Leading—and Reading—the Way to Empathy

Leading—and Reading—the Way to Empathy

Bevin, our school librarian who leads 5th and 6th grade social justice book clubs, and Kara, 7th & 8th grade language arts teacher and director of service learning, discuss the significance that literature has in creating an educational experience that fosters not just academic excellence, but empathy and compassion, too.


What is the importance of focusing on developing empathy in Middle School?
Kara: As a language arts teacher and the director of service learning, I cannot think of anything more important. Building empathy in our students not only gives them avenues to learn about people of all different backgrounds, cultures, and demographics, but it also teaches them their unique roles and how they can help others moving forward.

Bevin: Focusing on empathy—through teachable moments, literature, etc.—is valuable at every age. It becomes particularly important in Middle School with the increased independence for students, the transition to preadolescence and adolescence, and the social and other challenges that students face.

Why is literature so well poised to be the vehicle for this kind of work?
Bevin: Books are mirrors and windows. (Emily Style introduced this powerful metaphor in 1988.) Some literature lets us see ourselves and our own reality; it can feel affirmative, revelatory, familiar. Some literature immerses us in other people’s worlds and takes us outside of our comfort zones. Literature and stories connect us all and help us to grow.

Kara: Literature takes students to places other than their own lives. Literature discussions are poised to help students connect themselves to others, even when they think there isn’t a connection. In 8th grade, we read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is set in a time and place very different than present-day Green Acres. So, when Scout, the novel’s narrator, learns of injustice at a young age, our students are pushed to think about injustices they’ve experienced with questions, such as When was the first time you realized the world wasn’t what you thought it was? This question ignites a powerful discussion each year because students share such a variety of experiences. Every child discovers dissension in the world at different times, and literature discussions allow students to express this in a constructive, authentic way.

How do you go about building empathy? Which books do you select and why? What kinds of assignments or discussions do you have?
Bevin: I try to connect students with books that they might not read otherwise, literature that will stretch and inspire them in developmentally appropriate ways. More often than not, these are multicultural and social justice books about people who are fighting prejudice, bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

Kara: Each year when I prepare the novels we will read in 7th and 8th grade, I make sure that building empathy is in tandem with all of the comprehension and writing skills that students are building. Making connections in literature is the first step in building empathy. Guiding students to make connections from the texts we read to themselves, the world around them, and other texts not only demonstrates higher-order thinking skills, but it also helps students to think about the text in a personal, meaningful way. When I select literature for our upper Middle School students, I always make sure there is at least one title that is historical fiction. Reading a book like Of Mice and Men may seem outdated and unrelatable at first glance; however, if we take the storyline of a group of men trying to work to make ends meet and connect it to our current pandemic and the desperate measures folks will go to to put food on the table, students revel in the realization of the similarities between the past and present. Throw in powerful themes of power, loyalty, and friendship from a 1937 tale during the Great Depression, and it is a recipe for building empathetic readers and upstanders.

Is there an example of a project, assignment, and/or discussion that showcases a student’s developing ability to empathize?
Bevin: Over the years, I’ve given readers a choice of oral and written assignments to extend their appreciation of a literary character’s circumstances, experiences, and journey: an imagined monologue, an imagined dialogue, a new book ending, an epilogue, a poem, a rap, a comic strip, a collage, or a social identity wheel for a character. Discussions have focused on characters’ attempts to change the status quo. It has been exciting to watch students find their voice.

Kara: Last year’s 7th graders read I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda. It is the true story of Caitlin, a 7th grader at an affluent public school in Pennsylvania, and Martin, a student from impoverished Chisamba Singles, Zimbabwe, where education is a privilege and is all tuition-based. The story of their unlikely friendship across the globe began with a pen pal assignment in social studies class. As our 7th graders read about Caitlin’s perspective, they easily related to her stories about shopping, going out to dinner, and how easy it is for them to take family, food, and shelter for granted. Conversely, when they read about Martin, they tried to picture his living conditions and the food he ate, and they initially felt they couldn't make any connections to him. Literature discussions and journal writing soon showed our students how many connections they really had with Martin. No matter what the book is, students not only connect with the storyline, but they also deeply comprehend the literature. In my service learning role, I meet individually with Middle School students to discuss and reflect on any volunteer experiences they have completed. One day, I sat across from a 7th grader who was happily discussing his volunteer work at Nourish Now in Rockville. Right as we were finishing, he said, "Oh, I forgot to tell you in language arts about my Zimbabwe work." He proceeded to tell me about how much he was researching about Zimbabwe and the government corruption. He showed me countless letters that he had written to Congress and the President about the situation in Zimbabwe territories, such as Chisamba Singles from our book. In each letter, he pled for U.S. aid in Zimbabwe, explaining why it was needed and how it could be used. After he finished sharing, I asked him why he had done all of this extra work with research and letter writing. His response: "It seemed like the right thing to do." This is just one of so many examples of a student developing empathy through our literature studies.

What is the connection between an empathetic student and a successful student?
Bevin: Empathy enhances learning. It heightens critical thinking skills, sensitivity, and awareness. It broadens perspectives and fosters connections and collaborations. Empathetic students can become empathetic global citizens and leaders. Today’s empathetic students could bring the change that the world needs. ❖


Interview conducted by Talia Fishbine. Originally published in Middle School Beat Vol. II No. II in December 2020.