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Building Empathy and Critical Thinking: A Lesson About Animals

by Zoe Weil

A few years ago at our Summer Residency for educators at the Institute for Humane Education, teacher and IHE grad Betsy Messenger created a lesson on animal issues that was so effective and powerful, I wanted to share it with you.

She gathered our group outside and “borrowed” my dogs, whose only task was to run outside and do whatever they wanted to do.

Our job was to simply observe them and record on paper the kinds of activities and emotions they were demonstrating in one column, and in another column write down whether we had ever experienced similar emotions.

While the dogs demonstrated some acts that people don’t normally do, like tearing grass with their mouths, the emotions they displayed – curiosity, playfulness, attention-seeking, joy, abandon, and so on – were ones familiar to every person.

After observing the dogs, Betsy had us get into groups of four and stand shoulder-to-shoulder, facing one another.

Then she used chalk to draw a circle around us, just outside of our feet.

As we stood awkwardly in our groups, enduring the close contact that is not the norm for our species (unless we are intimately connected with a person), Betsy asked us to imagine how we would feel if we were to have certain things done to us — portions of our bodies mutilated, for example — and had us consider how long we might be required to remain like this (e.g., a year).

After a few minutes, she gave us the reprieve to move out of our circles, and she shared with us the reality for chickens and turkeys raised for food and eggs in modern agricultural facilities: intense confinement, debeaking and toe removal, ill health, and so on.

Finally, she shared the story of one turkey who was rescued from such a factory farm and showed us photographs of this particular turkey, a positive note on which to end the 20-minute activity.

What I loved about Betsy’s activity was the sequencing of observing another species and relating their behaviors to our own; the kinesthetic experience of pretending to be chickens in confinement; the information about modern industrial animal agriculture, and the happy ending for at least one turkey.

We went on quite a journey in 20 minutes, and Betsy managed to include several elements of humane education in such a short time, including: providing us with accurate information; fostering our curiosity and critical thinking; instilling our reverence, respect, and sense of responsibility; and raising our awareness of choices we can make.

So powerful.

It reminds me of how much learning can happen in such a brief time when someone carefully crafts a varied and meaningful activity.

See IHE’s activities and lesson plans in our Resource Center.

Be sure to forward this to at least ONE person who would benefit from this resource.

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