Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Guest Post: Walk in My Shoes, See What I See

"The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy, we can all sense a mysterious connection to each other.”  - Meryl Streep

Empathy.  The ability to understand another’s perspective and emotions.  An elusive skill to teach, but research shows that it is just as important as any academic skill.  Learning to walk in someone else’s shoes opens a world of sympathy, compassion, and ultimately collaboration.  So how does one go about helping students become more empathetic?  What offers children a place to experience empathy, to feel emotions, and be transported into the world of another person?  I would whole-heartedly say books!  Children’s books to be exact.  Children’s novels offer a wide range of experiences and the ability to transport and draw in the reader.

So where to begin?  There have been a plethora of exceptional books written that are perfect for emersion into another’s point of view and support empathy education.  The highly praised Wonder by R.J. Palacio has been a wonder for just this topic.  The book not only deals with how August, who has a physical deformity, is treated, but how the people around him navigate their feelings towards him.  A movement called Choose Kind has cropped up in schools throughout the country with empathy at its center.  Another amazing book written about a young girl forced into the foster care system is One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Carley, the main character, gives the reader insight into how disorienting living with a foster family can be.  Her struggles with feelings for her foster mother and the family are heart wrenching.  Others like The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli are wonderful portraits of how being different can be awkward and at times painful.  Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper opens the world of Melody who cannot communicate verbally due to a handicap.  We learn that being ignored and dismissed easily short changes Melody and her intellect.  So B. It by Sarah Weeks has the same theme but the main character, Heidi, is the daughter of a mentally disabled woman.  Excellent view into how living with a parent who has a disability can be overwhelming.  Hound Dog True by Linda Urban and How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor both deal with realistic situations of homelessness and being the new kid at school.  They both have easily accessible characters and forge connections to readers.
These books and many more can help readers understand situations they may never experience allowing them the ability to feel emotions of characters in difficult situations within the safety of a book.  

How these books are presented to students is important.  Assigning a book with no student input or reading a book because the theme is “struggling kids” or “empathy books”  will fail to allow organic learning about the topic.  As children’s book experts like Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne advocate, students need to make their own choices about what they read.  Since these are such high quality books, it is easy to recommend them and students tend to gravitate to them naturally.  Ultimately, providing students with books that are empathy focused will give them opportunities to experience situations and emotions they may not experience in their own lives.  They can make emotional connections and understand other perspectives within the safety of the pages of a book.  And in the end isn’t that what we hope children reading these books do?


Tammy Langeberg is a teacher librarian in Jefferson County, Colorado currently working at Semper Elementary.  She has been a teacher for 25 years, 14 of those as a school librarian.  She earned her National Board Certification in Library Media and participated in revising the library media National Board Standards recently.  She has been a member of the Highly Effective School Library Program (formerly Colorado Power Library Program) since 2002.  She was honored with the Jared Polis Teacher Recognition Award in 2011.  You can find more information about her at her blog:


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