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Culture of Empathy Builder:   David A. Levine

David A. Levine  
Is a teacher, trainer, facilitator, author, and musician.
Author Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring, Compassion, and Community,
Look inside: The four sections of this resource set will help you build a culture of caring in your school:


David A. Levine & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy in Education 
Author Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring, Compassion, and Community,  "Empathy education is one of the most critical educational issues of our time because it is only when students feel emotionally safe and secure in all areas of the school environment—in the classroom, hallway, or cafeteria; at recess; and on the bus—that they will begin to focus and tap into the unlimited potential that lies within each of them. "  
Sub Conference: Education
Ashoka Activating Empathy Applicant


David A Levine & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy in Education 




David A Levine & Edwin Rutsch: Dialogs on How to Build a Culture of Empathy in Education

Free-form rambling may be the best way to discuss empathy, because empathy is not a set of prescriptions. It is a culture, a consciousness. Empathy is an intention. Schools tend to look for something so the kids will be nicer, but the adults are informing the culture as well. There is the inner nature of understanding our own emotions, and the outer nature of understanding how our environment begets responses from us.



Teaching Empathy was written in 2005, published by Solution Tree. Even as early as then, the book was a second attempt at such a project. Back in the late 80’s, I [Levine] had been working with music as a way to explore emotional material, and publishers all told me it was a great idea, but that they would not publish it. So I published it myself, and Solution Tree found it and asked me to work on it further for them.



I fell into empathy education via my interest in music. I grew up with two musicians, often falling asleep to their playing, and joining my parents and their friends in communal instrumentation (I played the fiddle). We crossed cultures and generations, and I realized music's power as a catalyst for community building. And my focus turned toward children, so I entered the school system. At one point I was working for the Department of Education's drug prevention program, touring classrooms with my guitar. And one girl, seeing my guitar, asked me, “Are you going to sing some self-esteem feel good songs?” And we laughed, “Because we are in eighth grade, and if you tell us what to do, we will not listen.” So I asked her, “What would you like me to do?” And she told me not to talk down to them, to make it real. And I never forgot her words. And that was 1989.



Since then, I have looked for the most effective and efficient ways to create an emotionally safe learning environment, one in which we can face our challenges together. Because we are often enduring similar circumstances though we may not know it. It If we can learn the skills of listening and non-judgment, we can create empathy, and from that, understanding.



I [Rutsch] have advocated creating a culture of empathy, and it sounds like you have come to that through the use of music and the arts, in the way that communities used the bonfire to play music and tell stories and bond.



I [Levine] seen schools attempt programs, but as long as they are not integrated into the culture of the school, they will be only programs. Culture is the way we do things; climate is how we feel about it. And we build those with ritual and connection. One way to connect is through common language, and as a musician there is nothing better than playing music with someone else, and being in flow with that person. It is not just empathy education, or empathy community, but a multifaceted empathic approach that gives rise to connection, belonging, and community.



One of the ways I [Rutsch] have come to understand connection is through dance. And it seems that dance and the arts our first to be downsized in the education system.



Yes, and empathetic conversation that is itself an art form. Peter Senge said that dialogue is collectively exploring an issue, in which each of us comes to an understanding of where we are in this issue. Schools are cutting the arts and social and emotional learning. What gets measured gets done. And they are not measuring prosocial skills, unless there is an antisocial issue, like bullying. Soon after Obama was elected president, I [Levine] was driving into the Bronx, listening to him giving a speech on the radio. And he was discussing empathy, at the International Prayer Breakfast, and how religions all come back to the Golden Rule. And I felt his belief in it, I believe he cares about this. And working in the Bronx, I know his election symbolizes opportunity for many minorities in the United States. So I said, “Today we are going to do a class on the Golden Rule.” And we went through the class, and I mentioned the speech from Obama, and all their smiles broke out. And at the end of the class, little boy said to me, “Mister Levine, I wish this was a subject in schools.” And this is why we need to make empathy and education a movement.



You [Levine] seem to really care about this connection part of empathy. When we are alone, and feel loneliness, there is a kind of pain. And we seem to need to have this connection to be well formed individuals.



I [Levine] think that comes back to this covering our soul’s purpose. Nothing is more powerful than being in touch with that. And that is diversity education at its best, because we are all different. And sometimes we sacrifice that in order to be part of a group. I saw David Brooks give a lecture, in which he mentions seeing political figures from both sides of the aisle very close to one another in private and become separate in the spotlight, and that this has to influence policy. And I think the same is true in education. I involved with something called the Ashokan Foundation, and we are hosting an event on May 11, in which we discuss empathy in education. And any time we do this, all the educators who come are very excited and passionate about this, but when they get back to school, and have to outline their budgets, they have to ask, “What will be Department of Education pay for?” And they do not pay for the empathy components. We have to remember that we are here in schools for the future of our children, which is essentially the future of the world.



It is interesting how empathy and education helps promote empathy in the world and in the world's future, and meanwhile, we need more empathy in the world to help promote empathy in education, to recognize it as important. All these different disciplines seem to be very interconnected. You [Levine] are involved with the Ashokan Foundation, which seems to handle empathy and education.



There is something called Ashoka, which promotes social entrepreneurship, particularly with children and schools. I [Levine] work with something called Ashokan, and I am trying to get Ashoka at Ashokan. We are not the same, but we want the same things. I love the idea of global empathy, and I think for me it really comes down to human relationships, the relationships we intentionally cultivate. With empathy, we can disagree but we can still honor and respect each other. I think the greatest empathy skill is empathetic listening, non-judgment, and feed back to them what we think they think and feel and need. When we can put aside content and agenda, that is what brings people together, and that is how we can resolve conflict.



In Stephen Covey's book, The Eighth Habit, he talks about stimulus-response, and that there is a moment we can put in between the two: reflection. And that is the place that magically shows up, I think more often when we feel a tenderness for the other person. I [Levine] remember after 9/11, there was a great tenderness for each other in the country. Of course, over time, that fades away. If we are successful in this global empathy movement, we will create that tenderness, what I call an emotionally safe learning environment.



I [Rutsch] remember feeling that as well after 9/11. One of the questions I ask is, “What would a culture of empathy look like?” I wonder about that tenderness, and when I become aware that, my eyes tear up, and they get a sense that this is too much.



You [Rutsch] mentioned before about feeling loneliness. If I am connected with who I am, I will not feel that even if I am by myself. I once asked my friend, “Why am I crying?” And she said, “When the soul is touched, we cry.” I think we are all waiting for that. There is a constriction, like a massage, and then it releases. And that is enlivening. And you cannot create this culture of empathy with binder, a program. But you can create the conditions for group resonance. A lot of my work is inspired by Doctor William Glasser, who came up with something kind of like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. And just as there are physical needs, there are emotional needs. Doctor Glasser posits for emotional needs: belonging (community), power (not over others, but empowered), freedom (voice – public praise, private correction), and fun (feeling engaged and having healthy relationships). People involved in social emotional learning are often critical of teachers, which is neither helpful nor true. The point of the list of needs, is to create a blueprint for a emotional safety, as well as a way to assess the motivations of behavior. We need to see our behaviors as codes of communication. By decoding behavior, we are practicing empathy, and meeting our needs.



‘Needs’ reminds me [Rutsch] of nonviolent communication, sometimes called compassionate communication. They discuss needs, and offer many needs rather than for. Sometimes I think of empathy itself is a need. With research showing influences of oxytocin and cortisol, there seems to be a physical use for empathy.



I [Levine] first heard of nonviolent communication from someone who had discovered my book and asked me if I was familiar with it. My book is geared more toward educators, and she thought that it would be a good entrée for her work with nonviolent communication. My understanding is that it provides a framework for being present to the other persons’ multi-dimensions, and to help them see what is going on with them, because often we have blind spots.



I [Rutsch] think of it as one of many methods, the arts being one of them, to connect and to fulfill these needs. NVC comes out of the work of Carl Rogers and Marshall Rosenberg, and they discuss the idea of these needs as well.



My [Levine] mentor, Doctor Gerald Edwards was Rogerian. We had meetings in which the autofocus was to remain present. Emotion is kind of like the energetics between people. Like you, I am a synthesizer, and I try to pull from different fields, such as the arts, in my teachings. I maybe repeating myself, but if we are going to work with kids, then we have to work with each other and with ourselves. That is the inner nature coming through to the outer nature. We have chickens here, which you may be hearing during this interview, and sometimes I hold the baby chicks, and I think anyone holding a baby chick or a puppy or a baby (like with Mary Gordon's work in Roots of Empathy) feels an empathic response. A friend of mine once suggested a tape for me, and when listening to it I felt what Daniel Goleman calls an emotional memory, and I had to pull over and let myself cry. So I learned the song, and when I first played it for a class in 1986, they could not stop talking about it. It is about a kid who likes someone named Howard Gray, but is afraid to be his friend. After I sing the song, we discuss bullying and why we do it and how it feels. And one day, in 1989, I just wrote empathy on the board, and I said, “Empathy is looking into someone else's picture of the world.” And that was when I knew in my heart that this is what I was supposed to do.



[While Levine get his guitar, Rutsch browses Levine’s website]



Howard Gray by Lee Domann

Most everyone I knew put the whole Gray family down
They were the poorest family in that little country town.
Howard always looked too big for his funny ragged clothes.
The kids all laughed at him; Jimmy Jones would thumb his nose.
Howard sat across from me in seventh grade at school
I didnt like it much, but Mama taught the golden rule
So when the spitballs flew at him, I never would join in
I guess that was the reason, Howard thought I was his friend
After things would quiet down, sometimes I'd turn and see
The grateful eyes of Howard Gray looking back at me

Howard Gray, oh Howard Gray
Somehow they got their kicks out of treating you that way
Deep down I kinda liked you, but I was too afraid
To be a friend to you, Howard Gray

One day after lunch, I went to comb my hair and saw
They had Howard pinned against a locker in the hall
They were poking fun about the big hole in his shirt
They had his left arm twisted back behind him til it hurt
To this day I can’t explain, and I wont try to guess
Just how it was I wound up laughing harder than the rest
I laughed until I cried, but through my tears I still could see
The tear stained eyes of Howard Gray looking back at me

Howard Gray, oh Howard Gray
I cant believe I joined them all in treating you that way
I wanted to apologize, but I was too afraid
To be a friend to you, Howard Gray

From that moment on, after I'd made fun of him
He never looked my way, he never smiled at me again
Not much longer after that, his family moved away
And that’s the last I ever saw or heard from Howard Gray
That was 20 years ago and I still haven’t found
Just why we'll kick a brother or a sister when they're down
I know it may sound crazy, but now and then I dream
About the eyes of Howard Gray looking back at me

Howard Gray oh Howard Gray
I've never quite forgiven us for treating you that way
I only hope that maybe somehow you'll hear this song someday
And you'll know that I am sorry, Howard Gray
We'll probably never meet again; All I can do is pray
May you and God forgive us, Howard Gray



That reminded me [Rutsch] of when I was growing up, we would tease another kid. He was a little overweight, and we were a little relentless, until he broke down and started crying. That reminded me of that, and I think we all have those kinds of memories.



Adults will often have memories about this, and they look back on those choices that they made. Children want to talk about this. They all felt that, and sometimes it is easier to talk about difficult emotions and issues when it is someone else's story. On Lee Domann's website, he details the writing of the song. One daily did find Howard Gray, and I [Levine] made a video of their discussion. It is very illuminating to see the consequences of the experience. Children are very savvy about contrived lessons of how they should act. It is an art form to be able to facilitate conversations that are real. Sometimes I think the best learning is after-the-fact, like two weeks after you see a movie. A principle once said to me, “We stick it in their faces all the time,” and I thought, “So you are going to bully kids not to bully?” That is not what it is about; it is about coming together in accepting that we all have challenges about how we feel. And if we can do that, the challenges will still be there, but they will be softer around the edges. Peter Senge talked about creating a container, and emotionally safe learning environment, and I think of our four emotional needs as the four walls of the container.



There is so much more I [Rutsch] would love to explore with you, about your book, and perhaps with some of the other people with whom you are working.



Some time ago, I [Levine] read an article that claimed that Ann Arbor, Michigan was a dying city. And in response, the city made a music video of the population lip-synching to the song American Pie. And it woke up the city, and celebrated and renewed the life and the culture it had. I think that is what we need to do around an empathic culture, is wake up and group lip-synch. And we are doing this event at the - and this symposium is really the beginning. I get contacted from all over the world about my book, one guy in India even built a school around it, and I would love a way for us to all connect.



Johan Galtung says, “Peace is resolving conflict with empathy, nonviolence, and creativity, and it is a never-ending process,” and for me [Rutsch] empathy inherently has the nonviolence in it. It sounds to me like you are looking for some kind of event to get us going.



Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry. And we got to fill that levee up. We have something at the Ashokan Center, that practices community building through dance. I think we can use that to help create this event, maybe a day of empathy.



Right now, I [Rutsch] networking and connecting people who value empathy, and then I would like to do something with the arts.



Sometimes problem-solving is strengthened through metaphorical thinking. My [Levine] metaphor for empathy is a warm embrace, this feeling of home.

I [Rutsch] have heard of empathy as Gabriel’s embrace when traveling Dante’s inferno.



I think the two main camps of empathy are the cognitive and the neuroscience side, and the hard side, where I am. The word ‘to heal’ means to come back together, to become whole. And we can become whole, and then, connect with another. It is the greatest gift. We can experience it at any time, and to learn it through that experience.



We were discussing the definitions of empathy. I see four components: self-empathy, mirror empathy (what we talk most about), imaginative empathy (as with actors), and empathic action (mediation). I have heard that empathy is when the blocks to action are removed.



I call it EEA:

Event (something happens),

Empathy (imagine what the people involved feel and need),

Action (what do we do about it).

Empathy and imagination are the middle place in the stimulus-response. We need to see empathy as action.




Teaching Empathy w/ David Levine

"David A. Levine is a teacher, author, empathy educator, musician and recording artist. He is currently the Director of the School of Belonging Training Institute. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education's Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls The School of Belonging."




Empathy 101: Practice before you teach.

"Forget formulas and textbook responses: empathy is about listening, says Teaching Empathy author David Levine. And that begins with teachers' relationships to their students."



David A. Levine on NPR

"Educator and author David A. Levine is interviewed by Michel Martin on her show Tell Me More on National Public Radio. The topic it teaching empathy in school."







Book Notes:  Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring, Compassion, and Community
Empathy as a guiding principle of life is the core dynamic for emotionally satisfying relationships. By its very nature, empathy also serves as a wellspring of optimism and hope, providing new ways of seeing and reawakened ways of imagining with an awareness of the potential of each moment we share with others.

"Empathy as a skill is a multifaceted process that moves along a continuum from observation to thought and finally to feeling and action."

"Empathy education is one of the most critical educational issues of our time because it is only when students feel emotionally safe and secure in all areas of the school environment—in the classroom, hallway, or cafeteria; at recess; and on the bus—that they will begin to focus and tap into the unlimited potential that lies within each of them."

This book focuses on teaching the pro-social skill of empathy by naming and practicing it, and by modeling and encouraging empathy.  Book is divided into four sections.

  • Section 1 Teaching Empathically: When Teachers Make Connections
    focuses on how teachers must model empathy and other compassionate behaviors as a primary approach to teaching pro-social skills and building trusting relationships.

    • importance of story telling

    • modeling and practicing empathy

    • strength based interventions

    • empathy as imagination

  • Section 2: Empathy: Facilitating Social Discovery

    presents specific ways of teaching students the skill of empathy and its companion behaviors: listening, compassion, honor, and generosity.

    • Wanting to belong

    • Strategies

      • Make it real

      • Keep it simple

      • Make it memorable

    • 7 Emotional competencies

    • Various activities

  • Section 3: Empathy: Facilitating Social Discovery
    highlights strategies for building the empathic culture of a school through what I call the intentions of the school of belonging.

  • Section 4: Empathy: The School of Belonging
    is a mini-empathy skill-building curriculum that applies many of the ideas, approaches, and processes presented in the first three sections.


Teaching Empathy w/ David Levine


"David A. Levine is a teacher, author, empathy educator, musician and recording artist. He is currently the Director of the School of Belonging Training Institute. After teaching elementary and middle school, David became the chief trainer for the U.S. Department of Education's Northeast Regional Center for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It was during that time that he created a framework for social culture building he calls The School of Belonging. The School of Belonging is a social consciousness process that emphasizes relationship building, compassion in practice, social skills development and reflective practice as the primary components of a healthy and effective school. This change process is highlighted in his books Teaching Empathy, Building Classroom communities, and The School of Belonging Plan Book. ""



Creating a bully-free school culture 


2009 - Air America Radio: The Ron Reagan Show