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Five Strategies for Developing Empathy

David Theune is an ELA teacher in Spring Lake, Mich., and a Fulbright Distinguished Award recipient.

By Guest Blogger David Theune

For the past six months, I've been living in the Netherlands on a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant. I am on a mission to expand a project to reduce bullying.

This started years ago when a student shared her experiences with me: "The name calling and judging. They were calling me names because all my friends were boys. They whispered them in my ear in the hallway and class. Girls are mean. Words hurt more than sticks and stones. And those words, those names, still haunt me. I buried myself in baggier clothes, so they did not have an excuse. It didn't matter. I still am those names to them. I still feel violated by them, and it's been two years since they stopped. The words still hurt."

empathy.pngWith this one journal entry, I was moved to action with the help of my entire community. We started a book club made up of students, teachers, support staff, administrators, family members, local business owners, and others to read and discuss Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Mix that with some personal reading of Brené Brown's Daring Greatly, and it became clear that the path to reduced bullying was through elevating student empathy. To have more empathy, we must stop and listen to each other's stories and experience the vulnerability of sharing our own.

With The Share Chair Podcast, which we started to address bullying in our school and beyond, we do both: We empower speakers to share their stories and we encourage people to listen in order to better understand the speaker. Often, an unexpected result is that the listeners begin to understand more about themselves; listening without judgment can lead to deeper connections with the speaker.

Here are five strategies for developing empathy—and ultimately reducing bullying—in your school community.

Make empathy the centerpiece of one assignment.

Every subject has perspectives and points of view. Create an assignment to understand them. The requirement isn't for you or your students to adopt those viewpoints but to work hard to understand them. For example, literature lends itself to understanding the perspectives of its characters. At the end of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, we are given a physical representation of standing in someone else's shoes when Jean Louise, a.k.a. Scout, walks Boo home only to mentally revisit the entire summer's events from Boo's perspective. Do that with another character from the same book. In this example, how would Dill, Mayella Ewell, or any other character see the events of the summer?

Of course, health class is a great place to approach the topic of empathy as well. Intentional lessons on speaking, listening, and restating what was heard are critical for developing students' empathy and interpersonal skills and paying attention to their mental health. Getting students to be able to speak to each other without immediate judgment is an increasingly important skill.

Listen to podcast episodes as real-world connections to curriculum.

Use podcasts to connect the curriculum to students' lives. Our Share Chair podcast is just one example—it has stories of teachers changing careers, of students who have lost a parent to cancer far too early, of students who have traveled the world, and of students who have never left their city limits. All over this podcast, and any podcast where storytelling is at the core (This American Life is another example), connections can be made to your students, allowing them to blur their boundaries and to see themselves in others.

Create your own book club.

Book clubs provide a structure for youths and educators to talk directly about the topic of bullying and the state of bullying in the school. Often, we only respond to bullying after an incident occurs when there are many sides and voices: the bully and the victim and any number of those students' advocates. To discuss the problem rationally, consider running a book club using one of the books I've mentioned or Elevate Empathy, the nonprofit book we created in our community discussing the benefits of such a book club. There are also many lists of books to use with students, including this one from Common Sense Media.

Help students share their own stories.

Your students have something to say. Their stories are important. Helping students in your own school to develop and tell their own stories empowers them to own their experiences and emotions and can help students who listen understand their perspective. Use an iPhone or more advanced recording tool to capture the audio and some kind of editing tool (WeVideo for audio only, GarageBand, Audacity, and more) to help students create their own stories. If you need help getting started, Teaching Tolerance has created an introductory lesson plan. 

Gather students and let them create a tool for empathy.

Students can make empathy tools on their own. Give them the challenge of promoting empathy in their community, state, nation, and even across the globe. Examples include the Whole Child InitiativeStart Empathy, and The Chalkboard Project, an art display of students' negative words changed to positive words. You can also use 30-minute mental-health instructional models like restorative circles.

Are you ready to get started? Just ask the educators and students around you this question: What can you do to practice empathy? Then, watch it grow.

Connect with DavidHeather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo

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