Sunday, February 12, 2012

Using Fiction to Teach Empathy

        Bullying.  We hear about it a lot these days.  But today’s bully isn’t the big, burly boy on the playground shouting, “Cooties!” and looting lunches.  Today’s bully comes in a much more furtive form – often a skirt and pigtails.  Turns out sugar and spice and everything nice isn’t always what little girls are made of.  Girl bullies are common, covert, and too often cruel.  As a middle school teacher, I can’t count the number of times I’ve consoled sobbing girls who have been victimized by insidious, socially paralyzing tactics: “So-and-so called me a (four-letter word for promiscuous), told me I get my clothes at Goodwill, created a I-Hate-(Facebook) Page about me.”  And the list goes on….With the Internet as the perfect, covert dispatching medium, the Mean Girl Renaissance is in full swing. 

        Alas, the indisputable truth is both girls and boys bully and the emotional scars can last a lifetime. So why are kids so mean and what is the answer?  I maintain that empathy is the biggest defense against bullying.  We need to educate our students at a young age that being mean to others is not just part of growing up, is not normal, and is not okay.  If empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is our preventative armor, then books can be our magic bullets.  By relating to fictional characters who are the underdog or being treated unfairly, students are given the tools to self-reflect: Am I being mean?  Am I hurting someone else’s feelings?  If I make fun of my neighbor’s shoes or hair, how will it really make them feel?  By analyzing character, we build character and create a common respectful classroom culture in the interim. 

        Now I know what all the teachers are thinking because I think it too…why should we teach kids to care along with all the other things we are expected to teach?  Is fostering an empathetic classroom really of value when we are assessed on our standardized test scores?  Is it really our job to teach (gasp) morality? 

        A resounding YES!  Empathy, tolerance, and respect are not just throwaway words.  Creating an environment that is caring and safe should be as paramount as learning the story elements of plot, character, setting, and conflict.  Aha! – and here comes the real justification.  What’s greater on Bloom’s Taxonomy than making thematic connections and evaluating different points of view?  By using fiction to connect, self-reflect, and evaluate one’s treatment of others, we are not only teaching higher thinking skills, we are ensuring an environment that’s emotionally healthy for every student.  Now that’s truly leaving No Child Left Behind. 

Article copied with permission from Blogging Authors, February 8, 2012.  


  1. Hi Kimberly,

    I have just finished reading your blog and I enjoyed your entry. It is appalling to see that the female has moved away from the Cinderella complex in our society, to taking on those bully traits that victimized us. We have gone from one extreme to the other end of the scale at another extreme. Sure, teachers should teach empathy in their classes but that must also start at home with the parent or parents. I also agree that it is easier to develop these traits in children by writing books, whether fiction or non-fiction that points out the importance of having respect and empathy towards others. However, we need to also increase the need to read. There are so many families that do not read. Whereas a Sunday evening was often filled with each member of the family talking about a book that they were reading or recently read, today that is seldom heard of. If Mom and Dad start reading, you will probably see children picking up a book to read instead of going into their bedrooms to play a war game.
    It is so nice to see that you are making a different in your classroom.
    Have a great day.

  2. So true, Patricia! Reading opens up new worlds. Thank for your astute, inspiring comments! Kimberly :-)