The lesson ends with a performance task that asks them to travel to the future, to the year 2060 to work as historians researching the history of Mississippi. You can see the whole lesson here.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. It was established by Act of Congress in 2003, following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans. To date, the Museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts and nearly 100,000 individuals have become charter members. The Museum opened to the public on September 24, 2016, as the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

You can find teacher resources here.

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