The world is a mess. How are you cultivating empathy in your classroom?

The world is a mess. How are you cultivating empathy in your classroom?

Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks describe historical empathy as “… the process of students’ cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions. Historical empathy involves understanding how people from the past thought, felt, made decisions, acted, and faced consequences within a specific historical and social context. … In order to display historical empathy, students must alternate between focusing on the other as they recognize what another person was likely to be feeling in a given situation and focusing on the self as they are reminded of a similar experience in their own lives that caused a similar affective response.”

They go on to caution that, “It is important that practitioners carefully evaluate the available historical evidence and the abilities and dispositions of their students as well as the nature of the historical content to be studied in order to determine if historical empathy is appropriate for a given instructional situation.”

Certain disciplines make centralizing empathy an easier task for teachers: the novel’s ability to allow the reader to “walk in another’s shoes” and the primary source’s ability to do the same. Yet, in history, the work of contextualizing those sources in a way that might allow for the cultivation of empathy, as Sam Wineburg points out, is an “unnatural act” that involves challenging students’ presentism to begin the work of unpacking the foreign country that is the past. It’s demanding work that never ends. If you’re a history teacher who’s not wrestling with this- both your own presentism and that of your students’- you should be.

Below is an attempt I made a number of years ago to do some basic work with empathy cultivation. In retrospect, the lesson/approach needed work. First of all, not enough was done to contextualize the sources. Second, if I were to do this again, particularly at a higher level (this was 8th grade) I’d take on the challenge of helping students develop historical empathy for non-victim historical actors. What is it like to empathize with Coolidge? Hoover?Those not as affected by the Great Depression? The destitute of the Great Depression are low-hanging fruit, in a sense, but perhaps a good way to begin this kind of work.

So, how are you attempting to cultivate empathy in your classroom?

Writing From a Soup Kitchen

In designing lessons that develop students’ broader understanding while increasing their content knowledge, social studies teachers are faced with a recurring dilemma: How can we guide students of history, often far removed from the periods they study, to a better understanding of the feelings and world-views of those who inhabited an unfamiliar past? Additionally, how will this understanding, content knowledge, and overall historical narrative support one another? During a unit on the Great Depression and New Deal reforms of the 1930s for an eighth-grade US History class, I attempted to tackle this problem by creating lessons that connected students to the period through empathy.

Contemporary educational and curricular design theorists have identified six “facets of understanding” that teachers should consider when creating lessons. One of these facets is empathy, or the ability to tap into another’s feelings, thoughts, or emotions—in other words, the feeling of walking in another’s shoes, and by doing so coming to understand some of the potential “strangeness” of their thoughts and actions. As my students experienced their own families’ current economic insecurities stemming from the economy’s recent plunge, getting them to feel a kind of solidarity with the people of the past seemed a possible entryway into a former period of hardship and hope.

In the days leading up to this lesson, students learned about the stock market crash of 1929 and the underlying problems within the economic structure that led to the Great Depression. Through a project creating posters advertising government solutions to the Great Depression, they had also learned about a number of Roosevelt’s programs and their relationship to the broad categories of “relief,” “recovery,” and “reform.” Familiar with the challenges and responses of the period, they were prepared to investigate how the Great Depression affected the lives of real people, and what relief, recovery, and reform meant in their day-to-day lives.

The mechanics of the lesson were as follows:

• Students were given letters written to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, expressing desperation over the living conditions brought on by the Great Depression. Along with this sense of desperation, these letters also contained calls for assistance on the part of the president and his wife.

• I read letters to students and called on students to read letters aloud. As they were reading, I asked students to think about: What is the author’s intention? What kinds of specific things is the author experiencing? How far into the Depression are we when the letter is written? How do you think FDR or Eleanor Roosevelt will attempt to solve these problems?

• I held a follow-up discussion on the questions above, and called on students to flesh out their responses and engage in dialogue about their thoughts and findings.

• I put students in groups of three or four to do a “Gallery Walk,” examining roughly 10 photographs (two minutes each) of the Great Depression, taking notes on relevant details and answering the questions, “What is this person experiencing?” “How might they feel?” and “What, exactly, do you see in the photograph?” These photographs were of “bank runs,” people eating in soup kitchens, people waiting in unemployment lines, people wearing sandwich boards looking for work, etc.

• After the Gallery Walk, students had one minute to pick a character from a photo to use as their focus for a letter-writing project.

• I handed out the directions below for letter-writing assignment and read with the class: “Taking on the role of a person shown in one of the photographs, you will hand write a one-page (minimum) letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt or Eleanor Roosevelt describing your particular situation and appealing for help from the president or his wife. You may also take on the role of the president or his wife and respond to one of the real letters written to the president that we just read. Either way, you must use at least seven of these terms in your letter: Dust Bowl, Black Tuesday, Bankrupt, ‘On Margin,’ Bank Run, Hooverville, Soup Kitchen, CCC, WPA, FDIC, Social Security.”

This letter-writing exercise had two major goals. The first was to allow students, through empathy, to identify with people facing desperate circumstances; the second was to have students correctly apply specific content knowledge in an enjoyable and meaningful way. This content, in the form of the terms mentioned above, was pulled from prior lessons and came almost exclusively from students’ notes, which were used while they wrote their letters. In this way, the writing assignment did not rely on students’ capacity to simply recall facts, but on their ability to correctly utilize and make meaning of the events, places, and terms of the past. Giving the students choices within the assignment also allowed them the opportunity to express their knowledge in different ways—either from the president’s point of view, or from the perspective of an average American. Either way, the goal was to have students show mastery of previously learned knowledge while grafting it onto partly fictional, yet plausible, real world experiences.

As is usually the case with middle-schoolers, imaginations ran wild. Students wrote detailed accounts of desperate families ruined by bank runs, perpetually unemployed men and women living in Hoovervilles, the degradation of asking for handouts on a breadline, and the taste of subpar meals in soup kitchens. Overall, the letters were filled with a sense of desperation and lack of control over one’s own life, as well as feelings of confusion over the workings of a mystifying economy.

Coupled with this desperation was a feeling of hope. Students asked Roosevelt how they could enter his Works Progress Administration (WPA), or why Social Security could not be extended to younger people for a short time. While they praised the president’s efforts to help, they remained impatient at the slow pace of recovery and their inability to do much of anything to better themselves. Similar themes were reflected in the letters of those who chose to write from the point of view of Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt. On the whole, students’ letters were filled empathy and detail, and revealed excellent understanding and knowledge of the period.

Though developing an understanding of empathy is not a suitable focal point for all history lessons, I believe greater inclusion of it would be a step toward allowing students to be more fully immersed in the past. Though we should not make the mistake of attempting to understand the past through the lenses of the present, developing empathy allows us to link to the joys, sorrows, fears, and longings of the past—that is, with the common humanity of those who preceded us. It not only allows us to understand them historically, but also tells us something very important about ourselves.

Peter Hatala

Portions of this lesson plan originally appeared in Field Notes volume vi, issue 2, fall 2010, a publication of the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program

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