Teaching Empathy

Image result for bo burnham eighth grade

Middle school students aren’t exactly known for being the most empathic people in the world. Comedians like Bo Burnham and John Mulaney have both specifically called out  8th graders (my students’ grade) for their ability to be mean to one another. I see it in the hallways, in our classrooms, and on their phones every day.

One of the first weeks of school, I was paying close attention to a student who was consistently bullied for the way he acted out in class. While I was bringing up the lesson, I heard someone across the room say, “What are you, autistic?” Immediately jumping on that to find out who the perpetrator was, the targeted student immediately began defending the bully. “No, no, he said aRtistic.” Realizing, I’m sure, that saving social capitol and keeping the bully from discipline was in his immediate interest, I sadly watched another mean kid get away with it.

I walked into this job completely expecting the lack of empathy. As a sophomore in undergrad, an older friend and mentor strong-armed me into presenting at a conference in Wisconsin on peace and conflict. I threw a bunch of metaphorical spaghetti at the wall and came away with a paper on how middle grade literature can affect empathy. I created a neat looking poster with a flexible curriculum designed to promote empathy in the most egocentric age group. The most frequent question I was asked, however, was if I had tested the curriculum with a classroom. The answer two years ago? No.

Image result for empathy and literatureHowever, now that I have my own classroom, I realized I could start experimenting and opening up old research questions. How does empathy correlate with the amount and types of books read? What is the best way to calculate empathy and empathic responses? How do I bridge the gap between fictional characters and their real live peers?

Throughout the year I am going to track those different questions to the best of my ability. The students just started a fiction unit talking to one another about how learning from fictional characters can impact their life and relationships. At the beginning they took this empathy survey and will continue to take it throughout the year.

Their reading logs will tell me how much and what they’re reading, and hopefully the quiz results mixed with observation of interactions and their writing will indicate actual changes in empathy levels over the year.

I am beyond excited to watch this unfold. I love to parse through data, make my own spreadsheets (and then hand off to Henry to make efficient and pretty), and read works cited pages. Between this at work and the book on prison reform, I am going to be up to my ears in research. And then there’s the actual teaching and planning and grading!

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