RedRover Readers: A model for discovery learning and empathy development using the power of stories, questions and listening

What if every teacher created a positive discovery classroom culture where everyone really listens, connects & discovers together?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

My initial inspiration came from research that shows biologically a brain cannot feel empathy and aggression at the same time, suggesting great potential for empathy to end bullying, neglect and violence in a community. Further research demonstrates empathy is critical to positive relationships and wellbeing and can be developed by practicing taking the viewpoint of characters in stories. Then, I quickly realized our method of developing empathy skills in a classroom had benefits far beyond just helping kids develop socially and emotionally. During the first RedRover Readers training when I saw educators shift their view from didactic "teaching" at students to one of "empowerment" I knew we were onto something big. We ask them to put themselves in the shoes of an 8-year-old boy, and they feel what it's like to be genuinely listened to and how this can lead to the kind of engagement that increases understanding, builds connection and makes learning deep. And afterwards, teachers tell us our workshop changed their entire view of teaching and that it works like magic. Also, the first time I implemented the program, I went back to a class for my second visit. Upon entering the classroom, a student ran up to me and threw his arms around me. My one visit to his classroom taught him he could trust me, that I cared about his thoughts, feelings and ideas. He “felt felt” (listened to without judgement), and this was vastly different from his usual experience. His gratitude fuels me.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Bullying, neglect, cruelty and violence in schools and communities dramatically impact children's wellbeing, and research shows the most promising antidote to these issues, empathy, is on the decline. RedRover Readers trains teachers how to use stories + questions in classrooms to develop perspective-taking, self-reflection, self-awareness and listening, skills critical for empathy, emotional competence, positive relationships and wellbeing. Students discover together how animal and human characters might be feeling in books and how they feel. A teacher, modeling listening and empathy, connects with students and builds a classroom culture of empathy, a place where bullying is far less likely. Questions like "Why would anyone listen to a dog?" and activities like role playing encourage students to reflect on "self" versus "other" and think about what our responsibilities are for others.

For the most part schools are stuck with the view of education as imparting information. Shifting the educational mindset to one of discovery that includes discovery of self and other has huge benefits to students, teachers and the world.

When students sit in a class isolated from others, listening to just the teacher, only a small part of their brain is activated and learning is superficial and lonely. RedRover Readers presents a model that uses the power of stories and question strategies to activate the discovery process and help everyone in a classroom understand each other, feel better and build better relationships. Questions like, "How do you think she feels in this picture," "How do you know" and "How would you feel," help students understand emotional states, develop awareness of their own and other's emotional states and practice skills necessary for empathy (like perspective-taking). The model combines research in education and psychology; such as:  reciprocal teaching (shown to increase comprehension), dialogue education (designed to maximize engagement and learning with adults), use of high-quality fiction (increases Theory of Mind/empathy) and narratives (activate/integrate the whole brain), in unique ways to make learning personally relevant and deep.

We help teachers let go of control and become a facilitator who starts conversations and is genuinely engaged in what students think and feel. They learn how to use stories and ask questions that activate a student's whole brain and challenge pre-existing narratives (which the brain uses to encode attitudes like "I hate cats"), making learning deeper and more personally relevant. We utilize carefully selected children's literature that illustrate positive relationships between people and animals as an easy way for kids to understand relationships in general. The strategies we share with teachers shift their entire mindset about teaching. In fact, the most impactful dimension of this program may be the ability for teachers to take the strategies and apply them in multiple ways, such as using the question strategies across subject areas and teaching kids the strategies to strengthen peer relationships and practice listening and responding with empathy with their classmates.

When implemented school-wide there is also the potential to build a new school culture, one of a close-knit, supportive community woven together through active listening and discovery. During RedRover Readers lessons, teachers guide discussions around carefully selected books that help students understand emotional states and take the perspectives of characters in books, both human and animal. The curriculum works best with 8 and 9 year old's, who are just developing more complex perspective-taking skills. Often education around emotional states stops after kindergarten, so this program also offers the opportunity to continue exploring emotional states -- especially those that are more complex, like mixed emotions -- as well as understanding emotional states in the context of relationships. In sum, the program helps students tap into their own knowledge, memories and emotions to interpret illustrations and narratives that help build their awareness of self, other and community.

Teachers model active listening, how to use questions to understand and connect better with others and responding without judgement. They reinforce participation and learning through genuine listening and acknowledgement instead of praise (which can increase the power differential and reduce the likelihood that students feel empowered to really express themselves). They ask questions like: "How do you think Buddy feels in this picture?" "How do you know?" "Tell me more about that," "Who else has another idea?" "What does everyone else think about what Maria said?" "Can a person and a dog be friends?" "What would that look like?" "Why would anyone listen to a dog?" "How is listening a part of friendship?" The illustrated books used in the program model positive relationships between people and pets, relationships that kids find much easier to unpack and discuss than human-human relationships (even if they do not have pets in their home).

As a class, students reflect on how they would feel in a similar situation as the characters; they listen and respond to their classmates' thoughts, feelings and ideas; and they practice what they've learned in play-based activities. They learn how to use clues from illustrations and text to interpret how others are feeling, and they practice the perspective-taking and self-awareness necessary to feel empathy for animals and each other. Lastly, they use the curriculum to reflect and share ideas about individual and collective responsibilities towards animals and people in need and how to make the future a more compassionate place for all.

Although the RedRover Readers program has been successful in helping RedRover achieve its mission of developing stronger relationships between people and pets as a means to address animal neglect and cruelty, because the methodology of the program has such potential to address many areas that impact education and children's social and emotional wellbeing, our long-term plan involves creating a new educational division or stand-alone social enterprise, RedRover Learning, with a broader, more holistic, inclusive mission of building stronger relationships and a stronger sense of community in a classroom and a school as a means to increase wellbeing and empower students to create a more compassionate society.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • No, not explicitly

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Leshan's teacher read aloud the book, Max Talks to Me, about a boy who listens and is great friends with his dog. When Ms. Kesty asked questions about how they thought Max and the boy felt in the pictures, he imagined himself as both the boy and the dog. When they shared what they all thought made a good friend, he thought about how great it feels to be and have a good friend. When Ms. Kesty and his classmates listened to his contributions, he felt a sense of belonging, how good it feels to be listened to. Leshan was 100% present, his hand shooting in the air, eager to share, eager to hear what his classmates had to say. And later he told Ms. Kesty the book made him want to become a better brother, to play with him more and not be a bully.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

A quantitative study with the New School for Social Research is in progress. We conduct surveys and interviews and have hundreds of impact stories. Educators (768 trained) tell us their students love the program; they understand emotions and treat each other better, and they better understand how communication helps develop friendships. Students (44,000+) tell us that they thought of animals as toys, but after the program they understand they have feelings. One parent told us he was always trying to get his daughter to stop pulling their cat's tail, but it "never sunk in" until after this program and now she doesn't. A boy told us, "A Home for Nathan really made me sad for the cat because nobody wanted him because of his cross-eyed eyes. Isn't that sad. I would adopt him the first time I saw him." Link to more:

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Currently RedRover Readers is 15% of our overall budget of $2 million. Our Board of Directors is committed to growing this program through the use of our reserves, until the program is sustainable. We have just implemented a new earned income stream through the development of an interactive, bilingual book and game app that uses our curriculum. The app also expands our reach to homes as well as schools and will spread awareness of the program.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are others working on integrating social and emotional learning into schools, but many of these require complicated and costly training and tend to be isolated from the “regular” learning day or only focus on one part of SEL. RedRover Readers uniquely trains educators to learn strategies that help kids think and decide for themselves how they want to treat others in the context of language arts lessons and beyond. It was developed by combining research in education and psychology (like reciprocal teaching, which increases reading comprehension) in innovative ways to make learning deep.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The increasing interest in social and emotional learning and the research that supports the importance of SEL for academic success is one of the most exciting developments I've seen in a long time! As a former classroom teacher, it was so obvious that kids need to feel safe and connected to each other to be successful, but emphasis on standards and trends that have disempowered teachers have taken education in the wrong direction for awhile now. I'm hopeful the tide is swinging the other way! I'm also very excited about the research linking reading high-quality literature with empathy!

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

-Elementary School Kids, Teachers, Parents -We train teachers in the United States to use the program through free in-person workshops and on-line interactive workshops ($79; scholarships available) -We also train humane educators at animal shelters, and in Sacramento, CA, we train and mentor volunteers to implement the 5-wk program -We use books, plus an interactive, bilingual graphic novel & game app for home/school use -Although we believe students from all backgrounds benefit from the program, we conduct special outreach to educators to utilize our various bilingual books and resources

Community Leadership

We seek feedback from teachers, parents and kids through focus groups, interviews and surveys and share. We collect the artwork and activities done in the program for feedback on impact. We conduct 1-month and 6-month follow-up after surveys are completed. In addition, we are actively recruiting volunteers, educators and community leaders from the Latino community to help maximize how the program can benefit the Latino community specifically.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

We are already spreading the program in the United States and Canada by having an online learning platform. Our new bilingual app also makes it possible for this model to reach every English and Spanish speaking country. In order to make a huge cultural shift in how children learn and develop SEL skills, we are currently seeking partners to explore expanding this learning model into additional educational outlets, like children's television.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

RedRover Readers focuses on the social and emotional aspects of wellbeing, particularly self-awareness and empathy and how vital it is to feel connected and valued by both adults and peers in a child's life. Our model gives adults and children specific strategies that help children play an active role in their own learning or meaning-making and feel connected and valued so they feel safe, grounded and empowered to enact change in a community.

Leadership Story

Over 10 years ago, when I started at RedRover, I saw the need for an innovative education program to tackle the root cause of animal abuse. Combining my experience in education, knowledge gained in graduate school, plus my passion for animal behavior and innovation, I developed RedRover Readers. As a parent and former teacher, I am also passionate about moving education towards a model of discovery rather than information. I believe children can be empowered to discover, think deeply and change the world; and using a model like RedRover Readers, make the future more compassionate for all.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

RedRover Readers was selected as a Pacesetter in Ashoka's Re-Imagine Learning Challenge.

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Tambra Raye Stevenson

I love the focus on 'discovery' of self and others! So vitally important to know thyself and to be true to one's purpose. The earlier the children can learn the better they can focus  on having a purpose-driven life! Kudos to your work and success.

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