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Stagg students learn about history and empathy

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Photo by Kelly White

Stagg High School VOW students (from left) Aarthi Kottapalli, 17, of Palos Hills, and Sam Doherty, 18, of Palos Hills, were proud to be a part of the school’s first-ever Empathy Museum on April 24.

By Kelly White

Taking the time to sit down and just listen can be life-changing. It is through this simple act of storytelling and lending an ear that Stagg High School students created an Empathy Museum.

Through the Empathy Museum, students were able to display artwork dedicated at seeing the world through someone else’s eyes on April 24 at the high school, 8015 W 111th St, Palos Hills.

“Empathy isn’t passive; it takes a lot of active, hard work, and our students felt the best way to share what they have learned throughout the year is to have their peers do some of that active, hard work themselves to see how worthwhile it truly is to listen and learn from other people’s stories,” said Lisa Thyer, an English teacher at Stagg High School.

“There are so many people we don’t know out there,” said Winter Raven Nixon, 17, of Palos Hills.

The project was organized by the school’s Voices of Witness (VOW) class – a class designed and co-facilitated by Thyer and English teacher Christopher Wendelin. The class is a project-based senior English elective that uses oral history as a vehicle to explore social issues and promote empathy. It was created four years ago in response to the loss of a young and extremely influential English teacher at the high school, Mary Ogarek.

“What I really like about this project is that it’s really open and it kind of gives us the freedom to run it ourselves, so we’re not being told exactly what to do all the time like in a conventional class,” said Nathan Schultz, 18, of Hickory Hills.

In the class, students have spent the school year studying oral histories, learning oral history interview techniques that emphasize empathetic listening and also conducting their own oral history interviews for different projects.

“The Empathy Museum was a student idea to help them share the stories they have learned from their different interview projects and also encourage their peers that aren’t in the class to step out of their own comfort zones and have the chance to practice the empathy and listening skills the class is centered around on a smaller scale,” Thyer said.

“I like the Empathy Museum because for the most part, it brings people together to witness this form of empathy that’s not very common today,” said Andrew Rodriguez, 18, of Palos Hills. “Empathy is kind of diminishing in its value as of late, but with the VOW class and this Empathy Museum specifically, it just shows you how to care for one another, and then it lets you really see the stories of other people and preserve them.”

The first-time event, which was run by the 45 active members of VOW, featured an artwork, quotes from stories, photographs, and student publications on display as well as different interactive tables and a mini student-filmed documentary playing during all lunch hours on Wednesday. Students also had the option to share openly about their lives, opinions, beliefs, struggles and life experiences through live interview booths.

“I love the student ownership and excitement about it. They have been working so hard all school year and now they finally get a chance to show off what they created,” Thyer said. “They are also so excited to be able to share the stories of the different people they interviewed. For many of the students, interviews they did were hugely impactful on them personally. The act of sitting down with someone, asking deep and important life questions and truly listening to the stories they were told was such a powerful experience for them and they have such a genuine excitement about being able to share a piece of that with their peers.”

Working as part of a group that comprised an eBook made up of interviews of 45 students and staff members at Stagg was Caroline Stoklosinski, who said the project provided her the opportunity to meet people she might not have otherwise.

“Interviewing other people and listening to their stories gives you the chance to learn a lot about everyone,” said Stoklosinski, 17, of Hickory Hills. “There is so much diversity in our school and it’s wonderful to be able to share it.”

In the creation of the eBook, titled, “Kalon,” Stoklosinski and four other VOW students interviewed 45 people by asking three simple questions: What makes you happy? How do you define love? And, what are your biggest past regrets?

“By asking the same questions, we received very different responses,” said Aarthi Kottapalli, 17, of Palos Hills, who also worked on this particular project. “Everyone’s story is unique to them.”

All students and staff members were invited to attend the Empathy Museum. Attendees were asked to take in the personal stories of people from the school community and hopefully look at the people around them differently.

“In taking in these stories we are asking students to step outside themselves and look for the humanity and commonality in the people around them,” Thyer said.

The VOW class is in its fourth year and the class completes the year with one final project. Previous classes published books about understanding empathy through their class projects; however, this year’s students this felt that it was really important to have their peers come and experience and interact with their different projects.

“Through everybody’s individual projects, we’ve really been able to experience the differentiation in empathy, where you have everybody’s individual perspectives in the process in creating and informing empathy,” said MacKenzie Kazin, 17, of Hickory Hills. “It really is an effort that I think is a really cool thing to be a part of.”

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