School lessons about homelessness, empathy

A teacher at the private Paideia School recently taught a class called “Experiment in Living” during which students learned about homelessness.

Students slept on the playground at a preschool in Inman Park. They tried to understand why people are homeless and what it’s like to live that way.

The teacher admitted some people may roll their eyes at her idea of social engineering. But she strongly believes in teaching students empathy.

“That is the single most important lesson I’d like to see them learn,” teacher Elizabeth Hearn said.

For the past several years teachers at Paideia have used the last couple of weeks of school to expose students to a variety of topics. Hearn said she started the homelessness program to expand students’ views.

This is an interesting way to handle those last few days of schools – when testing is over and students are restless for summer break. But I wonder what would happen if a public school tried to teach Hearn’s class.

What do you think of this class? Should schools teach social awareness?

28 comments Add your comment

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June 2nd, 2009
9:13 am

Good grief! Why not just let the government take children at birth and give them back at age 18! Aren’t parents supposed to teach ANYTHING anymore?

Classroom Teacher

June 2nd, 2009
9:27 am

“Aren’t parents supposed to teach ANYTHING anymore?”

You couldn’t tell by visiting my classroom.

Turd Ferguson

June 2nd, 2009
9:27 am

Did the teacher also provide them with cheap liquor, drugs, felony convictions so they would truly understand what being a bum means?


June 2nd, 2009
1:12 pm

OK, I’m a little clueless, here — how would camping out under less-than-perfect conditions, in reasonably nice weather, carefully guarded and monitored (because you KNOW their parents would howl bloody murder if their kids were actually in any danger), possibly build empathy for the homeless?

Do it in the middle of January, when there’s snow on the ground. Do it after standing in line at a soup kitchen. Do it after you haven’t had a chance to bathe in a week .. . . THAT might build a little understanding. Otherwise, it just seems like a particularly funky inner-city camping trip.

You did hit on a thing that irritates me to death — “those last few days of schools – when testing is over and students are restless for summer break.” Schools bemoan the lack of time available to teach academic subjects, and yet, basically the last two weeks of school is wasted on junk like this. Why is testing over so soon? Why isn’t testing saved for the last week of classes? Yes, AP exams are taken in early May, but that’s a small percentage of the high school population.


June 2nd, 2009
1:21 pm

We have some bloggers who would really learn a lot if they spent some real time on the street.

My aunt, who wanted to be an Episcopal priest back when women were not being ordained, underwent some “education” before being allowed to go to seminary. One of the things was living on the street for a time. She said it was one of the best things that happened to her before she became a priest. This was in the mid-late 70s. She had come from lower middle class beginnings and had a master’s degree, was a parasitologist at CDC for 20+ years, had a house in Stone Mtn. and a cottage in Highlands, etc. But living on the street, even for the short-term, taught her a lot.

It amazes me how few of our students even make up their own beds, much less have any responsibilities around the home or do any volunteer work for those less fortunate. And manyof them suffer educationally (as well as in other ways) for not doing so.

I went college-looking with my oldest daughter at a prestigious private Southern college and we were both floored when one of the mothers asked, “What days do the maids come in and clean the rooms?”

The blog-mistress on Momania was confronting this same disconnect from reality in one of her recent stems about “Slumdog Millionaire.” It certainly isn’t just the kids who don’t know about the experience the “others” have.


June 2nd, 2009
1:53 pm

Maybe next, she can let these students work with property owners who have to fix the broken windows, pick up the trash, and wash the urine and feces off the sidewalks where these ‘urban outdoorsmen’ relieve themselves.

Then, this teacher can take a couple of female students and let some drug addled crazy scream at them and follow them for about two city blocks panhandling for money.

There’s a reason nobody wants the homeless in their neighborhood.


June 2nd, 2009
2:22 pm

Kudos to Elizabeth Hearn!

Un-empathic students are much less the concern than school boards and superintendents that, through their policies and administration, keep on creating more and more un-empathic students in the name of pushing for high standardized test scores for NCLB compliance.

It’s not hard to figure out the root of the physical abuse the 11 year-old autistic child, a student of the Atlana Public Schools, experienced at the hands of an adult in his school. And it’s not hard to figure out the root of the push for a Marines military high school in DeKalb County Public Schools in the name of suppressing discipline problems or, as the superintendent there said, “wrestling … with urban inertia.”


June 2nd, 2009
2:24 pm

I think SG missed the part where Laura mentioned Paideia is PRIVATE school, and a public school. I think this is a valuable lesson. If these students are going to grow up and fight homelessness (instead of complaining about it or pushing it into ‘other’ neighborhoods), then a more intimate understanding the issue can only help.


June 2nd, 2009
2:37 pm

I meant NOT a public school. . .


June 2nd, 2009
4:06 pm

What would happen if a public school tried this? Easy. Most parents would immediately complain to the principal, to the school board, and some would even sue.

Some of these would be the parents of the kids that do nothing and expect to pass anyway. If this type of lesson was done, these parents would take the opportunity to say that this is why their kids aren’t passing.

This explains why public schools are forced into a box of strict State standards that limit what is allowed in a public school. It is the parents.

Public schools do not have to adhere to these standards.


June 2nd, 2009
4:28 pm

I think this is a great way to show the kids another experience, even if it isn’t “exactly” how the homeless live. Catlady is right: too many kids are not given any responsibility and are unaware of how people live outside of their comfort zone, or whatever you want to call it. So many people criticize kids for being spoiled, when in fact, they just haven’t been exposed to others’ needs or problems. I’ve found that in many cases, kids are very compassionate once they’re aware of a problem. Also, when I read the article I was struck by the effort that was made to point out the roles that substance abuse and mental illness play in this problem. They didn’t seem to be making excuses for behavior, but rather explaining it in a way that the kids could “get”.


June 2nd, 2009
8:36 pm

Gee – just send your kids to public school – then they can attend classes with homeless students and gain a true understanding all on their own! Add to that – students with special needs and disabilities and you’ll end up with bleeding hearts all over the place!


June 2nd, 2009
9:11 pm

um… kids are kids… kids should not be presented with such adult topics. even if it is in high school. although alot of teens are homeless anyways cuz their parents decide to kick them out for some stupid reason. besides if we were harder on our kids homelessnes wouldnt happen. because we as parents should be teaching them how to become responcible adults. how bout’ giving them chores??? or what ever happened with being able to spank children.. have you noticed that ever since we stopped spanking out children the crime rate has increased? all im saing is its up to us the parents to teach our young adults these matters and not some teacher. i think it pathetic to know that alot of us relie on state teachers to teach our kids when alot of schools dont have the adequate funding to teach them the stuff taht matters?? i remember when my english teacher taught me how to break down a sentence so that it made alot more sence to me and i could get the real meaning of a paragraph. what ever hapened to those days? <I know… GEORGE W.BUSH and that stupid NCLB law that actually makes kids grow into thinking that being educated is not as important as working for some manufacturing company that makes more money out of them than they could ever immagine.


June 2nd, 2009
9:15 pm

T Furgeson, obviously you don’t know that the largest population of homeless are familes. You are obviously stuck believing the sterotypical view of who is homeless. Yes, when men are single and homeless, they do experience large amounts of substance abuse and mental illness. Maybe you need to contact your local homeless coalition or continum of care to find out what homelessness really looks like in your area. You just might be surprised. Do you know that the leading cause of homelessness for women is domestic violence? You should probably have some idea of what you are talking about before you post a comment that is obviously full of ignorance and hate. Anyone can become homeless at any time. Please remember that. What would happen to you if you lost your job tomorrow and couldn’t find work for a couple of months? Do you have enough savings to prevent homelessness?

Some of the other comments are not much better. How many of you understand homelessness? What is wrong with students getting a better understanding of a major issue affecting millions of individuals. We teach about race and tolerance of other issues, but not homelessness? Why? Are we afraid that talking about homelessness makes us weak? What if that was you, a family member, or a friend. Homelessness can strike anyone, anytime. Like I said before, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population is families. That means children. So maybe I should jump on all of your soap boxes and HATE and JUDGE those children just like you. I’m sorry, but I work with homeless families and Over 58% of my clients are children under 12. Yes, under 12. With the majority of those being under the age of 6. What do you think it is like for a 6 year old to be homeless?


June 2nd, 2009
9:16 pm

I agree with Shoo Shee. Public schools do have many challenges. In my class of 19, we were talking about water conservation around Earth day, I found 2 of my students had no running water in their house that day (this was the second incident for 1 of the students) and another 4 could tell me about recent times when they had to pour water in the toilet to flush or take a bath in the sink.

So almost 1/3 of my students had experienced their own challenge in this area. This is NOT a poor area but my students got a quick lesson in hardship and conservation in the same day!


June 2nd, 2009
10:38 pm

What’s left for the parents to do? Schools are not responsible for the total development of the child.


June 2nd, 2009
10:48 pm

This experience will not not give young people a real experience…only real life!


June 2nd, 2009
10:59 pm

Schools should concentrate on the “Three Rs”. Everything else should be done by the parents.

Turd Furgeson

June 3rd, 2009
8:17 am

Well good jlyons…then you wont mind taking in a few of these unfortunates. Ya know, opening your home, heart and wallet. Put it where your mouth is. Lettuce know how it works out.

PS…Im not gonna launch into some BS diatribe I heard on CNN or BET, like you.

William Casey

June 3rd, 2009
8:44 am

I agree with OLDTEACHER. The hole in Hearn’s teaching model is the fact that the students know that their “homelessness” is short term and they will soon return home. They don’t experience the despair of true homelessness.


June 3rd, 2009
9:54 am

There are plenty of churches (mine for one) who offer many ways to serve the homeless and you don’t have to be a member to help. I take my children monthly to serve dinner at a homeless shelter. They are encouraged to sit at the tables and chat with the homeless people and they find out that they are just that — people! Good for this teacher for trying — she obviously saw the need to expose these students to another side of life. But – Why can’t these students’ parents organize such excursions?

Turd Ferguson

June 3rd, 2009
11:05 am

Were my child involved I would be extremely upset. These children need not be subjected to the underbelly of society. Many of these so-called homeless, truthfully labeled as bums, dont want a job. Their daily pursuit is for drugs or drink and will rob and con anyway possible to obtain their fix.

For those who truely are homeless (about 10%) via loss of job/mental illness then the local churchs and volunteer organizations that will be more than happy to help.

The remaining 90% are 1st class bums, who dont want a job, and should be treated as such.

Turd Ferguson

June 3rd, 2009
11:07 am


June 3rd, 2009
3:15 pm

I just graduated from the public high school nearest to Paideia, and I have to say that though this is not an authentic experience, necessarily, it’s as close as one can safely get to the real thing, and I would imagine that it would encourage some sort of empathy. Given that the kids at Paideia tend to be children of upper class social liberals, I can see why the school was given freedom to do this when it just wouldn’t have been possible at my school for a variety of reasons (class size chief among them).

It’s maybe a silly experiment, but it’s interesting, and at least they’re trying–however, I think regular volunteering at someplace like Cafe 458 might be of greater use to both the homeless and the kids.

Turd Ferguson

June 3rd, 2009
3:52 pm

All you doo-gooders and bleeding hearts should conduct your own experiment and visit Downtown Alanta’s Woodruff park/5 Points Marta station. There you will find all the “homeless” you could ever want to help.

Rent a van and bring them home. Stop talking ya fakes and take some action. Most of ya, truth be told, dont give a ratass anyway. Ya just wanna come on here, post your silly drivel, then walk away feeling a sudden release of “Im such a caring person” endoriphines. Fakes and phonies!!! If not the get your behinds down to the aforementioned areas and DO SOMETHING ABOUT HOMELESSNESS!!


June 7th, 2009
4:09 pm

T Furgusson. You want me to take action? You obviously didn’t read my original post where I told you I work with the homeless. I have been for 9 years. In fact, I am the CEO of a homeless shelter. I willnot argue with you, but point out that you obviously have a huge amount of hate in you. I hope no one you know ever expeiences homelessness whick will lead to your hate. You make a comment about all the fakes and phonies. What do you do other than HATE the world? I will take a potshot at you that may be wrong. Are you sitting on your unemployed butt posting constant messages because you have nothing else to do or is there a reason you can not seem to leave this subject alone? Huh? Makes me wonder. Maybe you were homeless and the reasons you quote are the reasons you were homeless? You sound like someone trying really hard to convince everyone else you know what you are talking about, when infact, you don’t.

Turd Ferguson

June 8th, 2009
8:15 am

You are no CEO. Now get down to 5 Points and pickup a van full of vagrants and miscreants then bring them to your house to live ya bleeding heart doo-gooder.