It seemed like an assignment that would come together quickly. With my experience, it should not be difficult to create a lesson about compassion to share with our sixth-grade art students. More specifically, my task was to offer a different perspective on the subject, as students were engaged in creating personal artwork representing their own interpretation of compassion.
This activity was in conjunction with the many school and community events inspired by the La Crosse Compassion Project. Beginning May 2, more than 6,000, 6-by6-inch art panels, created by La Crosse students, will be displayed at The Pump House Regional Art Center and other satellite locations, each with an artist’s statement explaining the meaning of their work.
The La Crosse Compassion project is sponsored by the La Crosse Public Education Foundation, a tremendous group that funds and supports myriad projects in schools throughout our district. Tim Riley, the foundation’s executive director, previously led a similar compassion effort in Appleton, Wis., in 2011.
It was quickly evident to me that our students had been well versed on the subject by their teacher. Educators across the board have embraced the project and have led their students to consider compassion in action at many levels. From volunteer work, to music, to donations, to assemblies, workshops and retreats, educators and community members have taken this message to heart.
My goal was to help our students visualize compassion in such a way that they could accurately transfer their feelings to canvas. It is easier said than done. To represent something that is based in emotion, on a physical surface, requires some thinking outside the box. To make this connection, we considered other aspects of the human experience, of human history, where people were able to represent emotions through some characters or art form.
We discussed many things, from the emotion evident in the cave wall paintings of earlier humans, to the power of words as represented in personal letters, throughout the centuries, sent one to another. What about the human emotion contained in poetry or lyrics? We all agreed that we had a favorite song whose lyrics spoke directly to our emotions.
We easily found evidence of art representing human emotion, on a simple scale, such as seen on greeting cards. Existing as a sort of “everyman’s gallery”, greeting cards — usually categorized by event or emotion — frequently offer many recognized artistic symbols that are universally understood, such as a “heart” for the emotion of love, or a beautiful sunset scene on sympathy cards, suggesting the end of life.
It can still be a challenge to consider what compassion is and what it looks like in action. Many may simply consider charity as compassion. Although charity is clearly compassionate, not all compassion involves charity.
Compassion may be nothing more than uplifting another, comforting one who is hurting, including those often left out, extending empathy to others. It can be offered from the young to the elderly, from poor to wealthy, from weak to strong. Compassion is truly an equal opportunity emotion.
Dedicated teachers are successful because they realize that compassion is a fundamental foundation of a successful classroom and a cooperative school. These educators understand that an essential component of their mission is to model these compassionate behaviors to their students and encourage this type of behavior at all times. I see this day in and day out — teachers leading their students, delivering their curriculum with expertise, while at the same time helping their students understand the true power of compassionate behavior.
In considering all aspects of compassion, I also tried to consider those who are not compassionate — those who simply choose not to be or perhaps those who are suffering a major loss or enduring a significant tragedy. Surely those who are grieving, I thought, do not have the ability to extend compassion to others.
It was at this point in lesson planning that I recalled what I learned about the Interstate 35 Bridge Memorial in Minneapolis. It was on August 1, 2007, that 13 people lost their lives in the horrific, rush-hour collapse. If you haven’t seen this sensitive and moving memorial, you must.
In addition to 13 stunning pillars, one for each victim, a black granite wall contains a statement offering hope, healing and consolation to the reader. Penned by family members of those who died, it states, “Our lives are not only defined by what happens, but by how we act in the face of it. Not only by what life brings us, but by what we bring to life. Selfless actions and compassion create enduring community out of tragic events.”
How truly compassionate of those individuals, to be able to offer such a powerful statement, after having lost a husband or wife, or a child.
It was thrilling to see how our sixth-grade art students internalized the idea of compassion and how they were able to expand the depth and scope of it in our classroom discussions. They allowed me to see it from their perspective, reminding me of their fresh insight and youthful wisdom.
And, as it often the case when one open’s their mind, I learned more than I ever imagined about compassion. Imagine that.