Friday, March 23, 2018

Reading Develops Empathy Even Better When It Is Targeted, Taught, and Assessed

Groups of 10th graders create character cards for After Dark--telling quotes on one side, visual image on the other.

“But I’m just not an empathetic person.”

Several students stared at me blankly when I asked them, halfway through our recently completed unit, to do a quick-write in their journals representing a letter or journal entry by one of the characters with whom they have the least in common. “This is to practice literary empathy,” I told them, “the ability to put yourself in the shoes of a character. This is something that all fiction reading helps us do, and something that has practical application to real life.” That’s when several students, in all seriousness, said, “But I’m just not an empathetic person.” After a moment of speechlessness, I calmly responded, “Then this is an opportunity for you to practice becoming just a little bit more of one.”

Studies indicate that there is a correlation between reading and all kinds of good student outcomes from vocabulary to reading to empathy. Is there a way to put rocket boosters on that engine, make it more likely to happen more frequently and more effectively for more students? Or do we just cross our fingers and hope for the transfer? I find that the better I get at naming, targeting, teaching to, and assessing any objective, the more wide-spread, frequent, and deep student mastery is—whether the objective is reading like writers or developing empathy.

Understanding and developing empathy was one of my goals in the unit my Honors English 10 class just wrapped up this week. The unit is called “Seeing My Neighbor” and centers on the contemporary Japanese novel After Dark by Haruki Murakami. One of the things the book is about is the ways people connect…or fail to connect. 

Two years ago, when I first started teaching this novel, I developed what I think is a pretty creative and interesting 2-question assessment (actual prompt to follow…cue suspenseful background music). And students had some interesting responses. But I felt vaguely guilty for abdicating preparation for the assessment to the book, crossing my fingers and hoping the transfer happened, rather than really scaffolding students toward it. 

Last year I added the mid-unit journal entry mentioned above to practice the type of thinking and writing required by one of the assessment questions. This year I added another assignment right before the assessment. Reading the assessments yesterday, I was so excited about student responses, and I feel no guilt about lack of scaffolding, like I really did something to help them be able to formulate those responses, more than just requiring to read a good novel.

The day before the assessment, for the last 15 minutes of the period, I gave them a sheet of paper with the following questions (adapted from Making Thinking Visible’s Step Inside routine):

Transferring empathy skills from novel characters to real life: Choose a person in your life whom you don’t easily connect with. This can be a classmate, a sibling, a parent, a teacher, or someone else in your life. If you don’t want to give both the name and the connection due to privacy, that’s fine, but please do have a particular, real person in mind.
  • I don’t easily connect with him/her because... 
  • List 3 topics that person might think about.
  • Put yourself into that person’s shoes and write his/her response to the following questions. 
    • What are you thinking about those 3 topics above, and why are you thinking that?
    • What is a question, concern, or worry you have?

Only one of my students let me read that paper—the rest handed them in the next day folded in half, which I had assured them they could do, and I would just cross my eyes and assure myself there was writing on the page. But the point was to help them (1) make the transfer and (2) come up with a well-informed generalization for the second question in the assessment—both of which I gave them before they left class, so they could mull over their answers.

Here is the assessment prompt, and following are 1 example of a student answer to each of the 2 parts of the prompt.

To what extent have you learned to get inside a character’s head, vicariously experiencing his/her life? To what extent have you reflected on what that means for your life? Respond to the following 2 prompts (15 minutes each; 1-2 good, solid paragraphs) to give evidence of the above learning:
  1. Imaginative empathy: Write a journal entry or letter in the voice of one of the characters. This should demonstrate understanding of the character, the book, and ability to put yourself inside the character’s head.
  2. Practical empathy: What did you learn from the novel about imaginatively “seeing” people so you can love them, and how does that connect to your life?

Sample student answer to #1 (almost made me cry—if you’ve read the novel, there are so many hidden allusions AND it’s so beautifully in character AND insightful…)

I’m on the plane to Beijing. My mom and dad followed me to the airport for a farewell, but Eri stayed home—not because she wanted to, but because she was still asleep. Eri and I always had our roles picked, and it never crossed our minds to switch roles. I was the little genius, and Eri was Snow White. Ever since I was little, since the thought that I was the lesser sibling came to me, I dreamed of this moment. Here, I will always be the less sociable, the average looking, boring one. The one that found company in books, the one that suddenly disappeared from the classroom to never come back. I always dreamed of a fresh start, where I had no label, and no sister strangers can compare me to.

When I close my eyes, I can still see Eri’s peaceful face as she sleeps. She doesn’t even know I left. Even though I dreamed of this ever since I was younger, I never pursued studying abroad or starting fresh, and now I know why.

I’m scared; I miss Eri. To be honest, I’m scared of not being able to see her. I’m scared of starting new because she won’t be there when the elevator stops, and I’ll be all alone.

When I come back, I hope she’ll be awake again.

Sample student answer to #2:

From this novel, I learned that what’s showing in a person doesn’t reflect the problems that they are going through. This means that in order to understand why a person would act in a way that seems abnormal to you, you need to understand that there is probably a reason to it. Knowing this, I can put it to practical use by trying to realize that everybody has their own reasons, justified or not, behind their actions, then acting in response only after I fully understand (or as much as I can understand) that the person in question isn’t doing what they are without rhyme or reason.

I’ll tell you right now—every single student got an A on that assessment: They engaged with it in a meaningful way and demonstrated growth. Even the students who told me, “I’m just not an empathetic person.” 

How do you target, teach, and assess empathy in your class? 

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