Menlo News February 16, 2024

Matters of the Heart

Menlo Middle Schoolers build empathy and belonging through the Hearts Project.

What would it feel like to hold someone else’s heart in your hands?

Menlo Middle School explored this concept through the Hearts Project, whereby students were handed a paper heart filled with statements related to themes of belonging, pressure, inclusion, identity, and acceptance. In Advocacy, students were asked to anonymously check off the statements that they most identified with: from whether or not they feel a pressure to be perfect; have a learning difference; have mental health struggles; have a go-to friend; have experienced changing friendships; are facing financial hardship; feel like they belong; have experienced or witnessed cyberbullying, upstander behavior online, or unfair treatment from peers due to race, gender, ethnicity, culture, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation; and finally, how often they love themselves while at Menlo.

The exercise asked students to look inward and tap into vulnerable thoughts and experiences to figure out which statements felt most true to themselves. Then, at a special assembly, the entire Middle School gathered in the Spieker Center where their attention was redirected outward as each student and faculty member was handed someone else’s paper “heart.”

As members of Student Council and the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB) Club took the stage, a quote by artist and social practitioner Christine Wong Yap graced the big screen behind them: “Belonging happens when people feel safe, seen, and accepted.” Student leaders took turns reading the statements on the heart, and asked members of the audience to stand up if it matched the response on the heart they were holding. After each prompt, there was a pause, as participants were encouraged to take a moment to look around, see how many people were standing, and think about what they noticed and how it made them feel.

“Middle School is a time of change and struggle for everyone,” said the Student Council member. “It can feel hard when you feel like the only one going through something.” The Hearts Project helped validate the wide array of experiences within the Middle School community, allowing participants to gain a broader perspective, practice empathy, and increase belonging. “To me, the biggest takeaway is the opportunity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to have parts of ourselves seen and known so that our community understands its strengths as well as its challenges,” said sixth grade science teacher (and Hearts Project organizer) Jacqueline Stark ’04. “It’s important to build communities of inclusion to understand stories beyond our own and to feel our own stories are known too, so that we may take individual action that leads to collective belonging.”

As he closed the program, eighth grade English teacher Brian Buttacavoli (Mr. B) asked students and faculty to make belonging a daily choice here at Menlo. He acknowledged that this exercise allowed us to shine a light on different members, feelings, and experiences in our community. And while visibility is good, it can also reveal the parts of the community that are broken. So the real practice is to unpack these learnings, reflections, and feelings and figure out what’s next.

After the Assembly, Middle Schoolers met with their Advocacy groups for guided discussions to share observations and brainstorm how to use what they learned to improve belonging on campus through systems and their own actions. Previous Hearts Projects have led to conversations around empathy, care, and an urgency to help others.

“We need your help,” pleaded Mr. B. It can’t just be the responsibility of a few individuals to promote belonging. We’re a community that shares caring. And the ownership is on you, it’s on me, it’s on all of us. Because if it’s not you, then who?”