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Empathy for the modern world – why books are the key to better student communities and relationships

Empathy is a superpower that benefits students in numerous ways, says Danielle Perkins – and books can give it to them in spades…

Danielle Perkins
by Danielle Perkins
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In my first year of teaching, I remember looking up whilst reading the final pages of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to see a student using his sweatshirt to stifle his sobs and mop up his tears.

I’ve witnessed many different reactions from students in the course of reading literature, but that moment is still etched in my mind – not so much for his reaction, but rather the sea of bemused faces surrounding him. How could one child have such a profound reaction, while others around him remained so emotionally untouched?

At the time, I naively passed it off as simply a case of one student being highly sensitive. On reflection, however, I think the reaction said far more about the rest of the room than it did about him. Still new to the profession myself, I soon found myself asking why so many of our young people appeared so detached and desensitised.

Outside of school hours, time spent reading books has been gradually replaced by the checking of Instagram captions and endless scrolling through ‘newsfeeds’. Of course, any form of reading is beneficial, but the whole concept of social media seems to be one centred on materialism and egotism. Hate crimes are on the up. Cyber bulling and ‘trolling’ have become commonplace throughout society. Social media purports to connect people, yet it actually serves to make us increasingly detached from others. The modern world has left our young people with an empathy deficit.

A joy to teach

Over the past few years, a new body of research has examined the emotional impact that literature can have, and found clear links between high quality literature, literacy and children’s empathy. An organisation called Empathy Lab is currently working with schools to provide support and resources for developing empathy skills across the curriculum – something that’s become a particular area of interest for me, following recent developments within the Black Lives Matter movement.

As well as using Empathy Lab resources, I’ve been spending some quality time with our school librarian, Jane Badcott, reading and discussing texts that might help foster empathy. I’ve then collated extracts from these texts that our teachers can use alongside our main schemes of learning. We’ll dip into these to engage students with independent library book borrowing, but also use them for our class reader texts at KS3. Class readers have remained a huge part of our departmental ethos, because of the opportunities they provide for students to collectively read for pleasure and discuss a text’s issues. They’re also a joy to teach, and are vital in fostering empathy among young people.

However, the increasing focus in recent years on a knowledge-centred curriculum has meant that we now have ever more content to teach and revisit. Those pressures are only going to grow upon our return to semi-normal teaching in September, but we must protect what opportunities we have for promoting reading for pleasure and fostering empathy in our classrooms. Our focus shouldn’t be on what, or how much knowledge we can impart, but instead on how students go on to use that knowledge. Without empathy skills, students may well possess knowledge, but lack the ability to deploy it effectively in their studies.

No more villains

In my own classroom, I’ve found that a slower pace and a focus on empathy has produced the most thoughtful comments on character representations I’ve ever seen. Students have stopped viewing characters as one-dimensional puppets and started seeing them as complex individuals, with human flaws and virtues. We no longer ‘villainise’ characters, but attempt to understand them. We ask what motivates or inspires them, and consider the constraints under which they live. What must it be like to face such challenges? Why do they behave in the way they do?

An initial barrier to having these sorts of discussions with students was their limited vocabulary when discussing feelings and complex ideas around character. We’ve addressed this with the aid of an emotion wheel with tiered language to label emotions and facilitate classroom discussion. Consistent use of this across our curriculum has enabled students to feel more confident when talking about not just the emotions of fictional characters, but their own as well.

Empathy is the glue that holds together communities and supports relationships, so why should the exploration of it be confined to PSHE only? Empathy has the potential to not just reduce bullying, but also support English literature students in analysing character in a more developed and thoughtful way. In English language, it can support students’ analysis of multiple viewpoints and writing from different perspectives. Empathy is an acquirable superpower – and it all starts with the right book.

To help students develop empathy, try…

• Encouraging them to read for no other purpose than the pleasure of reading itself • Slowing the pace of your reading in class • Developing a more extensive vocabulary for discussing feelings among your students • Exploring character motivations, constraints and feelings • Focusing on matters of character when discussing personal reading, rather than the number of pages read

Danielle Perkins is an English teacher at The Spires College in South Devon; follow her at @dap206

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