Elephants are People Too

886473_10151576608234783_2075041005_oWe know that empathy – that ability to walk around in another’s shoes – matters. We know that developing empathy is important.

But how do you do that?

The 4th and 5th grade put on a show last week. Not just any show for this was a play they had written themselves based on their Global Read-Aloud text The One and Only Ivan.

Ivan is an easygoing, mighty, silverback gorilla. He lives at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade and his role in life is to be stared at and amuse the humans who pay to see him. He thinks about TV shows and he spends time with his friends Stella the elderly elephant and Bob the stray dog. And he thinks about art.

Then Ruby the baby elephant arrives and because of her Ivan begins to recall his life in the wild, the circumstances of his capture and his early years. .

“I was born in a place humans call central Africa, in a dense rain forest so beautiful, no crayons could ever do it justice.”

Ivan befriends the mistreated Ruby. And through that friendship, and his empathy for her plight, everything begins to change for Ivan. And so begins their journey from the mall to another and better life

Katherine Applegate, who won the Newbery Medal for Ivan, says she was inspired by a newspaper article about a real-life gorilla who had been cruelly exhibited in a shopping mall until a public outcry led to his removal to better quarters in a zoo.
893371_10151576609744783_177432004_oLast week’s play provided a glimpse into the work of the classroom. The players and writers on stage were deeply connected to the text.

It was clearly personal to them and their engagement on stage was complete (and extended to the down time before and after the show.)

Their seriousness of purpose was palpable, as was the empathy with which they treated the giant animal puppets they had made. That ownership – and their process and product  – are a testament to the work of the class.

At the end of Friday’s performance, the director of the play – and one of the class teachers, Dorothy Luongo – was handed a bouquet and a note. It was from Katherine Applegate who had watched this world premier via live streaming from the James Earl Jones Theater.

The card read:
“And the Oscar goes to you!
Wonderful Job.
xo Katherine Applegate”
She followed this up with message of congratulation to the class and the teachers.
This recreation of  the story of Ivan and Ruby, of human indifference, cruelty and hope was effective because of deep empathetic engagement of the students. Because of their work, their world has enlarged, their knowledge widened, their creative capacity expanded  and their humanity deepened.
They will never be quite the same again. That’s what education does to people. It changes them. And children are people too.
And, in memory of the baby elephant in the theater last week, a poem of deep empathy by D.H.Lawrence:

Elephants in the Circus

Elephants in the circus
Have aeons of weariness around their eyes.
Yet they sit up
and show vast bellies to the children.

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