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Building Empathy With Stories
Develop social-emotional skills and empathy using fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Fourth-grade teacher Todd Flory enjoys reading Harry Potter with his students at Wheatland Elementary in Wichita, Kansas. But captivated as the kids are by Quidditch, floating candles, and paintings that talk, Flory is working with them on something else—building empathy.
“We use the book to talk about the importance of understanding and accepting people who are different,” Flory says. Through the medium of books, he feels he is helping students become more sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others.
Research supports the idea that reading can expand students’ worldviews and build empathy. In an article in an American Psychological Association journal, academics from Italy and the United Kingdom found that the Harry Potter books in particular helped students gain an understanding of others. That’s important, says David Kidd, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied empathy and literature. “We tend not to extend empathy to people in other groups as readily as we do to people in our own groups. By reading stories showing people who are different from us, it helps us see them as full people.”
Author Alan Gratz, whose book Refugee tells stories of children fleeing persecution, hopes his novel opens students’ minds and hearts to diverse experiences. “The plight of refugees is so far removed from many children’s lives, thankfully. But that distance means they are often unable to understand who these people are, and why they’re walking for days and weeks and thousands of miles to find new homes,” Gratz says. (His latest book, Grenade, deals with moral issues faced by Japanese teens during World War II.)
Want to use fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to build empathy and develop students’ literacy skills? Read on!
Learn From Fiction
“Literature is an excellent tool for building empathy. It’s like a match made in heaven,” says Heather Schwartz, practice specialist at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. “When we read stories, we ask ourselves, ‘Why is the character doing this? What’s going on with him or her?’”
Consider Wonder, by R. J. Palacio. It’s told from various perspectives and is about a boy named August who has facial deformities and is encountering school for the first time. One study conducted by a psychology professor at Virginia’s Mary Baldwin University in collaboration with a sixth-grade English teacher found that sixth graders who read Wonder showed improvement in looking at things from others’ perspectives. That’s no surprise to third-grade teacher Stacie Delaney, who teaches at Tabernacle Elementary School in New Jersey and has read the book with her students. “One of my students has a significant disability; she used to have a tracheostomy tube. My students understand that in the book, August looks different but that’s okay. We all look different,” she says.
Justin Minkel was teaching in New York City when terrorists struck on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, Minkel noticed his fourth graders had absorbed negative stereotypes about Middle Easterners. He responded by bringing in books aimed at shattering those stereotypes, such as The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland, about a boy in Cairo. He had students write down what they thought they knew about people from the Middle East and then reexamine their assumptions after reading this book and others. “I asked, ‘Are the things we thought really right?’ And they realized they were not,” he says.
Author Kelly Yang, whose book Front Desk tells the story of an immigrant couple and their daughter, Mia, who manage a motel, says kids like to read about characters who are relatable. “Mia’s problems feel real and immediate to kids because they care about her,” Yang says.
Delaney urges fellow teachers to be intentional about introducing empathy lessons. She suggests framing conversations about books with empathy-driven questions, like asking students how they think characters feel. Writing assignments on perspective are helpful, as is asking kids to act out a story.
Go Deep With Nonfiction
Kids love to learn through storytelling, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, says Lauren Tarshis, editor-in-chief and publisher of Scholastic Classroom Magazines and author of the best-selling I Survived book series. She often hears from teachers whose students were inspired by an article in one of the magazines—water needs in Africa, a hurricane in the United States—to sell lemonade or T-shirts to raise money. “Teachers are sharing a story, and watching how it becomes a catalyst for kids to want to learn more, to take action, and to connect with people they might not have connected with before,” Tarshis explains. One article that drew strong student reaction was about a baby elephant named Ishanga, orphaned in the Tsavo National Park in Kenya after poachers killed his mother. The article described Ishanga’s rescue, and teachers reported that students were raising money to “adopt” orphaned elephants, even in lieu of having a classroom pet.
At Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland, all students read the same book each summer. Rachel Johns, the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme Coordinator, seeks out books that develop empathy. She has used I Am Malala, the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for girls’ education in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban. “It’s our responsibility as a school to implement lessons that encourage students to take a walk in someone else’s shoes,” says Johns.
Perrine Punwani, an English language arts teacher at Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C., likes to pair fiction and nonfiction. In conjunction with A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry about a family living in segregated 1950s Chicago, Punwani has her students study maps to better understand segregation. She also guides the class through related discussions about identity, discrimination, and cultural pride.
Build Empathy With Poetry
A Raisin in the Sun references a Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem (Dream Deferred),” in which the poet writes, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Punwani assigns the poem before reading the play and asks students to think about what it would feel like to delay their dreams.
Reading and writing poetry can be a powerful exercise in empathy building. “When we read poetry, we can inhabit the lives of others,” says poet and writer Georgia Heard. She points to another Hughes poem, “Mother to Son,” in which he writes, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” This kind of imagery can stir emotion and build empathy among readers, she notes.
Shari Carter, who teaches kindergarten at Cecil D. Andrus Elementary School, in Boise, Idaho, says she loves reading the Shel Silverstein verse book The Giving Tree. “It’s been a favorite of my students,” she says of the story about a friendship between a boy and a tree and how it changes over time. “There are so many things to explore.”
At School Within School, in Washington, D.C., third-grade co-teachers Fran Ewart and Tina DeAnna start the year with the poem “If I Were in Charge of the World,” by Judith Viorst, written from the perspective of a child. They ask students to write and share a poem of their own with the same title and theme, which helps them better understand one another’s aspirations.
Vered Brooks, who teaches grades 5–7 at The Acera School, in Winchester, Massachusetts, says The Crossover, a novel in verse by Kwame Alexander, is a favorite. The story examines the hardships of adolescence and loss. “Through language like metaphor, we can access some really difficult things in the book,” says Brooks, adding that some of her students cried at the end. “They realized he’s a kid like them—but not like them.”
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