How to Use a Native American Lens to Explore Empathy in the Classroom

If you want to weave creativity into your curriculum, creativity pioneer, E. Paul Torrance proposed eighteen creativity skills to explore.The skills are specific and yet can be interpreted in many different ways.  Dr. Cyndi Burnett and Julia Figliotti explored these skills in a more contemporary way in their book Weaving Creativity into Every Strand of Your Curriculum, listing lots of ideas and approaches for the most relevant skills and adding a few new skills of their own to the list. These creativity skills are excellent springboards to bring creativity into any classroom. Skills such as “highlight the essence” and “get glimpses of the future” open doors of possibility for bringing pinpoint focus to a subject or predicting outcomes. The skill I wish to focus on is “look at it another way,” which opens the door to different perspectives and explores the much needed skill of empathy.

The Medicine Wheel

The ability to see from various perspectives is celebrated by Native American culture with the belief that one is not whole until one can see from various viewpoints. In the book, The Seven Arrows, author Hyemeyohsts Storm explains that the first thing a child is taught is to see through the Medicine Wheel, which encompasses four directions and four powers and ultimately four perspectives.

Located in the north, is the buffalo, representing wisdom and logic. To the south is the mouse, representing innocence, trust and matters close to heart. In the west, is the bear, representing a person’s introspective nature. And in the east, is the eagle, representing the ability to see things clearly, both far and wide. It is believed that each person has their own beginning place on the wheel, according to their own natural strengths. This starting place is the first and easiest way of perceiving for the individual and it is their most natural way of perceiving throughout their lives. However, it is believed that a person that only sees from one direction is only a partial person. 

  • If a person has only the gift of the North, they will be wise and possess great knowledge, but might be cold and unfeeling.
  • If a person lives only in the East, they will have the clear, far sighted vision of the Eagle, but they may never be close to things.  This person might feel separated, high above life, and may never understand or believe that they can be touched by anything.
  • A man or woman who perceives only from the West may know themselves intimately, but will go over the same thought again and again in their mind, and may have problems making decisions.
  • If a person has only the gift of the South, he will see everything with the eyes of a mouse. He will be too close to the ground and too nearsighted to see anything except whatever is right in front of him. 

These perspectives are easily likened to figures within the school. The average student may see how a new school policy makes their day harder, but fail to see how it is good for the whole district (mouse.) Likewise a superintendent or school board member might make a decision that is good for the district, but fail to see the negative impact on each student (eagle.) There might be a teacher, who is brilliant in their content area, but is cold and fails to connect with the students (buffalo.) Meanwhile, a student might be facing many problems, but keeps them to themselves instead of opening up to the opportunity of getting help or discovering that others may be feeling the same way (bear.) Each of these could benefit from the perspective of another.

According to Storm, once a person knows their beginning place, they must work to understand each of the directions in order to be a whole and balanced person.  

Imagining Another’s Perspective

I weave the Native American Medicine Wheel, as described, into the introduction for my unit on in-depth reporting in my Journalism class. The goal for this unit is to research a topic in depth and present the topic from a creative perspective in article form. One of the warm up exercises I have them do involves black and white photographs of people from different age groups, ethnicities, and settings. The photos might include an older couple, a homeless veteran, a teenage girl sitting alone, a woman in business attire with a baby, a man at a desk, a teenage boy with a backpack, a person in prison, an teenage athlete, a well-dressed student, a younger child walking to school, a studious looking boy sitting at a computer and so on. 

I paste these photos to a larger piece of paper with room at the bottom and then tape these around the room. I give the students post-it notes and ask them to walk around, look at the photo, and imagine “what this person (or people) is worried about.” I challenge them to place themselves in each of these people’s shoes and consider what problems they might be facing. Then they write it on a post-it and place it underneath the picture. If what they were thinking is already written, then I encourage them to try to come up with something original.

Once they are done, I ask them to go back around and read the various responses. I ask them to find one that really sticks out to them to share with the class. It could be one that they never thought of or one that really resonates with them. Then I have each student share the one they chose with the class and explain why. I also ask the students if there is one image that they identify with or feel the most sympathy for.

For homework, I have them take it a step further. I ask them to imagine and write the advice that they would give to this person from each of the four directions or perspectives on the medicine wheel. Having them consider each perspective and write about it, forces a greater understanding of each. As they select and begin to research their topics for their in-depth articles, I ask them to look at the information from different perspectives so that they might present information from a new and creative viewpoint. 

While I use this exercise to warm up for writing articles, it can be used for many other projects. One time I experimented with the same exercise and asked students from my alternative program, as well as teachers there, to write what they imagined to be the worry of each person . Their responses were drastically different. This demonstrated to me how each person’s background, age, and personal experience brings different perspectives and a lot can be learned from looking at these differences. 

Some other ideas for using the Medicine Wheel are:

  • Using the game of pool to teach geometry angles and physics. Consider each of the viewpoints.
  • Discussing political angles in history and how an event might have been perceived by each.
  • Literally demonstrating these viewpoints in drawings, paintings or through photography.
  • Divide students into groups and have them take on the role of a specific viewpoint/direction and debate an issue.
  • Decide the viewpoint of each of the characters in Romeo and Juliet or in the Crucible or any other required literature piece.
  • Create your own Medicine Wheel by identifying characters from movies or television or cartoons or video games and placing their picture in each of the directions.

Looking through the lens of Native American culture is one way to explore the creative skill “look at it another way,” but there are so many other ways and so many other creative skills. Weaving Creativity into Every Strand of Your Curriculum is a great resource that offers many suggestions for you to use to explore your own ideas and imagination for integrating outlets and tools for creativity into your classroom.

If you enjoyed this blog post, check out Beverly’s other blog posts:

Mandatory Fun: How to Bring in Play in a High School Classroom

Copying for Creativity

Beverly Weihz

Beverly Zapatka Weihz is a renaissance woman. She is a high school communications teacher, an artist, an entrepreneur, an avid traveller, and a voracious student of life. She holds a B.A. in Art Therapy and teaching certificates for both Art and English. She received a Master’s of Science in Creative Studies and Change Leadership from SUNY Buffalo in 2016.

Her master’s study work focused on research in motivation and finding the balance between technology and creativity. Her desire is to create a learning environment where all students can discover their strengths, their creativity and their own version of badass.

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