Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Teachers build empathy, one book at a time

Two award-winning educators – on a reservation in Arlee, Mont., and in Washington – share how literature has helped expand their students' discussions, and perspective.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Anna Baldwin, of Arlee High School in Arlee, Mont., was Montana's 2014 State Teacher of the Year. She uses literature to help her students understand empathy.

A circle of 10th -graders on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana immersed themselves in a deep discussion about race and how people can learn or unlearn prejudice.

That crystallizing moment – during a discussion of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – came near the end of the semester last winter, but sometimes that’s how long it can take to see the result of a strong effort to embed empathy and trust in the classroom, says Anna Baldwin, their English teacher at Arlee High School.

About 70 percent of her students are Native American, and “a lot of them talked about how they are treated when they go places off the reservation.”

“One student brought up the Philando Castile killing from last summer,” she says, a connection that struck her because the police-shooting death in Minnesota had been in the news several months back. 

“We were talking about how people can break out of some of the negative belief habits that they have,” Ms. Baldwin recalls. “What they were saying was super powerful.... Things you can’t hear adults around today say.”

Researchers have raised concerns about a drop in young people’s empathy over time and its possible link to everything from bullying to civic apathy. So a growing number of educators are including empathy among a range of social-emotional goals they believe will bolster not only children’s development but their academic performance as well. 

How teachers work to build that into their classrooms can be as varied as the teachers themselves.

For Baldwin’s school district, empathy has been a focal point partly because of the area’s high rate of addiction and suicide.

“It’s really important to build those relationships.... It might be the one thing that gets some of our kids through – that relationship with a caring adult,” she says.

At the start of the school year, “students are reluctant, they feel nervous,” Baldwin says, even though most know one another.  So she starts off with low-risk opportunities to talk in small groups about various topics. Then they’ll share something from the group to the rest of the class. “They’re not naming names ... [but] they basically have to call out one of their group mates in a positive way.”

She moves on to Socratic circles, where some students in the center of the circle discuss a question while others observe and reflect on how they’re communicating. Over time, they become comfortable sharing things that are “really personal and really deep,” says Baldwin, the 2014 State Teacher of the Year in Montana.

There’s also an educational equity component at stake.

“One of the inequitable aspects [for] students who live on a reservation or in a rural area is they don’t have access to other people,” she says. Literature is her vehicle for giving students “the opportunity to at least practice learning about and caring about people that are not like them.”

Her small multicultural literature class once read “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini. It was their favorite book because they had to learn a lot about religion and about Pakistan’s history and culture to understand it.

“I felt confident that they could go off into the world,... meet somebody of a different faith or a different culture, and maybe be more open-minded towards them because of just having read that book,” she says. 

Sharon Steinmann/AP
Students from Collegedale Academy in Collegedale, Tenn., watch the Mockingbird Players perform 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' in Monroeville, Ala., in 2015. Teachers often use novels to help students understand people different from themselves.

'Connect to what is not tested'

Empathy and equity are also inextricably linked for Josh Parker, a journalism teacher and instructional coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, the nation’s first public high school for black students.

“It’s awfully hard to achieve equity if you aren’t bridging the gap of empathy – between cultures, between races, and also between students and teachers,” he says.

A teacher’s empathy for students is key because it helps them “to connect to what is not tested in a student…,  their life experience, maybe what happened that morning that they’re still trying to get over,” he says. Then students connect better to the academic work. 

Mr. Parker, the 2012 Maryland State Teacher of the Year, starts by surveying students about their interests, giving them prompts for writing about various topics, and having them speak in class about what’s trending in the news that interests them. 

If empathy has an enemy, he says, it’s comparison. In high school, “everybody wants to know where they stack up,” he says. But teachers can help them see similarities as well, and that “the differences don’t have to be stacked on top of one another, but that they can be on a horizontal plane.” 

Literature can also open students’ eyes to suffering, and how people cope or overcome it. He once taught middle-schoolers with the book “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” by Eleanor Coerr, and found them hungry to know more of what happened and why.

“It helped them understand and empathize with the plight of those that were in Japan as innocent bystanders, but also the costs of peace,” Parker says.

One of his lessons focused on a chapter in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” about his break with the Nation of Islam a year before he was assassinated. “They just kind of marveled.... Kids were saying,... he must have felt really betrayed. They were just beginning to understand ... that sometimes steadfast commitment to a cause can end up leaving you injured.”

One of Parker’s goals is to “increase empathy from student to teacher, and help them understand the immense amount of work teachers do ... and that they [as students] play a role in helping teachers be productive.”

Teaching is too complex to be boiled down to one trait, but empathy is often “what matters most,” he says. “It’s the binding tie that makes it all worthwhile and makes teaching transformative.”

A variety of resources are available for teachers and parents looking to boost young people’s understanding of and caring about people different from themselves. Here are just a few examples:

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