The Shipley Magazine

Meeting of the Minds: Compassionate Participation in the World

Melissa Tassoni
Shipley’s mission commits us to “develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in  the world.” What is compassionate participation in the world and how does Shipley teach it to students? Our panel of service learning leaders explores these questions and more. 
Our panel

Margie Winters
Director of Service Learning, SEED Teacher
John Harris
Middle School Service Coordinator & Math Teacher
Betsy Leschinsky
Lower School Service Coordinator & SEED Teacher

Q: What does compassionate participation in the world look like? 

Winters: Compassionate participation in the world is being stirred and moved to respond by a care for others. Our hope is that our students respond in an informed manner, which requires humility. Holding someone’s suffering, many of us just want to make it better and think we can do that in our own way. Humility helps us remember that those who are suffering need their voices to be heard. We must be humble enough to learn from those who are suffering what it is that they need, and if and how we can be of assistance. Sometimes all they will need is for us to be with them. Other times, they might need something tangible, like food or clothing. Often, both of these things are required, as well as the patience to be in the struggle together, to listen to their concerns, to walk with them in the tough times, to work together to build community, and to learn how to make the lasting changes to policy or structures that is the work of justice and community. 
Harris: My analogy for compassionate participation in the world is, if you’re in a room, are you aware of what’s going on around you, or is your head in the sand? Are you truly engaged? If you’re engaged, are you making sure the room is as good as it can be? Taking that to a higher level, like the School, are you aware of what’s going on around you? Are you doing things to make sure the School is as good as it can be? If you take it to the highest level: Do you know what’s going on in the world? Are you doing your part to make sure that it’s the best it can be? That’s compassionate participation.

Leschinsky: No matter what background you come from, whether privileged or not, we have to have an awareness, an empathy for all of the people around us. It’s important for us as educators to plant the seeds of compassion and empathy early, raising the awareness that everybody has a story, everybody’s going through something, that you shouldn’t make any assumptions about people. Hopefully that awareness makes the world a kinder, gentler place.
Q: Why is compassionate participation in the world important?
Winters: It’s important because our world needs compassionate, humble people who can hold and respond to the sufferings of the world in meaningful, relational, structural, and justice-oriented ways.
Q: How does Shipley inspire students to compassionately participate in the world?
Winters: Shipley inspires compassionate participation in the world by encouraging and providing opportunities for our students to connect in meaningful ways with the world around them, and then reflect on their experiences. Across all of our divisions there are opportunities for students to actively participate in service activities, as well as to learn about the social, economic, and political issues that underpin the challenges that are being addressed through their service.
In Middle School, students participate in Service Fridays, a monthly opportunity to connect with a nonprofit doing meaningful work in the community. Students commit to a particular organization each year of Middle School. Through this ongoing commitment, students get to know an organization and its work in a deeper manner and develop relationships with staff and participants. Through relationships and meaningful encounters, our students learn about the concerns of our partners and ways to respond to them. 
In Upper School, our program includes many opportunities for students to engage in service. Students also must complete 40 hours of service in order to graduate. Many students, however, complete many more hours than those required. Students participate in school activities, like Super Saturday, Swamp Night, the Thanksgiving Food Drive, and the Positive Paws mentoring group. They also find opportunities in the community to connect in meaningful ways. 
Harris: I think it’s part of who we are as a school. When the kids see the faculty thanking the cleaning staff, thanking the kitchen staff, thanking each other, being respectful to each other, and being respectful to the students, we’re modeling compassionate participation for them and continuing a culture of compassion that is a part of Shipley’s DNA.
Leschinsky: In my SEED class, I do it through telling stories. Not only do I read students fictional stories, but I also tell them stories of things that are happening all around us, right here in our neighborhood and in the Philadelphia area. By sharing stories, they find things that they might have in common with others. And when you find things you have in common with others, it opens your heart. We also teach compassionate participation in the world through actual service. Some of my more challenging students in the classroom setting shine when they’re on a service trip, and that’s what they remember at the end of the school year. Those experiences mean so much to them. That hands-on experience of working with other people, it just touches them so deeply.
There’s something about the culture here, where the kids want to help the community, help each other, and generally want to do the right thing. I think we plant those seeds early for every kid. We’re so lucky that Shipley thinks service is so important, and because Shipley thinks it’s so important, our children learn that it’s important.
Q: What is service learning and how do we make sure that learning is part of our service work at Shipley?
Winters: Service learning can be a transformational and experiential educational process. It integrates research, community connections, design and preparation, meaningful service, and continual reflection. At Shipley, we are working to incorporate learning and reflection into the service work that we do. A simple example of this is our recent Thanksgiving Food Drive Pack-Up. This year, the Service Team designed the event to begin with an educational and mindful moment. Students were grounded in the reality of food insecurity, something with which 1 in 5 people in the Philadelphia area struggle, by watching the personal story of a young person who struggles with this issue. They were then invited into a moment of compassion (packing up the food for delivery) and ended with a pause for gratitude. We are trying to take our program and review each event or activity to make sure it has the educational and reflection pieces.
Harris: Our job as an educational institution is to make sure that students understand why we serve, why it’s important, why it’s needed, and why we should all be involved. I’m most proud of the Middle School’s service learning program because of the way we do it. The School and the administrators are so committed that they shut the School down for one Friday afternoon each month so that we can go out into the world to serve others, and then learn from those experiences and take time in our classes to reflect on them.
One of the highlights of our Middle School program is that it’s based on passions. Teachers select things that they’re passionate about—anything from serving the elderly in a senior home, or working with young kids with disabilities at a place like the Talk Institute, to working in kennels with dogs that were just rescued, or sorting food at a food pantry. Teachers present these activities that they’re so excited about at an assembly, and kids sign up for the activity that most interests them. When you take people and you combine passions like that, nothing but great things are going to happen.
Q: How are we integrating compassionate participation and service learning with other academic disciplines?
Winters: This is one of the next steps in our service learning program. Some service learning already exists in our curriculum, particularly in the area of sustainability—for example, in the fifth grade science curriculum, students learn about our watershed and work with Lower Merion Conservancy to do a stream study throughout the year. Dan Del Duca has spearheaded this effort. Dan also is part of the Sustainability Committee, led by Tamar Norquist, and has involved the Lower School students in not only being more sustainable, but also in connecting that work to the curriculum. Our cross-division waste audit in 2018-2019 was a great example of that work.

Read More from The Shipley Magazine

The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.