Ideas for coaching empathy in the MG classroom
I read an APA article recently that quoted a Stanford psychologist who referred to empathy as the “psychological ‘superglue’” that helps us all to react with kindness, understanding, and support. Empathy is one of greatest, most important life lessons for anyone, any age, any background; it fosters cooperation, inclusivity, forgiveness, and volunteerism; it can serve as both a preventative and an antidote for conflicts and disagreements on matters personal, political, familial, environmental, and worldly.
Many schools and classrooms actively or subtly coach the development of empathy. The middle grade ELA classroom offers prime opportunities for coaching empathy because many MG readers are still developing the cognitive and social tools needed to perceive someone else’s point of view. And let’s face it, the middle grades (well, school in general) can be a hazardous proving ground to navigate with the potential for strong emotions, communication struggles, and impulsivity; generally speaking, middle graders can benefit from lessons in empathy to better weather the storm.
Since the ability to perceive issues and conflicts from another’s perspective is key to an empathetic reaction, teachers, librarians, and homeschooling parents have consistent opportunities to coach empathy in group study by introducing, reviewing, and analyzing point-of-view as a story element. Discussing the viewpoints and perspectives of fictitious characters (rather than friends, family, and other real people) can provide and promote a safe space for exploring emotions and observing the empathetic reactions of peers. In thinking how that article and others might be useful in MG lit instruction and the coaching of empathy, here are some interpretations and takeaways:
- Offer the chance to students to practice empathy toward a variety of characters. It might be easy to empathize with the comfortable familiarity of the I-voice character, the character who looks and speaks in ways similar to their own appearance and speech, or the central character whose conflict is often made clear. Discuss instead why readers might try to empathize with the antagonist, with a character who is different from the reader in multiple ways, or with a character whose actions cannot easily be explained by a clearly stated conflict. Readers should strive to see implied motivations, points of connection, and new, potentially challenging perspectives.
- It’s actually not about “stepping into someone’s shoes.” Readers shouldn’t try to empathize by imagining themselves (as exactly who they are) in the problem or conflict, because each reader’s experiences, being different, have the potential to change or remold the problem or circumstances around their own preferences, needs, and background. Instead, practice “other-oriented” empathy, which would encourage the reader to focus closely on how and what and why the character is feeling—and how, therefore, the character’s actions might be explained or interpreted.
- As teachers, librarians, writers, and parents, we want readers to have an appropriate emotional reaction to a book; readers shouldn’t, though, let themselves become burdened with a character’s suffering or sadness.
Some classroom activities that may help to develop empathy:
- Rewrite a scene from a secondary character’s perspective.
- Focusing on a character’s drastic or surprising decision, create a “Top 5 Reasons Why” list to explain implied or explicit reasons for the choice.
- Represent a character’s emotions in a symbolic, stylized collage, design, piece of music, or poem.
- Review the subtext of a scene and a character’s movements and body language to practice interpreting nonverbals.
- Extend reader understanding of a character’s role in the story (or a key figure’s role in nonfiction) with a character interview (crafting that character’s first-person responses) or a diary entry (written as that character).
Some works that offer the potential for empathy-building strategies, discussion, and activities (though, happily, most MG reads in general fit this bill 😊):
Jacqueline Woodson’s Remember Us: Almost-seventh grader Sage must balance the comforts of the past with the inevitable (and sometimes exciting) potential for new changes.
Landra Jenning’s Wand: Eleven-year-old Mira struggles under the heavy weight of grief since her father died and feels unhappily out of place with her stepmother and stepsisters. When a mysterious girl steps out of the woods and offers Mira three wishes, she hopes fervently that magic might be real.
Jarrett Lerner’s A Work in Progress: In a mix of prose, verse, and sketches, middle schooler Will seeks acceptance from peers and a crush named Jules; plagued with body image concerns, Will determines to transform his physical appearance.
J. Anderson Coats’s A Season Most Unfair: Set in medieval times, Tick—short for Scholastica—is proud to help with her father’s candlemaking business, even though she isn’t permitted to take the role of an official chandler (candlemaker) apprentice. When her father allows a boy named Henry to apprentice the trade, Tick knows she must prove to her father that she is a capable chandler—in spite of being a girl.