The Importance of Empathy
It is the day after our annual Veterans Day Morning Meeting and celebration at school. Each year our school community comes together to honor those who have served and invite these heroes for a morning of discussion, poetry reading, music and celebration. Our 7th graders have the unique opportunity to engage in small group discussions with our veterans. Fortunately, I was able to participate in these conversations this year.
As I wandered around taking pictures and listening to snippets of stories, I was drawn to a woman who had several artifacts with her and sat down at her table. I listened as she told the story of how a member in her family was killed in action.
Unbelievably enough, she had letters sent to the family from fellow soldiers and the War Department. She graciously allowed us to pass them around and read them.
Holding those letters and reading those messages, brought me back in time as I tried to put myself in the shoes of those on the receiving end. As I read them, I thought about our military families who serve our country in a different way. Imagine not knowing if your loved one(s) are alive, missing or dead? Imagine being a child or spouse and having your mother, father, wife, husband, partner gone for months or even years living in life or death situations?
A consistent message throughout the correspondence was letting the families know their loved one had died instantly and painlessly. An instant connection I made to that was, after losing my dad, it has always been my hope, that he passed quickly and painlessly. As I read and made personal connections, it brought me back into my current classroom. If we want empathetic, caring, kind global citizens, we must find ways for them to connect to others.
Close reading and comprehension is more than just synthesis and integration of text. It is asking questions that allow students to feel what others are feeling.
In my 7th grade Language and Literature class, I have been posing reflective questions to them and having them participate in gallery walk tasks. A few of the questions I have asked them to reflect on include:
As we proceed through the year, I am noticing a change in their responses. They are able to see situations from another’s perspective. However, this does not just happen. As educators we have to give our young people the skills and strategies to do this.
Even more importantly, they need to have the vocabulary and ability to express themselves. Recently I had an “aha” teaching moment when we attempted to create a class anchor chart of emotion/feeling vocabulary. What did I discover? Many of my 7th graders did not have the language to express feelings or emotions beyond the basic happy, sad, angry, depressed, etc. As a former speech therapist, it is incredibly important to me that students can express themselves and have that internal word bank to access.
All of our students deserve a safe, caring, loving learning environment. As educators, it is our responsibility to create that. One way we can do that is modeling, teaching and giving students opportunities to practice empathy.