Don’t judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes. Sensitivity exercises are activities that help your students understand just that. They put the class in a position where they experience a mock version of what another person’s experience feels like. Creating good sensitivity exercises takes some skill. Let’s look at the basic steps involved in creating these exercises along with some good examples to get you going.
Where to Start
1. Who are the people you want your students to understand and empathize with?
2. What is the one issue you want students to understand?
3. What should the students feel and understand about the topic after the exercise is done?
4. What activity can you do to bring this empathy into being?
Walking through the Thought Process
Since I teach a class on immigration issues, let’s use immigrants as the answer to the group we want students to empathize with. There are a lot of immigrant experiences that may require sensitivity that I can select – culture shock, the citizenship test, xenophobia, difficulty with English, asylum issues, etc. Let’s pick the difficulty with learning a new language. I will want the class to understand what this feels like -- which means I will have to decide how I can duplicate that experience in the classroom.
To help with this, I can ask myself the following questions:
1. What specific actions create the feelings associated with the issue for the group you want the students to empathize with? In terms of our current selection, I would ask, “What specific actions create the feelings associated with learning a new language?”
2. Do I have any personal or indirect experience through the people I know around this issue? For this example, I would ask, “How can I replicate my own experience with learning a new language?”
Use your creativity and list everything you can think of – just exercise some judgment when you make your final selection. For this example, I would want the class to feel what it's like to have to quickly learn a language outside their normal comfort zone. To do that, I would print out ten or twelve Chinese characters on larger poster board flash cards and teach them to the class. I would go through each card and say the English word associated with the Chinese character a few times, ask the class to read with me from the cards, and then ask the class to do the words without me. The final time through, I would shuffle the cards to see if they really knew the words or had just memorized the order.
Mentally walk through these four questions using the other examples. How would this change if xenophobia or culture shock had been selected? What activity would you select in the end?
To help understand how this works, here are several examples to help see the process more clearly:
1. Who are the people you want your students to understand and empathize with? GED Students
2. What is the one issue you want students to understand? The difficulty of the GED test
3. What should the students feel and understand about the topic after the exercise is done? The GED test can actually be very difficult
4. What activity can you do to bring this empathy into being? Give 20 sample GED-type math questions for the class to take within a set time limit. Give the answers for each question and have the class report back their number correct.
Below is a video of Dr. Charisse Nixon, Developmental Psychologist, demonstrating learned helplessness through a sensitivity exercise:
Please click the YouTube link above for credits and more information about the video.
1. Who are the people you want your students to understand and empathize with? Dyslexics
2. What is the one issue you want students to understand? The flipping and scrambling of letters
3. What should the students feel and understand about the topic after the exercise is done? Students should feel what it’s like to have difficulty reading words for this reason
4. What activity can you do to bring this empathy into being? Pass out two versions of a text where Version A is the text as it normally should appear and Version B with the letters in the words switched around. Have the students keep these handouts face down until you begin. Tell the students they are going to all read together. Have the class flip over their papers and begin reading. The people reading from Version A will quickly begin reading along together while the part of the class with Version B will be struggling to read.
The more you create these activities, the easier this process becomes.
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