La Crosse Students Show Compassion Through Art

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La Crosse Students Show Compassion Through Art

Premiere Date: 
May 9, 2014

UW neuroscientist Richard Davidson & Tim Riley explain the district "Compassion Project."

 

Episode Transcript: 

Frederica Freyberg:

Caring about other people, or compassion, can be learned. And compassionate people can make you happier people. It's a win/win. The La Crosse School District decided to take the research of renowned neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, to the classroom. It started the Compassion Project, which has resulted in thousands of pieces of artwork by the students in La Crosse schools, artwork now displayed in the city. City and public school officials have collaborated on the Compassion Project with one of the foremost experts on the subject in the world. Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist with the UW Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. Tim Riley is the executive director of one of the organizers, the La Crosse Public Education Foundation. Thanks to both of you for being here.

Richard Davidson and Tim Riley:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

Tim, I want to start with you and just ask, what is the Compassion Project in your schools?

Tim Riley:

Sure. The assignment was simple. We asked all of the art students in the school district, k through 12, to envision and then ultimately depict, the idea of compassion, what compassion meant to them. A very big idea on a small canvas, on six inch by six inch canvas. So they spent the entire year, started in the fall, to product these images. But along the way they had conversations about what compassion means to them, in the classroom, at home, in the hallways. And the culminating part of the art-making phase is these installation at the Pump House Regional Arts Center.

Frederica Freyberg:

And what has been the reaction to those 6,000 canvasses?

Tim Riley:

Well, it's wonderful to see, because oftentimes they're working on this project in the classroom 20 to 30 students at a time. And not often do you see an entire district display all of the kids' work at one time. So you multiply those by 6,000 and you see all of them, it's quite a visual stimulus to see them. And a lot of people come in and just say, wow.

Frederica Freyberg:

Why did La Crosse embark on this?

Tim Riley:

Well, compassion is one of the core values of the school district of La Crosse, so it's something that's always been there. And this was a chance for us to not only lift up compassion in our schools, but also to explore it in more depth, to slow down and think about compassion in a very meaningful way. We're bombarded with images on television and cell phones and internet. And this process allows every student in the district to slow down, consciously contemplate what compassion means, and then articulate that visually through a.canvas. So it really was a slowing-down process.

Frederica Freyberg:

Richard Davidson, what is it like to see your work kind of translated in this way?

Richard Davidson:

It's thrilling. I'm so grateful to Tim for his initiative in La Crosse. And Tim was formerly in Appleton and did a similar project in the district of Appleton. And it's really moving to see the impact that this kind of initiative is having in, not just among the kids, which is amazing in itself, but it just transforms the whole city, and it becomes a city-wide initiative.

Frederica Freyberg:

How does a person learn compassion?  

Richard Davidson:

You know, I think that there are many different ways to learn it. I don't think there's any single formula. I think it starts very early in life by having loving parents who, by their expression of love and care, exhibit compassion. And children at that age, very young infants, implicitly learn. They can recognize when they are surrounded by loving caregivers. That's when it starts. And I believe that we're all born with seeds of compassion. And in fact there's recent hard-nosed scientific research that indicates that very young infants, as young as six months of age, have a preference for compassionate interaction compared to selfish interaction. And this has been demonstrated in very rigorous studies. So what we're talking about is really nurturing something that is there in some incipient form.

Frederica Freyberg:

Because if you practice compassion, you learn it, practice it, do it, it makes you feel better, too, right? The person who is giving it.

Richard Davidson:

It does. And many people, many wise people, have said that one of the best ways to improve one's happiness is to be kind and generous toward others. There's actually now good scientific evidence to show that. For example, with kids, if you bring young kids into a laboratory and you give them gifts. And you tell them that in one condition you can keep this gift for yourself. In another condition you give them the same gift and you say, this is a gift for you to give to others. And then you have raters rate their level of happiness and well-being. It turns out when they're generous to others, they're actually consistently rated as being happier.

Frederica Freyberg:

Tim Riley, in La Crosse have you noticed the people just at large are being nicer to one another now because of your project?

Tim Riley:

Yes. On the student level, in the schools, we're finding, first of all, with the youngest kids, the kindergartners, they're learning the term. Compash, as I heard one of them say the other day. They're learning techniques to be kinder to one another. And instead of saying, don't bully, and anti-bullying messages very prevalent in all of our society today, we're saying be pro-compassionate. The students are picking up on that, they really, really are. And so are the other citizens of La Crosse. I mean, the youngest students, youngest citizens are leading the way here, but it's turned into a community-wide conversation about this topic.

Frederica Freyberg:

Are there detractors, though, that think this is a lot of mumbo-jumbo, you know, for the schools to be doing?

Tim Riley:

I think for millennia we've taught, in certain traditions, that compassion and kindness is good for you. And certainly in schools we talk about the Golden Rule and being nice and being kind. It's the organizing principle of getting along with one another. So no one really can argue against that. I think that the research that Richie is doing and his team here in Madison is really underscoring that there's some real hard science to this, too, and there's some really profound impacts on the brain. That is catching people's attention in a positive way.

Frederica Freyberg:

And you said that Appleton had done this and now La Crosse. Are there other places in Wisconsin that are kind of latching on to this?

Richard Davidson:

Well, here in Madison through the Madison Metropolitan School District, we are doing, not an art project, but what we've implemented is what we call the Kindness Curriculum. It's a curriculum that's being taught to preschool classes in Madison. And we're evaluating the impact of that curriculum on various kinds of developmental outcomes, on academic performance, grades, a whole bunch of things. And the initial evidence that we're getting does clearly suggest that this can make a real difference.

Frederica Freyberg:

Awesome. Richard Davidson, thanks very much. Tim Riley, thank you.

Tim Riley:

Thank you.

Richard Davidson:

Thank you. 


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