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How Can We Use Books To Help Us Build Empathy?

How can we use books to help us build empathy? Chelsea Henderson’s fourth grade class spent the month of October reading with this question in mind. The 21 students that make up this classroom community engaged in conversations about social issues they have experienced or witnessed. They then took these ideas, found books with characters who experienced these issues, and began to read with a critical eye and an open mind.

Characters offer readers a different lens from which to view the world. Books allow us to consistently bring diverse perspectives and experiences into our classroom all year long. For students who may not understand the effects of racism, sexism, bullying, homophobia, or transphobia, experiencing them through a character's eyes helps to build empathy and understanding. Many students noticed what true friendship in the face of adversity looked like, and other students were able to connect a character’s experience with their own. Conversations especially flourished around topics such as gender stereotypes. Students in our class also began noticing the behavior of antagonists through trying to understand their motives, even when they disagreed. One student in our class said, “I was reading just to read, and now I am reading to notice.”

Reading and writing are processes of making individual meaning while attempting to figure out how we see (or do not see) ourselves in the works we are experiencing. From the moment they started this unit, it was apparent that almost every member of the class had already been thinking about many of these issues, such as racism, parenting differences, or sexism. But just because they we were thinking and talking about them did not mean that they fully understood the ways they can impact ourselves, our friends, and our larger community. The goal in this unit was not to tell the each other how to think, but to bring in the stories of the characters as a learning moment so that they could understand more, and assume less.