Teaching Empathy with Young Adult Fiction

When I talk to other people, both those who teach and those who do not, about my responsibilities as an educator, I always say that my number one job is to help my students be better humans than when they entered my classroom. That is definitely not to say that they are bad humans when they get to me; far from it in fact. However, I believe as educators we have the most amazing opportunity, and in my eyes a professional and social responsibility, to teach our students to show grace, be kind, and to treat others with empathy.

I believe I’ve gone as far as, on the rare occasion that I hop up on my empathy soapbox, to say something along the lines of, “who cares about reading and writing when our children are going into the world without crucial social skills!” Well, that’s not quite how I feel. Of course teaching my students to read critically and solve real-world math problems (and all other skills that fall under 6th grade learning standards) are of the utmost importance. What I failed to realize, until my students showed me with their thoughts and questions, is that using those 6th grade literacy skills to help teach empathy is both unbelievably engaging to my learners and highly effective at that.

There’s something about stories involving injustice that spike human interest. Children are not immune to this fact. Each school year I select novels slightly above 6th grade level to study with my students (they have their own copies and follow along as I read aloud) and quite honestly, I’ve always picked ones that I like and that received rave reviews from my students. I use these novels as examples of high quality text and to model and have my students practice critical reading skills such as identifying the author’s message and determining how word choice impacts the overall tone or meaning of a particular passage. After diving deep into novel studies the past two years with the lens of these Common Core State Standards, I noticed more now than ever how attached my students became to the stories we read and the characters that we grew to care for deeply.

They felt the pain that Stargirl endured when Hillari Kimble led the entire school to turn against her because she refused to change herself to fit in the mold of what they considered normal. Quite frankly, I’m surprised their cries of outrage didn’t bring someone in the classroom to check on us!

They literally wept (ok, we all wept) when Auggie overheard his best and only friend in the world say absolutely terrible things about him behind his back after being pressured by some of the more popular boys in the grade.

They were downright furious when they realized that because of when and where she was born, Nya would never be allowed an education, and instead would spend her days walking mile after mile in the blazing sun of Sudan gathering filthy water for her family.

I’ve said it before, but there are times when I feel like I learn more from my students than they from me. The day I heard one of my 6th graders kindly, but earnestly, call another out for being a “Hillari Kimble,” I realized that our novel studies were doing far more than teaching my students to be fluent and critical readers. My students were becoming even more amazing humans through their exposure to these novels. Novels that not all of them could normally access independently due to reading level, but were able to learn from, enjoy, and contribute to class discussions authentically because of our shared reading structure. The best part is, because of their shared knowledge of the characters in our books, they were able to not only have those insightful discussions about abstract concepts such as empathy and kindness, but they held each other accountable to them as well.

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