Teaching Empathy in the PreK-20 Classroom

I am entering down a new path in my journey as an educator, currently working as a visiting lecturer in the Psychology and Education Department of Mount Holyoke College.  One of the best parts (prior to meeting my preservice teachers today!) is creating the syllabi for two classes, Teaching English Language Learners and Children’s Literature for Educators. As I tweak assignments and reflect on reading, I’m contemplating one big guiding question: How do we teach not only the content for our courses, but shine the light on the most important tenet of education: WHO we teach?

I think of the words of two wise educators: Sarah Wessling and Jessica Cuthbertson. Sarah, a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, speaks of how we need to focus on a main component in every classroom: that it is not what we teach, but who we teach. It is the students in front of us that matter the most. And Jessica, a teacherpreneur and talented middle school teacher, relayed a beautiful vignette to me via the CTQ Collaboratory. One of her colleagues asked her a question about the first standard she was teaching this school year. Her reply?  Empathy.

So one night I was up late, popping almonds like popcorn and watching the latest Netflix series, contemplating this teaching challenge. How do we “teach” empathy? I decided to turn to the pros: many of the amazing teacher experts that I know across the US (State Teachers of the Year, National Board Certified Teachers, and teachers from the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory). Below is a list of some of the great texts suggested by these experts for teaching and building empathy with our students, focusing on our English Language Learners.

  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, suggested by Jane Fung. Faye Cook, and Bill Ivey
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio, suggested by Jessica Cuthbertson
  • Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, suggested by Faye Cook
  • Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone, suggested by Cheryl Suliteanu
  • Becoming Naomi Leon by Pamela Munoz Ryan, suggested by Dulcie Citek-Gary
  • Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan, suggested by Jessica Cuthbertson
  • 100 Dresses by Eleanor Estes suggested by Katherine Bassett
  • How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay by Julia Alverez
  • Before We Were Free by Julia Alverez
  • Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park, suggested by Bill Ivey and Christina Donohue
  • Seedfolks by Paul Fleishcman, suggested by Bill Ivey
  • Baseball in April by Gary Soto, suggested by Dulcie Citek-Gary
  • My Name is Maria Isabel by Alma Flor Ada, suggested by Jessica Cuthbertson
  • Subtractive Schooling by Angela Valenzuela, suggested by Michael Fryda
  • Diego by Jonah and Jeanette Winter, suggested by Jessica Cantor Garner
  • Esperanza Rising by Pamela Munoz Ryan, suggested by yours truly J
  • Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, suggested by Jennifer Walker
  • Home of the Brave by K. Applegate, suggested by Jae Goodwin

This list is by no means complete, so please add your suggestions. Let’s begin collecting literature and ideas to make the concept of WHO we teach (or learn with!) and understanding them one of the central components of preK-20 education. Let’s brainstorm ways to focus attention on those precious learners sitting in our classrooms and how we can teach them to better understand each other. What ideas do you have? Can’t wait to read them!  Let ‘em roll below…

Discussing great literature can help us teach empathy in our classrooms

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  • ReneeHeiss

    Entelechy for Empathy

    This is precisely the mission of Entelechy Education, LLC – to combine intellectual (especially STEM) topics with character education and language literacy.  I wish more publishers would combine character education with their offerings for young readers so they will learn respect, cooperation, and of course, empathy at an early age.

    • CourtneyPrusmack

      Thank you– empathy and compassion is the foundation

      This is a subject near and dear to my teacher heart. Thank you. May I suggest Enrique’s Journey, Tattoos on The Heart, and The Smell of Old Lady Perfume as proven ( in my experience) books which are relevant to my students lives and encourage empathy. 

    • CourtneyPrusmack

      Thank you– empathy and compassion is the foundation

      This is a subject near and dear to my teacher heart. Thank you. May I suggest Enrique’s Journey, Tattoos on The Heart, and The Smell of Old Lady Perfume as proven ( in my experience) books which are relevant to my students lives and encourage empathy. 

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Thanks, Megs!

    Thanks for the shout out Megan — I love the depth of the list and can’t wait to hear additional titles from Collaboratory members and readers of your blog.

    I think most of us passionate about teaching take it for granted that we teach skills like empathy alongside content.  I wonder if we made these sorts of lessons more explicit if we could shift the national rhetoric around teaching and learning? 

    Your post made me think about the disconnect (at the systems level) between our passions and priorities and the finite skills assessed on most standardized measures.  What would assessing empathy look like?  How might we shift the dialogue to one that “measures” what we believe really matters in the long haul?

    I don’t think we should have to teach at a “special” or “innovative” school, or prescribe to a certain character curriculum to do this work.  In my vision portfolios, community service and community-based projects, partnering with peers and stakeholders outside of our classrooms, and daily collaboration are given the same “weight” (value) as reading and math data. Thoughts?

  • Tammie Brooks-Evans

    Great Topic…

    As I work with a teacher in my district I will share this list of readings with her.  This is her first time teaching in an inclusion setting and I think this might help her with this new challenge.  Great Blog!!!

  • Edwin Rutsch

    further resource to learn more about empathy

    May I suggest a  further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion, The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.



  • ReneeMoore

    The classroom continuum

    I want to thank you for recognizing “the PK-20 classroom” in your title and your thinking. I’m a big advocate of eliminating the artificial divisions in education among teachers and students. We are all teachers; we are one profession. More important, neither we nor our students learn in age/grade level compartments. Learning is continuous, recursive, expansive, and inclusive. If you were to graph it, teaching and learning would look much more like a spiral than a line.

    To the empathy reading list, I would add several essays from the This I Believe series of programs. They give students some wonderful glimpses of lives and perspectives from all walks of life in America; as well as a standing invitation to share their own. I’ve used them with students at many levels with great response.

  • JohnHolland

    Teach-em right Megan

    Glad to hear you are so excited about your course and your book list is phenomenal. It was, of course, put together by accomplished teachers like yourself. How could it not be?


  • marsharatzel

    BAck in the old days

    Back in the days before the internet and cell phones….we used a curriculum called Tribes.  Loads of trust building, community building and fun activities.  My copy is floppy with so much use, but it’s one of the best books I’ve ever found.

    You’ll laugh, walk in another person’s shoes and build a grouop using Tribes.