Empathy in Action:
Meaningful Engagement in the 21st Century
A veteran of the courtroom and classroom, Anne has developed unique high school curricula with Stanford influences and has piloted them with urban teens.
What has happened since you completed the DCI program?
I had the pleasure of getting to know Laura Carstensen while I was at DCI and was fascinated by her work at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Laura and I agreed that the Center’s mission to build awareness and stimulate innovation around longevity challenges had immediate relevance for high school students. I had previously taught street law and civics in the San Francisco Unified School District, and Gateway High School (a public charter school) was receptive to the new curriculum Laura and I were discussing. I extended my stay at DCI for another four months to design a more comprehensive Empathy and Leadership curriculum, and did so with support from the faculty and staff at Stanford’s Center on Longevity, Poverty Law Clinic and Center for Adolescence. Kathy Bracco and Joan Salwen, members of my 2016 cohort with a deep bench in education, also contributed their time and expertise to the effort.
Tell us about your project(s)
I piloted the semester-long Empathy and Leadership curriculum at Gateway in 2017 and 2018. The curriculum armed students with an “empathy toolkit,” and asked them to wield the toolkit as a platform for effective and informed problem solving. Essentially, students were asked to build leadership solutions by learning how to think with, rather than for, others. They test drove their empathy skills to devise workable “starter” solutions for intractable challenges, such as Poverty and Inequality, the Opioid Addiction Crisis, the New Longevity, Fake News, etc. Jay Harris (DCI 2018), a veteran news journalist and publisher, volunteered his time and talents each semester to speak to my students about the fake news phenomenon.
The Longevity Leadership Unit was particularly compelling to students, not the least because adolescents and seniors share some distinct developmental challenges, specifically a rapid onset of physical and cognitive changes for which they often feel unprepared. The Leadership and Empathy curriculum helps students and seniors actually understand that shared component of their life experience.
Longevity Unit students first studied the demographic realities and concerns, health facts and fictions, public and private policy challenges, and current government/academic/private sector responses relating to increased longevity in the 21st century. Then they were asked to literally put themselves in the position of aging individuals. The Center for Longevity offered its age progression software to show each of my enrolled students what she or he might look like sixty years hence. We then simulated the cognitive and physical challenges seniors often face by asking students to engage in aspects of daily living as “older” people: for example, having students complete legible job applications using their non-dominant hands, or take listening tests wearing earplugs and muffling headsets. Finally, drawing on advice and support from Frish Brandt (DCI 2021) students participated in a three-day workshop designed by Sages and Seekers, during which each student was paired with a “Sage” aged 75 or older to share conversation, life experience, and mutual advice. Several lasting inter-generational relationships were forged from those workshops; indeed, one “Sage” attended every soccer game his “Seeker” played in for the latter’s remaining two years of high school.
A “Sage” and Gateway student meet to exchange ideas, life experiences and more.
How did your DCI experience influence your projects?
I think it’s fair to say that almost everything I’m working on today is DCI-related. The Leadership and Empathy Curriculum was inspired by and developed during my DCI year. I also spend a great deal of time writing creatively, which is a direct result of enrolling in the DCI Memoir Writing Class, taught by John Evans, the Draper Lecturer of Creative Nonfiction, in my final quarter as a Fellow. Indeed, with John’s continued guidance and oversight, I recently designed a virtual memoir-writing curriculum for high school students. And, of course, I continue to draw inspiration and delight from the extraordinary friendships I made during my DCI year, and those I’ve been lucky enough to build with Fellows in other cohorts.
My writing is currently a primary focus for me. I have been fortunate to continue workshopping with John and other DCI writers, and have published a number of essays and memoir excerpts in The Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, Southwest Review, Salmagundi and elsewhere. My first published piece actually grew out of my Life Journey presentation; full circle, again, with DCI.
During Covid, I was asked to develop a virtual writing curriculum for high school students who might benefit from additional faculty interaction. Working with John Evans, I created a six-week program, “Telling Your Story Your Way,” which was designed to encourage students at all writing levels to explore the memoir form. Memoir is a particularly relevant vehicle for adolescents, who are in a complicated developmental bind: they don’t want anybody else telling their stories for them, they don’t want anyone else telling them what to do, and yet they have to allow it in order to get their GEDs and get on with their lives. In theory, this curriculum allows them to utilize memoir as a detour from that particular constraint. While logistical challenges prevented a curriculum pilot last spring, I hope to teach the class live in the fall of 2022.
John remarks, “Anne Kenner is a serious, talented, and dedicated writer—we all know this—but her commitment to building up those around her, and helping to foster their best selves, on and off the page, is just as impressive, and extends in all directions. So, it’s no surprise that Anne has taken her sense of vocation into the world, to bring voice and perspective to the work of teen writers.” He continues “It was my sincere pleasure to see Anne’s memoir program take root in the work we did together in DCI Memoir, and also, to talk about how she has shaped and expanded that curriculum to meet the needs of diverse learners. Memoir is a form ready-made for those who yearn to tell their stories well and, in doing so, to find meaning and sense in the chaotic stuff of life. How lucky that these teenage writers have Anne to guide them on that journey!”
Learn more about Anne Kenner’s background.