The Harley School’s Center for Mindfulness & Empathy Education (CMEE) evolved in response to the increasing recognition that mindfulness and empathy play an indispensable role in humanizing our educational systems. The combination of these elements with authentic, experiential programs, which reach out and touch other human beings with compassionate care, generates a profound synergy. Commenting on The Harley School’s Hospice program, where Harley seniors care for the dying and their loved ones, Arianna Huffington remarks, “New scientific data tells us that empathy is not a quaint behavior trotted out during intermittent visits to a food bank or during the Haiti telethon. Instead, it lies at the very core of human existence. Indeed, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, I believe empathy is the one quality we most need to teach and nurture if we’re going to survive and flourish in the 21st century.” Huffington is among many who recognize that the skills of empathy, compassion and mindfulness are educational outcomes essential for global citizenship – to succeed in the world in which future generations will work. Currently, transferable methods, practices and core competencies for the teaching of these skills are lacking, and teacher development in this area is limited.
Bob Kane’s Vision
On June 30, 2013, Bob Kane retired from his directing role at The Harley School’s Center for Mindfulness & Empathy Education (CMEE). Bob began his work introducing end-of-life care to high school youth in 1999. Since that time, he has mentored students throughout the Rochester area, as well as students in Belize, China, Ireland and India. Bob’s work centers on empathetic touch through the art of being fully present. His program stems from his work with kids with unique learning styles while at Norman Howard School. The program’s success garnered the school with a Leading Edge Award for innovative curriculum from the National Association of Independent Schools.
Since the Hospice Program’s inception at The Harley School in 2002, Bob enhanced the students’ experiences with overseas outreaches, an annual Tibetan Mandala meditation, active participation at the foot clinics for the poor/homeless at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, collection and delivery of medical supplies to needy countries via the partnership Bob developed with Intervol, spearheading many fundraising events including the annual pasta dinner, and providing students with hands-on bedside care opportunities at 11 comfort care homes in Rochester and surrounding counties. Indeed, class size for hospice at Harley remains at 80 percent of the senior class.
Because of the ensuing national and international recognition of the Hospice Program, the Edward E. Ford Foundation honored Harley with a substantial grant to begin the Center for Mindfulness & Empathy Education in 2011. Bob was the initial director of the CMEE and continued to teach the hospice program until June of 2013. With the foundations for both programs solidly set, Bob and his wife Maureen are planning on moving on to Ireland to begin a new adventure, bringing end-of-life care to student volunteers and opening a comfort care home for the dying on the island of Inismor. When asked what he will remember most from his time in teaching, he replied, “All of it.”
Bob will continue playing a key consulting role with the CMEE, focusing on international programs that provide end-of-life care opportunities to youth.
Supported by Research
There is a growing body of neurological research that substantiates the linkage between brain development and the elements of mindful/empathetic experiential programs. Research by the likes of Richard Davidson, Daniel Siegel, Jean Watson, Daniel Goleman, Linda Lantieri, and Marco Iacoboni has demonstrated that empathetic encounters with other humans, when combined with the mirroring of their suffering (an authentic “I can feel your pain experience”), builds neural pathways associated with the skills of empathy and compassion and a resulting decrease in stress and the violent response tendencies in the participants. But can we teach empathy? Lantieri tells us that these social and emotional competencies can and must be included in academic curricula. The evidence from today’s brain research and pedagogical research demonstrate that empathy comes in three forms: cognitive (knowing how someone feels and what they might be thinking), emotional (feeling another’s pain as though the emotions were contagious), and compassionate (acquired knowledge that we are all connected). Without the latter, empathy oft goes astray, triggering indifference, detachment and a sense of being overwhelmed. When combining the first two elements of emotion with compassionate action, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, we are much more likely to be moved to help. Thus, when compassionate empathy is combined with service, a teaching paradigm emerges that shapes and strengthens neuroactivity in the brain, reducing the impact of difficult conditions, preserving self-worth, and building resilience – all elements of a happier, healthier life. Indeed, these “actions” through service actually strengthen one’s empathetic emotions. All that is needed, the basic requirement, is simply another human being to compassionately embrace. The curricular framework is kindness.
The primary goal of the CMEE is to build upon said research and construct a validated body of knowledge that can be used for teacher and program development – a body of knowledge that applies to a broad array of learning opportunities that will facilitate new areas of effective and rewarding instruction within the national community of independent schools and beyond. This is nota lofty notion drawn from research and conjecture. Rather, this initiative stems from over a decade of Harley seniors accompanying the dying and their loved ones through an experiential rite of passage known as the Harley Hospice Program. It has been recognized nationally within the community of independent schools and internationally by world media. A component of this program, cross-cultural experiential service learning, was supported by the Edward E. Ford Foundation and became the focus of an Associated Press story titled “Colleges now giving football-like scholarships for service work,” when a Harley student was awarded a full college scholarship based on her hospice work here and abroad.
Today, the CMEE provides support to such diverse initiatives as Harley’s Water For Sudan Project, where Harley students are raising the funds necessary to provide a well for potable drinking water in Sudan, the Micro-farm & Sustainable Agriculture Program, our International Food Security Initiative “Seeds of Hope” in South Africa, Sands of Impermanence (Harley Tibetan Mandala Program), HANDS (an outreach for Harley juniors to provide loving kindness to the seriously ill), and our Foot Clinic (Harley juniors and seniors tend to the local homeless population during the winter months by providing foot care and personal care).
The CMEE is also partnering with other schools experienced in the development and implementation of mindfulness curricula. In this regard, we are developing ongoing relationships with South Burlington Schools and the University of Rochester Medical School. The fruit born of these and other burgeoning relationships will help to enrich our annual Summer Institute, intended to bring together experts in the field of compassionate curricula – the diverse skill-sets within experiential learning that nurture the teaching of applied mindfulness and empathy. The CMEE Summer Institute will provide educators with a symposium and plenaries that explore this burgeoning field that, in the words of Jean Watson, is based on the understanding that “each human–to-human connection is a once in a lifetime encounter and can never be repeated. Yet, what happens in that moment informs the next moment, and so on; we carry these moments for the rest of our life, for better or for worse, affecting our depth of feeling and options to deepen our very humanity and meaningful human existence.”