Examining Literature Through the Lens of Empathy
Sixth graders have been exploring the winter term theme of empathy in their literature, delving into the nuances of empathy vs. sympathy and using it to enrich their understanding of the literary characters and the choices they make.
Recently, each of English teacher Lara Gleason’s classes participated in a roundtable discussion that focused on the lessons they have learned about empathy from the literature they have read so far this year. Drawing from books such as Nine, Ten: a September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin and short stories like, “The No-Guitar Blues” by Gary Soto and O.Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen,” each student brought at least two textual examples that illustrated a point about empathy to the discussion. “The roundtables empower students to run and facilitate a discussion that is not teacher-centric,” says Lara, “while thinking about making contributions that are meaningful, thoughtful, specific, and that add to the overall discussion.”
As individual students spoke, they made specific references to the texts they had read as well as occasionally to books they had read outside of class as well. Students referred back to previous comments from their classmates and kept track of who had contributed to the discussion to ensure that everyone had a chance to be heard. While Lara did not participate in the roundtables, she evaluated each student on contributions like asking questions of each other, speaking thoughtfully, and making relevant connections. She was impressed by the quality of their discussions and the respect with which they listened to everyone’s ideas. “They demonstrated the true spirit of that kind of discussion as they listened to each other, responded to and built on other student’s ideas, and focused on the quality of their contributions rather than just the quantity.”
This exercise will provide an excellent foundation for the sixth graders’ next project, their speeches. The theme of the sixth-grade speeches this year is “Being Our Best Selves Through Moments of Empathy.” Now that students have examined and discussed the literature they have read in the context of empathy, they are better prepared to explore their own stories and experiences through that same lens. “As students are thinking about their speeches, I’m noticing how many of them are highlighting an experience and noting that if they were in that situation again, they would be more empathetic,” says Lara. “It's a wonderful reminder that small acts of empathy can make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the overall health and inclusiveness of a community. Small actions can be really meaningful."