Teaching Through Empathy

Sun Mi Kim interviews Joanne Lauck. Rachel Carson, the “patron saint of the environmental movement,’’ said that a child “needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share [the wonder], rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.’’ In the San Jose school system, Joanne Lauck feeds children’s spirits with wonders from nature, particularly the insect world.

Of all the vast world of Nature’s creatures, why a particular focus on insects? If children (and adults) can look beyond the dense prejudices surrounding insects and reclaim their natural kinship—a relationship welcome in nearly all indigenous cultures—then think how much easier a loving relationship with the rest of the world would be.

Sun: Can you talk a little bit about your “Thinking Like a Bug’’ program and your educational work in general?

Joanne: The course’s objective was to encourage a feeling or heart connection to insects through what English educator Peter Kelly calls “biological empathy.’’ In other words you don’t portray insects as people or machines as is often done—they would resist both transformations. Instead, you focus on trying to see the world from their vantage point. That takes imagination and empathy, important ingredients of emotional intelligence.

In the course, I adapted Joanna Macy and John Seed’s Council of All Beings for children and changed its name to the Council of All Insects. As a culmination of the course, the children (who composed the Council of All Insects) were invited to the United Nations for an historic event. Wearing insect masks that they had made themselves, and pretending that they really were the insects, they were promised safety if they went.

At this international conference, the insect’s representatives told the humans what they needed in order to live on the earth—what gifts the insects provided, and how it felt to be on the receiving end of the current Insect-as-Adversary mentality.

There were parents and students from other classes in the audience. It was very heartwarming to see how the kids really got into their roles. I was the news reporter and conference facilitator so I interviewed the “insects’’ after the event was over. They continued their roles, and some were teary as they expressed their feelings about whether human beings would change their ways.

To prepare for this event we had class once a week for six weeks. The first couple of classes were all about breaking down any barriers they may have already adopted about relating to insects. I was surprised that by 5th grade the children had begun to divide the world up into good and bad species. Insects were mostly bad and creepy. They had never met an adult who told them that this learned response isn’t true. To me, bugs are great and I love them.

On the first day, to begin the process of breaking apart any initial prejudices toward insects, I asked them if they had ever been picked on by somebody else. They all raised their hand. I asked them if they had ever been made fun of because of the way they looked or ran on the playground. Most of them raised their hand in response to that question as well. So I continued with a few more questions and then said, “Well now you know what it must feel like to be a bug in this world.’’

They really understood that. Then I asked them to try and think like a bug and speak as though they were a bug—that we already had heard way too much from human beings, and so it was the bugs’ turn to speak. Then I told stories—like the story of Freddie the Fly and Sarah the Scorpion, both of which I include in my book. I also told them how other societies had viewed different insects. For example, when I talked about the fly, I shared slides of flies with them and showed them an ancient gold fly necklace worn by Egyptian officers because to them the fly meant bravery and heroic deeds in battle.

Most of them took readily to the idea of trying to assume an insect’s perspective. They also liked the idea that they might have a special connection to a particular kind of insect who would be a helper and guide to them if they paid attention to it and treated it with respect—an idea many cultures hold.

Sun: Your description of the children wearing insect masks reminds me of how during sacred rituals many indigenous peoples put on animal skins and headdresses and actually become the animal they portray. And it is my understanding that violence is practically unheard of in most indigenous cultures. Apparently, wearing the masks seems to give empathy with nature. Can you talk a little about how empathy with animals and insects creates emotional intelligence? How does this work exactly? And how might the lack of biological empathy relate to the rise in school violence?

Joanne: I think the children donning their masks and each of them speaking as though he or she were an insect was the just culmination of the six weeks. The mask was a reminder to them and others that they were speaking as insects, as the other species. It took the entire course and its focus to think like an insect and imagine being one. This allowed each child a natural organic empathy—hard to do in a world that ridicules and trivializes insects because of their size and appearance.

One year I did a similar version of the class with other animals like ‘possums and earthworms and bats. There was even a large mammal group. Each species has issues with how humans conduct themselves. Identification with these groups was an easy and quite natural process for the children.
As to the low occurrence of violence in cultures with sacred rituals like you mentioned, I think that when you teach people to identify with others, to assume others’ worldview, there is far less chance that they will act against them. It seems to me that violence occurs when there is no relating, no identification. The victim is stripped of any redeeming qualities, so the act of violence can and does take place.

Sun: You use a lot of stories from indigenous cultures in your book. Do you find that helps as a teaching tool?

Joanne: I use stories from indigenous cultures for a couple of reasons. I think it is important for people to realize that our mistrust and animosity toward insects is something we learned. It is not natural. The fact that other cultures feel differently about these kinds of creatures is important to note. It means we can change.

I also turn to indigenous cultures in order to restore a context of kinship through which we can translate and understand any interactions with insects that might cause us pain and discomfort.

Sun: Your book touches on a lot of things that simply exists outside of the normal curriculum that most schools offer. For instance, the folklore and the mystical significance of nature in indigenous cultures would not be included in most schools. How do you think these things fit into the education of an individual? Does it add in some way to the humanness of an individual in a way that traditional educational structures cannot?

Joanne: I can only speak from personal experience, but from what I have seen there is a lot of lip service given to educating the whole person, even though it’s not done in any systematic or consistent way. If teachers haven’t done work on themselves to bring forth their own wholeness, they won’t be able to model that for their students.

The rise of school violence can, at the very least, bring attention to the need for instruction and activities to develop emotional intelligence. That is our door to bring in other kinds of curricula.

I was able to bring in a lot of material of my own in the “Thinking Like A Bug’’ class because it was an elective. When I decided to become a high school teacher, I decided I wanted to teach students about themselves—their ancestry, or roots; their affinity with nature; their connection to the world and their capacity for tolerance of what is different from themselves. I currently teach computer graphics—it’s a relatively new subject without a set curriculum. The administration doesn’t control the content as long as students learn the graphics software, so I can design lessons around themes that I feel are vital to becoming an authentic and empowered person.

And outside of public high school I still speak and write more directly on these same issues. The need for tolerance is central to my message as an environmental educator. I always say that, after working for the insects, working with teenagers is easy.

Sun: Speaking on a global level, there are obvious reasons why it’s important to raise environmental awareness. On the personal level, what kinds of transformations do you see happening to your students?

Joanne: I can’t help but think many were changed by their experience. Hard to document that, but one child in particular I know was transformed. His name was Brian, and he was a pistol. He had obviously seen all the horror movies on insects, and he resisted identifying with the insects and preferred to entertain the class with his insect-terrorizing-humans imitations. The parent helpers were ready to kick him out of the class the first day. Meanwhile, I was still trying to find a way into his imagination and heart and thereby enlist his participation.

When that first class ended I asked the children to pay attention during the week to see what kind of insect was trying to get their attention, and reminded them it could come in a dream or a waking experience.

The next week Brian came up to me before we started the class and told me that the night before he had had a dream that Jason—the psychopathic killer in a popular horror film—had been after him. Then a human size fly had emerged out of a wall with some kind of a sword and had gone after Jason for Brian.

I praised Brian for remembering the dream and said that I thought the fly was his special insect. He agreed and wanted to make sure he was put in the fly group when it was time to do mask making.

This is what is so rewarding about this kind of work. It is simply helping kids remember their connections. You don’t have to create the connection; it is already there inside them. Your job is to bring it out so they can see it and feel it.

And as an after note, Brian became my assistant for the next couple of years. He had an amazing sensitivity to animals. I just tried to feed his gift during our time together. His folks were fighting a lot and on the verge of divorce at the time, so I think his time with me (we’d go out for lunch in preparation for class) was an anchor for him. He also had a memorable experience with a Madagascar hissing cockroach I called Cedar. I wrote about that experience in my book in the chapter called “Divine Genius,’’ which is all about our relationship with these amazing creatures.

Sun: Most people view nature as the original primordial ground for competition—where animals have to attack or be attacked. They generally feel that this battle with Nature proves that our own basic nature is geared toward competition, ruthlessness, and fear. How do you respond to that?

Joanne: Animals eat and are eaten. All life is food for some other creature. We feed two colonies of mites on our faces—one on our forehead and another species on our eyelids—as well as thousands of other microorganisms. The new view of how the world works is very different from the one most of us learned in school. The new view says that life developed because of networking and community. Advances were made because people cooperated with each other, helped each other.

They have found this cooperation at the level of microorganisms who share a common gene pool and join together to become different life forms. This view is very much aligned with native ideas of creation and how the foundational pieces for life on earth were put into place.

Sun: Are there other ways that children and teachers alike can find a connection with nature?

Joanne: I think being out in nature is essential—and being out there in a heart-full way is critical for teaching children to have respect for others’ lives. Allowing children to disturb other animals under the guise of satisfying their curiosity seems to teach them that their own wants have a priority over the wants of other beings. I think we do everyone a disservice when we allow this.

In the “Thinking Like a Bug’’ class, we went on “Bug Hunts’’ without disturbing any insects. The children were not allowed to use anything but their eyes, and then they were to name the insect based on its coloring or the shape of its wings. We had some wonderful names like Cloudy Wing and Polka Dot. The naming was tied into the seeing. The children didn’t have to memorize and learn species in order to connect to what they experienced.

I also started a butterfly garden on the school property. The kids would rescue insects, worms, snails, and the like, and place them in the butterfly garden. I remember pulling up to the garden, and different kids would be respectfully hanging over the fence looking at some creature or another. I like to think it taught them that you could create places of safety in the world.

Those lessons, of course, were sometimes “untaught’’ by unconscious behavior on the part of adults.

A case in point was one Family Fun Night. A few parents who had learned to hate snails had gathered them up from the flowerbeds around the school, then encouraged the children to use them as paint brushes. They showed the children how to dip these living creatures into paint and then rub them on the paper. It was really upsetting. The children told me about it, and some of the teachers who knew what I was trying to teach just looked sheepish.
Unfortunately, that is not an isolated case.

We often celebrate our hostility toward living creatures with annual events like one “Bug Hunt’’ at an archery club in Northern California where they use cut-out copies of insects and other small creatures for target practice. Universities also put on events forcing certain creatures—ones our culture has condemned and labeled as pests—to race each other. Illustrious places like the San Francisco Exploritorium host flea circuses where fleas are abused. The audience doesn’t recognize what they see as abuse because they are disconnected from fleas and think fleas deserve to be mistreated.

Biological empathy is important because it combines seeing and feeling. You learn for example what another species needs to live its life. Earthworms need earth and darkness, so you don’t pick them up and put them on a piece of paper in the light or in a plastic home filled with grass.

Caterpillars usually eat one kind of food, so you don’t raise them unless you can provide that food. One mother told me her child found a caterpillar and she placed it in their garden window with some lettuce. Obviously, it died. Her actions lacked an understanding of the creature’s biological needs.

The empathy part is just leading with your heart. What would you want if you were this creature? Together, you and the creature have the ingredients for a respectful relationship. But without the respect, we will impose our will on others as we have so far done. Without this feeling aspect we will allow other creatures to become extinct, not understanding that we are losing a part of ourselves. Without some biological knowledge about the creature we will not know how to save its habitat or care for it if it needs our help.