Teach Empathy Through Books

As the weather warms the students become restless and emotions run high at our school.  They fight each other... a lot.  Today we had three fairly violent altercations before the bell rung for the first class.  Fights are, unfortunately, a part of an educational setting.

Though Spring-time fights are often fueled by relationship issues and amplified by cabin fever, many of the conflicts arise from simple misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Communicating through electronics, I feel, has robbed children of an important set of skills: theory of mind. In other words, kids, because they rarely interact face-to-face, don't understand how to interpret the actions of others.  They fail to understand how others think and feel.
Lacking the tools necessary to make social interpretations, the actions of others are often misinterpreted and misunderstood leading to an unnecessary conflict.  Being adolescents, their  emotion trumps cognition and consequence prediction which leads to physical conflicts.

How do we teach kids to think about what others are thinking and feeling?  How do we teach empathy- the skill of viewing a situation from another point of view to understand feelings?

Many, MANY answers to the empathy question have been developed (the link refers to social work but is a great place to start).  But one answer is often overlooked: reading.

Teach kids how to empathize though books.

Humans are narrative beasts.  We all love to tell a good story.  Further, we all love to hear and see a good story.  Good stories captivate us because they appeal to our narcissistic selves.  We are predisposed to place ourselves in the story as the main character.

This has huge implications for teaching empathy.  By inadvertently becoming the main character of the story, we are placing ourselves in the shoes of someone else.  Our perspective is no longer our own and we experience the story through the eyes of another individual.

In fact we get SO involved with the story that our brain reacts to the events in the story as if we were experiencing it in real life.  There is no distinguishable difference in brain activity between reading about the activity and actually doing the activity.  If we are reading about a conflict where the main character is resolving the issue by being empathetic, our brain acts as if we are actually resolving a conflict by embracing a different point of view.

By reading, we get a chance to practice being empathetic.

Reading books acts like an empathetic situation dry-run.  As the main character in the book (and also the reader) experiences conflicts, the readers gets to practice working through the conflicts which hopefully conclude positively... without fighting.

It turns out you don't need the "Chicken soup for the ...... soul" series either.  The above cited study used Harry Potter.

The Common Core standards incorporate literacy.  We, as the teachers, can take advantage of this shift and not only implement the new literacy ideals, but embrace it as a chance to teach our students empathy.

How do you encourage empathy in your classroom?  Connect with the Pragmatic TV Teacher and share your ideas!

Thanks for reading!

No comments:

Post a Comment