Empathy by Ben Michelman, Middle School Language Arts Teacher and Community Engagement Coordinator
Salad on the floor, beef stew on bus seats, grease-stained shirts, torn paper flower decorations — these were some of the messes made by the seventh-grade class as they planned, shopped for, cooked and served a meal for 250 people in the community café at Urban Ministries of Durham.
On the Thursday before they served the meal, seventh-graders learned about hunger as part of their advisory curriculum, “Looking Beyond Ourselves.”
At lunch, students were randomly placed at tables and served meals that mirrored food accessibility statistics. Most students ate a bowl of rice. This highlighted the severe, widespread impact of hunger and the large gap between those who have access to food options and those who don’t.
Next, Gin Jackson of Urban Ministries presented statistics and context about hunger in North Carolina and Durham. Toward the end of her presentation, she gave students details about their service-learning challenge: Each advisory would prepare a different portion of the meal.
The next day, students calculated ingredient amounts, made shopping lists and headed to Sam’s Club. Many advisories went back to their advisor’s home to prep and cook the food. This emphasized that this challenge wasn’t just a school project but something that had real-world impact and required authentic engagement from everybody.
The full group effort paid off: On the following Monday, after 10 students served the meal, an Urban Ministries client commented on how the food reminded him of his grandma’s home cooking.
Many other clients came up to DA students to engage in conversation. Seventh-grader Margaret Hulka talked with one client about athletic training after he commented on her field hockey shirt. She also met a veteran who had served in the military for nine years. She said she felt really lucky to “have everyday, normal conversations with people [she] normally wouldn’t have conversations with.” Two students, Lily Zellman and Betsy Stover, stood by the exit, wishing clients a good evening and asking if they would like a card with words of kindness written by members of the seventh-grade class.
This meal is not an isolated occurrence for these students. Throughout the year, seventh-graders will learn about some of the most important issues affecting their communities: hunger, poverty, housing and refugee resettlement.
The seventh-grade teachers are dedicated to placing kids in proximity to these issues while providing context and perspective. There will be no easy, clear, right answers. Kids and teachers alike will make missteps.
They will be challenged intellectually and emotionally, and the learning will continue to be messy. This messiness reflects the complexity and urgency of these issues and will, we hope, inspire our lifelong learners to authentically engage with their communities for the rest of their lives.