I was immediately drawn to it because empathy is always something I'm always trying to teach my students. Maybe not teach it, but I strive to share with them the importance of having empathy. I think they need to be aware of what it actually is, then maybe it will be easier to find it in themselves.
I do think you can grow, for lack of a better term, your empathy in others. The ways I've found to do this are through three things: reflection, awareness, and story. Middle school kids are built for empathy. A statement which would surprise many, yet it's true. They naturally want to help, they can be drawn in to stories, but they also want to talk about them too. They understand the phrase "walk around in someone's shoes" and do it all the time. Here's what I do to continue to build up their empathy gene:
We reflect at the end of every unit, every project, and every quarter. I ask students to reflect on a multitude of things: my teaching, our classroom environment, their reading/ writing habits, their effort/ attitude, what their goals are (academic, social, organizational), and more. At this point they aren't shocked at all when I ask them to pull out a paper to do a reflection. They are ridiculously honest on them. After some reflections, I confer with each student. Currently my conference cycle is going through their reflection from the halfway point of the year and helping them to make goals to finish seventh grade strong. I think empathy for others needs to start with an awareness of self. For some, that's easy. For others, they are learning.
Kids can get tunnel vision. They see their friends, they see themselves, but not much else. I ask them to observe and write through our daily quick writes in class. Sometimes we watch a video, sometimes we look at an image, sometimes we get outside of our classroom. I share the impetus for our quick write, we briefly discuss, then they write. Some examples of what we wrote from just last week include:
- This picture from The New York Times Learning Network's What's Going on in This Picture? I shared it with my students without comment. They wrote about it. Then I asked them if any of them judged this kid for being on his phone at a game. Many hands went up. I talked about how social media had done that too when the photo came out. We discussed why he could be on the phone, whether being on the phone means you deserve to be hit by a bat, and why we tend to rush to judgement instead of just observing without commentary.
- This video on Conner and Cayden Long. We talked about disabilities. One boy brought up what a struggle it is to deal with a disability like anxiety and depression that others can't see. Many kids wrote about how we treat others, and what people are dealing with that you can see, and what you can't.
- We headed outside. We just started this, but once a week, we're heading outside for our quick writes, as long as it isn't pouring down rain. We live in Illinois, so the weather can be a bit erratic, but I want the kids to get out more, to find the quiet you can only find with nature. We take ten minutes for our quick write on these days. The first three are just for them to wander in silence, to get lost in thought. Then I tell them to find somewhere to write - standing, at a table, on the concrete, leaning against a building, on the ground. They write whatever they want. Then we come together to share.
As I've told my students multiple times recently, I think the world would be a better place if everyone lived and breathed story like we do. Story is where we truly do see what it would be like to live in someone else's shoes. Story is where you can realize what experiences someone of another race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., experiences. In that vein, here are some books I've recommended just this week to my students.
The author C. Alexander London wrote a post for Nerdy Book Club back when it began that I absolutely love. There is a quote from that post that has long hung on my classroom walls. It talks about story:
It's a fact: people can survive without books. People can even have wonderful, full lives without books. But they can't long endure without community, and community is build on stories.