Educator Spotlight: Felice Clyne-Davis

Felice Clyne-Davis is an amazing educator with whom HEART has had the pleasure and honor of partnering for many years while she worked as a fifth grade NYC public school teacher. Felice is incredibly dedicated to humane education and found numerous ways to incorporate social justice, animal protection, and environmental ethics into her daily teaching practice, as well as school clubs, summer reading groups, and humane-themed musicals. Felice recently retired after 30 years of service. We asked if she could share some of her experiences with teaching humane education and offer advice for anyone who wants to incorporate humane education into their classroom.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, including your role as a teacher?

I worked in the New York City public school system in Queens for 30 years, and taught a Gifted & Talented program for 19 years with children of diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. I am a strong proponent of providing enriching inquiry- and project-based learning experiences for children.

How did you learn about humane education? 

A few years ago, during a teacher sabbatical, I took a workshop co-sponsored by the Mayor’s Alliance and HEART. I was shocked to find out that even though humane education is mandated in New York State, most schools do not teach it. I absolutely loved the lessons we were introduced to; they reiterated all of the positive messages and values I’ve always tried to share with my kids–about having respect, reverence, and responsibility for all living things, and knowing how the choices we make impact others. I was so moved during the workshop that I began to cry–that there were actually other people who “got it.”

How do you incorporate humane education into your teaching? 

Almost every fiction and non-fiction text we read was examined through the lens of social justice and the roles that gender, power, race, stereotypes, and socio-economic factors play in our society and how we treat animals and our environment. Students need to see themselves in texts and know that they too can make a difference. There are so many powerful and beautiful stories that we shared featuring strong protagonists, including The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, William Kamkwamba’s gripping memoir about the heroic young inventor who brought electricity to his Malawian village; I am Malala, the remarkable tale of a Pakistani girl who spoke out against the Taliban’s oppressive rule and their ban on the education of girls; and Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave, through which students enhanced their empathy skills as they experienced the personal journey of a resilient young woman who immigrated to the United States.

We often did a deep dive into the marvelous work of anthropologist Louis Leakey’s Angels — Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, and Dian Fossey — who studied chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas respectively in their natural environments and made us aware of how similar and connected humans are to these amazing primates. Students were treated to a workshop by a former science teacher from our school who shared her experiences of visiting with Dr. Galdikas in Borneo. They learned about the devastating impact palm oil deforestation had on the orangutans and how to try to read labels and purchase fewer products that contain palm oil. Via Skype, they met former Girl Scout Maddie Vorva who — along with her friend, Rhiannon Tomtishen — drew media attention for her advocacy against palm oil in Girl Scout cookies. 

What, if any, changes did you see in your students’ knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors after introducing humane education? 

Students’ confidence, writing, research skills, reading skills, and yes — even test-taking skills — improved vastly once they were empowered to be compassionate changemakers and concerned citizens. Students were able to engage in respectful dialogues and book club conversations where they exchanged and built on each other’s ideas and respectfully disagreed with one another. These important discourses enabled them to change their perspective or solidify their positions on different topics. Even when students learned how to construct persuasive essays (that address counterpoint arguments), they learned to value different opinions. 

How have your students taken action in their community?

I always believed it is essential for all learners to be involved in their own communities, so I supported my students to engage in service learning activities that enable them to be the change they want to see in the world. For instance, a few years ago, my fab fifth graders were involved in a special initiative, Start with Hello (inspired by the Sandy Hook Promise campaign), in which they helped combat social isolation. In the past several years, they raised thousands of dollars for many organizations, including Project HOPE, WHY Hunger, and local food pantries.  (I am so proud of my students. For a window into our world, please check out student-created websites, http://compassionatekids.weebly.com/ and http://caringkidsof165.weebly.com/)  We did a shared reading of Claude & Medea, an exciting children’s novel by animal activist and President of the Institute for Humane Education Zoe Weil, in which two young people from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds are inspired by an eccentric substitute teacher, Mrs. Rattlebee, to care for and advocate for humans, animals, and the environment. We turned the book into a musical extravaganza that helped raise nearly $1,000 for two local animal rescues. Mostly, we had the kids asking themselves if they could embody Ghandi’s “”My Life is My Message” motto.

 What advice would you give to other teachers who want to incorporate humane education into their teaching practice?  

There are so many animal-environmental-humanitarian issues that seem overwhelming. Yet the seemingly little steps we can all do to help can have tremendous impacts. It begins by acknowledging these conditions exist. We can’t close our eyes to the suffering, and as educators, we need to guide students to come up with their own solutions–plans and contributions they can make. Humane education doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be taught separately from the curriculum. It can and should be integrated into all subject areas. 

Are there any resources that you would recommend for teachers interested in humane education?

I highly recommend that teachers read books like Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension, which identifies and unpacks the skills of social comprehension. It provides teachers with tools and activities that help students make sense of themselves and the world as they navigate relevant topics in today’s society, including race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality. It has so many great activities that give kids the chance to explore their personal identities and celebrate their unique selves while also finding commonalities with others. It provides great insights on how to have those difficult but needed candid conversations in the classroom so we come to embrace empathy.

Mary Ehrenworth’s The Civically Engaged Classroom helps prompt students and teachers to do the important work of exploring identities and facing our biases that facilitates community building in our classrooms.

Last Child in the Woods not only offers an in-depth exploration of nature deficit disorder and its ramifications, but the end of the book also offers 100 Actions We Can Take to help reinstate joy, wonder, and exploration into kids’ daily lives.

Make sure kids stay up to date on what is happening in the news. Newsela is an awesome website to use that contains real-world texts that feature diverse perspectives and people all students can identify with, and the articles can be differentiated and adjusted by reading levels. Explore media literacy so students can navigate and make sense of the plethora of information that is coming at them all the time and use what we like to call our “skepticals”–so we can vet information, question its validity, constantly question ourselves, engage in respectful discourse, explore multiple perspectives, and ultimately come up with our own opinions. (Brainpop is a great resource for kid-friendly media literacy lessons.)

Is there anything else that you would like to share? 

Make it your mission to ensure that you empower students to explore their own passions and become compassionate problem solvers and changemakers. It’s so easy to give up, especially when you may see the world differently. But I will conclude with a line from one of my favorite old songs, Make Your Own Kind of Music, that encourages divergent thinking and each young person to stand up for what they believe in. “Make your own kind of music, sing your own special song…even when nobody else sings along.”

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