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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