The Augsburg Podcast

The Augsburg Podcast

Terrance Kwame-Ross: Empathy in Education

February 15, 2019

Kwame-Ross: As an African American coming from Chicago or African American living in Minneapolis, versus a white teacher who teaches in Minneapolis, but comes from Minnetonka, you have a discrepancy of knowledge. How do you get white teachers who grew up differently, who have different experiences, in other words, have different knowledge sets to teach a group of kids with a whole different knowledge set?

Paul Pribbenow: Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers and responsible leaders. I'm Paul Pribbenow, the president of Augsburg University, and it's my great privilege to present The Augsburg Podcast, one way you can get to know some of the faculty and staff I'm honored to work with every day.

Catherine Day: I'm Catherine Reid Day, host of The Augsburg podcast. Today we're speaking with Terrance Kwame-Ross, associate professor of education, and we're going to touch on a number of topics about the crucial nature of education. Welcome.

Kwame-Ross: Thank you.

Catherine Day: I'd love to start with where you came from, what your origins were.

Kwame-Ross: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois on the south side. The way I describe it is I had a wonderful childhood related to the geography. The place that I grew up at, it was close to the Museum of Science and Industry at University of Chicago, Jackson Park, so it was a place that was an environment for constant learning. Even though financially we didn't have a lot of financial means. But I feel as though that particular geographical place that I grew up was rich with resources, and I really think that that was foreshadowing how I think about learning. That it happens all the time, everywhere, in many different places. Chicago was that place.

When people think of Chicago, they probably think of this big scary place, which sometimes it is. I've learned when things are scary in some places, how do we still survive and still learn? My roots from Chicago, and still they are. My mom still live there, my family live there, so I go back there. 62nd and Stony was my stomping grounds, as they say.

Catherine Day: Your stomping grounds, yeah. For anyone who has been to the University of Chicago or the Museum of Science and Industry ... and I think so many people ... I went there probably in fifth grade on the train or something-

Kwame-Ross: Yes. Exactly.

Catherine Day: ... it's an amazing ... as you say, it's just a rich learning environment. In what ways do you think place continues to inform the way you're thinking about educating?

Kwame-Ross: There's this idea called ... well, people call it context. I like to think about it as an ecology. That there's different places, and we know it, it's a fact that there's places inside of ourselves that we have conversations with about morality or our ethics, what we're seeing in the world. There's ecological places in terms of our families and our homes that knowledge come from and we learn. There's neighborhoods and communities and society and laws. I think that place, the physical place that you grew up or that you're currently at or live in is a fertile ground for knowledge and learning.

I believe that place, geographical, and all other ways in which we think about place and space, it plays a significant role continually in my life. Where I decide to teach it? Where I decide to eat dinner at? Where do I decide to go for my spiritual development? Where do I go with friends? These everyday movements that all human beings make are wonderful places to grow. I believe that as a professor and as a teacher, the ideal of place is both practical and abstract. But how it plays in my life, I'm always aware of where I'm at in the history of it, and the way that plays out in education is I want my students, these pre service teachers, these teacher candidates, to understand how important who they are, where they come from, and how those things that was learned and knowledge set may be different from other people come from other places. I think this idea of place connected to learning is very important in everyday life, but also in learning.

Catherine Day: It sounds like what you're saying is that in training a teacher and getting them ready, what you're saying is you want their feet really planted on their ground.

Kwame-Ross: Yes.

Catherine Day: And that in that act of being clear about what their ground is, that they're also going to have a better relationship to give that power to the students that they're teaching?

Kwame-Ross: That's so true. One of the things at Augsburg, part of our commitment is to be engaged citizens, and so knowing physically where you're at, where you stand, and then knowing that practically helps you begin to develop a perspective, a point view. I believe once teachers understand that deepness in terms of themselves and that metaphor of where you stand and where you're at, I think it's easier to then pivot towards other understanding in terms of the other. Your idea is right related to what we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do in my classes. I play with these ideas related to place and taking a stance because it's both metaphorically, but it's also real.

Here at Augsburg, we are not afraid to talk about concepts like race, or social class, or sexual orientation and for teachers or pre service teachers to really get in touch with those particular ideas as concepts, but also how they play out as real things in the world around biases and all sorts of things. So really literally helping pre service teachers figure out literally where they're at in their beliefs, in their historical context, with their relationship with race and sexual orientation and class, and how those things may or may not affect where they grew up. The places that they were that may not have been that friendly to these particular concepts.

This idea of the place and stance, I think, I speaks directly to Augsburg mission of faculty, staff and students becoming much more aware of who they are, where they stand morally, ethically. This particular place that we're at right now in terms of Augsburg, where it's located, literally, where it's located, steps away from a multi generational, multi ethnic community close to downtown, close to the Somalian community, and many other communities close to a wonderful community theater, close to wonderful community centers. That place is important related to what we're up to at Augsburg. What that means in terms of teaching ... teaching to me is an opportunity to really integrate. What are we integrating? We're integrating as a teacher, things that's been wrong and to try to figure out practices and strategies that can stick to all learners' brains. That's around equity.

We're also interested in ... as a teacher, how do we bring our best selves? Once again, here at Augsburg, having Lutheran traditions or Christians underpinnings, we're not afraid to talk about the ideal of righteousness or moral education. Doesn't necessarily mean we promote constantly religion, but it does mean that when we think about other people's children or even our own ... but let's think about other people's children for a minute, Catherine. That's sacred. That's sacred. I do believe that we're not only looking at this material kid, we're trying to help this kid grow in terms of their material understanding of the world, we're trying to help them grow spiritually, we're trying to help them grow with their understanding of economics.

It's all these aspects of what it means to be a whole human being that I think being at Augsburg, this particular place, where not only spiritual and religious inquiry is one of the commitments, but also religion and spiritual inquiry is a commitment just like civic engagement. You see, Catherine, Augsburg, as an African American male, for all these years it's been hard to find a place and space that I could bring all of me. These commitments that Augsburg have, in terms of spiritual and religious inquiry, civic engagement, vocational discernment and global understanding, those commitments are grounded in this particular place that allows me to be me. I think that I bring that into the classroom, and I think it is infectious.

I think students see that I'm not afraid to talk about the 1954 law or history in terms of Brown v. Board of Education, and then ask the questions. How far have we come?

Catherine Day: That's a big question.

Kwame-Ross: Given where we're at now, how do we reflect? Is our current system equitable, fair and has a moral ground to teach all children an American system? Augsburg gives me an opportunity to integrate that, and I think-

Catherine Day: That's great. Well, that energy has to be infectious. In your experience with the students, what are they most troubled about when they think about how they're going to go out and make a difference as educators?

Kwame-Ross: I think they're concerned with how to practically take ideas of freedom and equity and what is right and moral, but what does that actually look like inside of a classroom where you have maybe five or six different languages that are spoken? When you have children who are from 10, 12 different backgrounds? I think it's a struggle, but I think that sometimes it's a good struggle between the best American ideas, the best of Augsburg ideas, the best of ideas in the teaching field. How do you actually make them practical through your living body in the classroom? How do you make your body do these things to make that equitable and just classroom? That, I think, teacher candidates at Augsburg I think are constantly struggling with, and I think it's a good struggle.

Catherine Day: Do you have theatrical training? Do you-

Kwame-Ross: Yes, I do. I do.

Catherine Day: Tell us a little bit about that.

Kwame-Ross: I went to a small liberal arts college similar to Augsburg in Evanston, Illinois called National Louis University, and I stumbled into teaching. I knew what I wanted. I started to take a few courses, but the liberal arts allowed me to really think about integration. That allowed me to take some courses, and so I took some theater courses and I loved it. One of my first theater courses was makeup, which was fascinating. We had to figure out how to use makeup, how you can make wrinkles and un-wrinkles.

So I'm fascinated with the material aspect of how theater and makeup could change reality, and so I started to really take more theater courses. I wanted to combine theater and teaching, so I got a teaching licensure with a minor in social studies in theater. That allowed me to really, I think, start to think outside of the box and how theater ... I think for me, my teaching practices and strategies and theories are the science. The theater is the art. I really believe that teaching is an integration of both.

Catherine Day: What I love is that ... well, I was thinking about this as any of us who have to stand up in front of a bunch of people and work. I can look back at photos of myself and realize when I wasn't physically comfortable with myself. And it shows up in those photos. If they showed up in those photos, they were obviously showing up in the way I related to whomever I was with at the time. When I think about these young people going out and starting their careers, what a gift that you're giving them, if they're actually physically practicing something in the classroom. Could you tell us a little bit about how much they get to do that? Are they standing up there and you're talking with them about, are you in your body-

Kwame-Ross: Yeah, that's true. That's true.

Catherine Day: ... do you play with them?

Kwame-Ross: Yeah. I teach foundation courses, and I teach methods. One of the methods courses that teach is social studies, and what the students immediately realize is that social studies is just that. It is the study of all things social. All things. Social interactions, history. It's all of that social. Part of it is I go through a little sequence in the beginning of the course in terms of how the body is used socially throughout history. And then what does that mean for teacher? When sometimes people want you to become a sage on a stage, how do you begin to be comfortable in your body?

It may seem small, but it's important because when I see those students, some of those same students in my learning and development course, and we talk about self identity, self concept, they really start to make those connections of how important ... or another way of putting it, they really start to make the connection of how the body informs our concept. As a teacher, if you become comfortable with within your body, your body concept, it seems as if from my own experience in teaching, that my students are able through many kinds of activities we do ... so for example, I do an activity where you're mirroring the other person and the idea is to really try to stay conscious of what they're doing, but that is a person consciously but unconsciously trying to intuit what others are doing with their body.

Practically how that works in a classroom, when I started doing student teaching, this is what we mean, that teachers could use all their senses to integrate see, hear, smell, taste, and touch behavior and cognition. When a teacher is teaching, and they have these inner experiences with understanding their body and theater, actually when they start teaching, they can actually start to look at a kid's face and not be afraid to move their body closer for proximity in order to help the kid understand.

This theater stuff, you can see it come out in the classroom through how teachers may ask at kindergarten, "Demonstrate one plus one," and the kid can't, and you can see the teacher in her body then grab two waters this close, and say, put them down on a table and use prompts. We call that hands on. But actuality when teachers use theater, that stuff come intuitively. You start to use prompts, you start to use skits when you start to talk about, "What is the timeline?" And kids are really trying to figure out what a timeline is. So you can write it on a board, or you can say, "You know what, let's do a timeline. Let me-"

Catherine Day: And they stand up-

Kwame-Ross: And they stand up. Yeah.

Catherine Day: ... and they physically make that feeling.

Kwame-Ross: Make that feeling. Yeah. Getting teachers comfortable with theater and knowing their body, I think that it compliments right into the classroom and extends. It actually tricks their body.

Catherine Day: Into believing in themselves-

Kwame-Ross: Exactly.

Catherine Day: ... and then that must connect with the students.

Kwame-Ross: Believing in the students too.

Catherine Day: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kwame-Ross: Yup, exactly.

Catherine Day: Believe in them. Augsburg takes on so many challenges, learning styles, learning approaches. Where does that conversation happen? What are you learning from that experience with your students?

Kwame-Ross: As a teacher, we move away from certain words. At one point we moved away from sympathy to empathy. However, I want to bring both back. And there's a difference. Empathy is transporting myself in someone else's shoes. Sympathy is really feeling, really being sympathetic of the energies of someone else. If a student is crying, I can transport myself there to think about why that student is crying. But I can also have sympathy. I can actually feel the crying. What does that mean? Students come in to Augsburg and teachers sometimes, even though we're teachers, that when we have a classroom ... teachers really know this even if we don't want to admit it, but we know when we have a classroom, there's so many different levels that people are on developmentally, cognitively, physically, socially. We just know that in terms of human beings from the research and in theory.

We know that here at Augsburg, not only do we know that, I think that students are liberated in a sense to grab hold of ... however we frame it. Abilities, disability, weaknesses, strengths. It seems like students have a good sense, or if they don't have a good sense, Augsburg creates an environment where students have a heightened sense of places they need to grow. The way it shows, is that students in some sense invite and sometime demand teachers to pay attention and pushing teachers become more authentic in the variety of ways in which we teach and have strategies. I think it's a powerful thing.

And for me personally, it makes me fall back on patience and observation. Being able to observe and see certain things and slow things down. Just because I'm a college professor teaching people who are 18 or 22 or 50, doesn't mean that I have it all, and that each person is different. One of the things I learned in kindergarten is that you watch, watch, watch, watch, watch, watch, watch. And then you pick up on small behaviors and cognitive things, and then you talk to the student and you co create opportunities for them to move in powerful ways. As a professor here with this idea that all students can learn and that people learn differently, I'm learning to observe more and be patient.

Catherine Day: When you think about what's going to be coming at us in the next, let's say, five years, do you think this is just going to stay as your through line or do you anticipate you need to make some adjustments to address any other things coming at us around education and the needs?

Kwame-Ross: Yeah, that's a good question. Well, we do know that in 2014, something dramatic happened to America, and that point was the point that more children of color ... marked the time that more children of color was born. And then when we project in the next 30 to 50 years, the statistics may go up to 67% of public school kids are children of color and come from poverty. Right now it's 52%. The kids of color in public schools. And then for elementary education it's 95% teachers are white. Nationally 63% of teachers are white.

Right here in Saint Paul Minneapolis, you have the same statistics, the same demographics. Catherine, I'm really serious. I think that in five years ... but I think the question now, but I think it's with the reckoning and we don't have 20, 30 years. What do you truly do? From my scholarship, here you have the fact that ... if you live in a certain place ... let's take Minnesota and then let's take a place in Africa. Ghana, West Africa, Accra. You have two cities. You have two continents, but you have two cities. In both of these places ... both of these places have certain geographical environments. And these environments have people in them, and these people have to solve problems, but the problems are different.

My point is, problems in Minnesota based on geography could be different than the places in Ghana. What does that mean? That means that different knowledge comes from different places in different geographies. I think one of the biggest issues that's coming is our reckoning with this big idea around how do teachers teach kids particular knowledge that the teacher doesn't have herself?

Catherine Day: And we don't have an answer for that right now?

Kwame-Ross: I think we're hinting towards it, but overall, I think we frame some of it as culturally responsive classroom, culturally relevant stuff. But that's the surface. What is really at stake is ... in terms of my African American scholarship ... for example, my research; in 1900s, the turn of the century, we had the height of industrial revolution. That gives you a certain kind of history. But while that was going on, it was four years before it, 1896, which was The 14th Amendment, The Equal Clause. But at the same time, you had Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was okay. The early 1900 set the stage for 60 something years of locked in discrimination. Jim Crow.

African Americans at that time started to develop their own knowledge of how to live in a racist society. That's knowledge. What came out of that, 1929 Martin Luther King was born, or 1928. He grew up at a time where he was learning how to be a certain way and have knowledge as an African American, and you see what he did with it. There's a set of knowledge that is locked inside of culture and communities. How do mostly white teachers access that knowledge in order to teach kids, or how to help set the stage to access some of that knowledge?

Catherine Day: Do you think, Terrance, that it's a shift in their thinking about power?

Kwame-Ross: Yeah. Because knowledge is connected to power. I have very effective white female teachers in college. Now, what made them effective? They didn't have knowledge I had. Camille Blachowicz. Did a lot of stuff around vocabulary. That changed my life. She was good at vocabulary. What did she do? She didn't know Ebonics or the lexicons of the Black language, but what she knew was her theoretical knowledge about vocabulary and root words.

I remember being in her classroom and she said, "Terrance, as an African American, there's this idea of language. Language is a phenomenon, and it can be used in many different ways. The way whites use language to create worlds, blacks use language to create worlds, and you can actually integrate those." "Really Mrs. Blach? What do you mean by that?" And from that moment on, it opened me up. You see? Here's a white female ... and I was at that time 20 years old. 20 years old. She opened my eyes up to something that I was using all the time, but because of power, I didn't think it was worthwhile to study black culture, black language.

Catherine Day: Can you just imagine or tell me about maybe one student who comes to mind that your teaching has opened up their world. And what is that story?

Kwame-Ross: I'm currently working with a student now, so white female. I was a little hesitant, but it's working out. It's a white female and she's a URGO undergrad research-

Catherine Day: Scholar?

Kwame-Ross: ... scholar-

Catherine Day: She's studying undergraduate research with you?

Kwame-Ross: Yes, yes. With me, on my Black Boys study and I'm taking them through a process. There's some interviews with 30 African American middle school boys from three high schools here in Minnesota. I interviewed them, I did a pre impulse interview. We have teacher data, student data surveys. She wanted to do some research, so I said, "Yeah, yeah. You can do some research with me." What's coming out through her being with the interviews, having to read these interviews, hearing the African American young mans on their own terms ... and the questions was around how they conceptualize themselves, what are good teachers, what are bad teachers, who's helpful for them?

And here's this white females going into elementary education. She's in a couple of my courses. She's reading this stuff, and she saying, "Terrance, this stuff is connecting to the literature. What the young mans are saying about teacher characteristics. Characteristics that are helpful or are harmful or are humorous. The literature is talking about these, and this is actual stuff." She's opening herself up to what I would call the live voice. Sometimes as teacher, we can have African Americans and Latino's among right in front of us and just go through everyday life and teach them. What is interesting for her to sit with these interviews around African American boys that she do not know, and just listen to the live voice. And that's one of her words, the live voice.

And for African American, for a white female who's going into education to be able to, in her own words, talk about the live voice of black males, I think that's power there. That she's going to approach black males in a different way. She's going to have these categories and themes about how they view themselves on their own terms, what they hope for themselves, and what they hope for their teachers and education. That's in her. And so now she has the categories. It gives her opportunity to talk with me, and then now we're doing a lit review and she's going to put something together. But I think what she's being open to is how to listen.

Catherine Day: Is there one last thought you have about a dream you hope to fulfill that you're working on here?

Kwame-Ross: With my African American scholarship, the way I define that is my focus is looking at how adults within the African American community, from historical time to contemporary, how they have thought about framed question and given meaning to the category youth. In other words, how have African Americans conceptualized young people? That's important because the way in which African Americans have thought about and worked with African American children, think about it, has been much different than the broader society because of racism and discriminatory practices. My hope is within the next ... well, I want to bring all my work together.

I've been doing some stuff at Como high school, I've been doing some work in Saint Paul Community for the last 25 years with black men, and so I have a national local reputation around practical work with them. Practical work. My hope is to further bring this practical work. I push a little against, in terms of all of his being in written form, but I think as I began to write up my research, figuring out a way to use art and theater in public voice and performance to make the research practical in everyday assessable for the everyday person.

Catherine, I'm looking at ways to do that, and I think that's important because claiming to be American and historically the rhetoric attached to that in terms of freedom, liberty .... my hope is that all children growing up in America, all of them, all of them, and particularly the ones who are marginalized, like African American males, that they see themselves as wonderful learners in this particular context of America.

My hope is that I bring this stuff in some form that is attractive and assessable to all Americans, all citizens of Minneapolis and Saint Paul or Minnesota, and then branch out nationally. Because I think that's a ... I think there's something missing. There's a conversation missing around black male voices and what they have to say and contribute to the American society. I would like that to be a conversation, and particularly with the 95% of white teachers in elementary education around the country.

Catherine Day: Well, Terrance, I'm going totally be cheering for that dream. It sounds fantastic. I think one of the things that excites me listening to it as I observe how Augsburg approaches teaching, is that you're really pushing on that integration, that is permission giving to others. I want to thank you for the permission you gave others to be themselves, and thank you for this conversation.

Kwame-Ross: Thank you, Catherine.

Catherine Day: We've been speaking with Terrance Kwame-Ross, associate professor of education.

Paul Pribbenow: Thanks for listening to The Augsburg Podcast. I'm President Paul Pribbenow. For more information, please visit