David Levine -

Feb 23, 2023

Through the Prism with David Levine

Headshot of David Levine

David Levine, Founding Director of Teaching Empathy Institute (TEI) in the Hudson Valley of New York, is an educator, author, recording artist, and documentary filmmaker. He has 40 years of experience working in a multitude of educational settings as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, workshop facilitator, and systems-change planning specialist. David has published numerous articles on belonging, empathy, and classroom culture building and has written six books, including A Year of Belonging and Field Guide to a School of Belonging, both of which were recipients of the Nautilus Book Award, American Book Fest Best Book Award and Indie Book Award in successive years (2019-2022).

What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?

When I was in 5th grade, I had a remarkable teacher, Margaret Lopez. Mrs. Lopez, an avid birdwatcher, naturalist, and progressive educator, created a classroom of caring, discovery, and belonging for all her students.

I was the shortest person in a class of 32 students. One day as we were walking through the hall back to class from recess, three of my “friends” started making fun of my height. Feeling hurt, confused, and embarrassed, I walked straight to my desk and put my head down into my arms. Mrs. Lopez, sensing something had occurred, pulled me aside privately and asked what had happened. After listening to my story, Mrs. Lopez in a quiet voice said, “When someone in this class is hurt, I feel as if I am hurt. We need to talk about this with your friends.”

She assigned the class something to read and met with me and my friends. Instead of scolding them, she repeated what she had told me. This was my first direct experience with empathy (feeling what someone else is feeling and entering their story), and how it can be taught. Although I didn’t know the word at the time, I did know how I felt when I was with her: safe, understood, and listened to.

Many years later, when I was a teacher myself, the memory of that day so many years earlier came to mind and inspired me to write a song in Mrs. Lopez’s honor. Over the next few years, I started singing her song in workshops, and at the close of one of these sessions, a teacher asked if I’d ever sung the song for Mrs. Lopez. When I told her “No,” she encouraged me to do so before it was too late.

The next time I visited my parents, I called Mrs. Lopez who was 79 at the time, and reminded her of who I was. I asked if I could come to her house to sing a song I had written about our interaction, and she enthusiastically agreed. Standing there at her kitchen door, after having not seen me for 20 years, Mrs. Lopez smiled and said, “You haven’t changed a bit!”

In her living room, I took out my guitar and nervously sang, looking down at the floor the entire time. Two months after my visit, I received a card from Mrs. Lopez. Here is an excerpt from her note that I still carry with me today:

March 16, 1990

Dear David,

I am honored and sincerely grateful to you for the beautiful song you wrote on my behalf… The words and the music are on my mind every day. I repeat them over and over with a deep sense of gratitude, humility, and appreciation. You have, in writing the song and remembering 5th grade after so many years, paid me one of the highest and most lasting compliments I have ever received…

What values guide your personal life and your work?

I value the life story of each person I spend time with. I may not always know what chapters have come before or what chapters are yet to be written, but I do have the opportunity each day to make connections by writing today’s page, together. This is especially true for the relationships we foster with children: teaching by modeling wonder, curiosity, and openness to the ways of the world and how each of us holds a unique place in that world.

I grew up learning about the diverse experiences and life stories of others from a myriad of storytellers, traditional ballad singers, and contemporary folk singers of all ages, from all over the world. My parents were folk musicians who, in addition to running the Middletown Folk Festival, took me and my brothers to folk festivals every summer throughout my childhood. Being raised in the oral tradition of community building and belonging through story, song, creativity, and celebration, taught me the value of honoring all people and their way of life, by being present for them, listening to them, and sharing with them.

I have taken those formative life experiences and ways of living into my daily role as an educator, workshop leader, and program designer, integrating original songs, social stories, and authentic dialogue into my work. I define dialogue as the art of collective thinking – entering each conversation by holding the intentions of empathy, compassion, and support. The goal is not necessarily to come to an agreement with others but to come to an understanding.

When did a person or experience change your mind about an idea or belief?

In August 2001, I attended a weekend workshop in an old monastery on the banks of the Hudson River in Port Ewen, New York, where poet David Whyte recited his poem, The House of Belonging.

This is the bright home
In which I live.
This is where I ask my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love

As I listened to David recite his poem and share his reflections on his life-long pursuit of belonging, I began thinking of the many students and teachers I had worked with in schools over the years. I wondered what a School of Belonging could look like: a place where the conditions would exist for all staff and students to feel safe enough to find their unique voice. A place where they could embrace their heartfelt expressions and share them with others.

Since that day twenty-one years ago when I listened to David speak, I have taken this wonder with me into schools and classrooms throughout the United States and beyond as part of my work with teachers and students. During this time, I came to understand that a School of Belonging is not a curriculum or program, but rather a way of being grounded in compassion and empathy for ourselves, and embodying those traits in our relationships with students and colleagues, and within the communities where we live and work.

What are you working on right now?

After four years of piloting, refining, and re-designing, I recently launched The School of Belonging’s Badge Program in partnership with Lesley University Graduate School’s Center for Inclusive and Special Education. The program is designed for teachers and leaders who are passionate about developing a culture of care and compassion in their schools and classrooms. What most excites me about this partnership is that it will enable the Teaching Empathy institute to spread our work to educators beyond our home base in the Hudson Valley of New York, across the country, and hopefully around the globe.

In addition to the Badge Program, this year we will be releasing our K-8 digital music dialogue curriculum , "Making Connections" which utilizes songs to initiate the conditions for belonging and emotional safety through dialogue and reflection.

We also will officially release Finding Howard, an educational documentary about a song I have been singing for students and adults for over 30 years. The song, Howard Gray, tells the true story of a boy standing by as Howard was harassed and bullied throughout their childhood. Lee Domann, a Nashville songwriter, wrote the song from his point of view as a bystander to share the challenging lessons he learned about regret and compassion.

In our film, we introduce the viewer to Lee and some of his childhood classmates who reminisced about Howard and his family, and how they were treated poorly because of where they lived and how little money they had. We also meet Howard’s daughter Terri who shares what a gentle and kind man her father was, and we hear some of the more than 2,000 letters children had written to both Howard and Lee over the years. In the end, we as educators, scholars, and parents are called to hear the lessons from Finding Howard and create communities of belonging, caring, and safety for all.

What is giving you hope? What positive visions do you have for our future?

As someone who spends time with young people in schools for more than a quarter of the year, the innate wisdom, sense of wonder, and inner resilience of so many of these children provide me with hope every day.

Ten miles from where I live, in the Hudson Valley of New York, is a Ukrainian community. In early March 2022, I visited the local elementary school to sing songs of peace and community in classrooms that included Ukrainian children, some of whom had just arrived in the United States. While some of the children did not speak English fluently, their faces lit up as we sang together in our circle of belonging. During those sessions, it felt as if we were all sitting in a sense of safety, acceptance, and support. While we can never predict the challenges and uncertainties that will come into our lives, we can create the conditions for emotional safety to help us come together during difficult times.

Ever since I returned to school to work with children and their teachers, I have experienced a heightened need from students to feel closely connected to their teachers as a pathway to feeling a sense of belonging in school. My vision for our future is that all teachers embrace their significant role in the lives of their students for what it is: a noble and courageous undertaking.

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