olw · One Little Word (OLW) · writing workshop

Beth’s One Little Word for 2017


This week my coauthors and I participating in our little New Year’s tradition of  choosing our One Little Words (OLW’s) for 2017.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really into it the first year (“grow”), or the second year (“patience”). But then last year, my OLW was playand you know what? 2016 turned out to be the year that I read books and research about the importance of play-based learning, I attended workshops and institutes on play, I participated in twitter chats and real life chats, and I now play a role in our district’s first-ever (albeit unofficial) “Joy Committee.” Play turned out to be a super successful OLW because it became a theme for my professional learning.

But what about 2017? 2017, I already know, needs to be a different kind of year of professional learning. Events around the world and here in the United States are on my mind every day as I plan and carry out my work. Lately, I see every book I select to read aloud, every demonstration lesson, and every workshop agenda I create as an opportunity to do my small part in creating some good in the world.

So my One Little Word for 2017 is empathy. I’ve begun to understand empathy as a set of skills that can be learned, rather than an innate ability. I’ve also begun to realize that empathy is an enormously important aspect of being a reader, and writer, and decent human. Sadly, I’ve also begun to see that empathy seems to be in short supply among many people, and not something I really feel equipped to teach well–yet.

Here’s what I do have: I’ve got a fairly large collection of excellent books for kids and young adults with strong themes of empathy. I’ve got a strong network of teachers and building leaders who will support me. Plus, I love to research.

Last year, I began my year of studying play with a few professional books. I think I’ll do the same this year, with a few guiding questions: How can I authentically teach the skills of empathy to the teachers and students I work with? How can I do this inside the framework of reading and writing workshop? How can I teach members of my community to have empathy for people outside of our community? How do I do this well?

Once I’ve read a few books as a foundation, I’m hoping to weave this into the work I already do when I teach graduate courses, workshops and labsites with teachers, and present at conferences. I’ll try to write about teaching empathy. I’ll create a book list or list of resources for teachers I work with. In particular, I’m hoping to help create curriculum resources for third and fourth grades to teach about local Vermont refugee communities. In the words of  Bob Shea and Lane Smith, “I’ve got big plans! Big plans I say!”

If you’ve done inquiry like this on empathy, help me out! Please share your favorite books, articles, and resources in the comment section below.


19 thoughts on “Beth’s One Little Word for 2017

  1. I read the book Unselfie by Michele Borba and it was a great read with a lot of really great practical ways to build empathy. It has a great framework for thinking about the different aspects of empathy. I think you would enjoy it! Thanks for sharing your one little word!


  2. I want to know what the Joy Committee is…I love it! You might also check out the Choose Love curriculum. This “movement” was created by Scarlett Lewis, whose son, Jesse, was a victim (and hero) at Newtown.


  3. What a great word! My school uses the Positive Discipline system. One part of it that 4th grade has found really successful is weekly class meetings. Students can put anything on the agenda — recess problems are always a topic! We teach students to discuss problems respectfully and teach them tools for solving problems. One year I had an outlier student who was lacking in social skills and could be quite annoying. One day towards the end of the school year, the entire class came to together spontaneously to defend him against another students who was bullying him. It was breathtaking to see.


  4. Great word! My school uses the Positive Discipline system and in 4th grade we embraced the Positive Discipline weekly meetings. Kids can put anything on the agenda – recess issues are big every year! We teach them how to express themselves respectfully and use various techniques for resolving problems. It has transformed our classes every year since we started — every year our 4th grade becomes a true community. A few years ago I had one student who was an outlier, difficult to connect to and the other kids found him annoying. Near the end of the school year the class spontaneously defended him against another student who was picking on him. It was breathtaking to watch.


  5. What a great word, Beth. I love your approach to living your OLW. So intentional.

    In Ellin Keene’s book, To Understand, she writes that developing empathy is an outcome of understanding. In other words, when we see ourselves or our students experiencing empathy, we know we/they are understanding deeply. She writes that we may develop general empathy and defines it as: A belief that the reader is actually a part of the setting, knows the characters, stands alongside them in their trials, brings something of himself to the events and resolution; emotions are aroused.

    She also says we might develop more specific types of empathy as we read, like character empathy or setting empathy or conflict empathy.

    I’ve heard her teach this concept to kids several times… it’s amazing. 🙂


  6. WOOPS…I posted in the wrong place! I guess I was meant to say I really think your word is FABULOUS. It’s a word that is not so much about you but about your interactions with others. Powerful.


  7. One of my Christmas gifts was the book Unselfie which is all about teaching empathy to kids! Perfect word, Beth! And I want to know more about the Joy Committee!


  8. I learned to have more empathy for Syrian refugees in Germany by supporting my son and daughter-in-law in their making of a short film, No Monsters in Berlin, this past summer which they created to bring attention to the plight of the refugees. Practice what you preach; develop an “empathy project” with your students. We learn best when we are able to put our ideas into action. Reading and contemplating is good; action is even better.

    Here’s the link to their project:

    Every day in the NY Times there’s a story about a family going through hard times, yet somehow rising above them. Perhaps your class can find a family to empathize with.

    Good luck with your new word, and your new endeavors.


  9. Google Epathy Schools (there are some all over the world); read Selfie by Michelle Borba; and of course To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best lit books, in my opinion, for teaching empathy.


  10. I wrote my MA thesis on the “empathetic imagination” in “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. Martel speaks about empathy in interviews and has it as a recurring theme in his novels.

    I read “They All Saw a Cat” yesterday and saw an imefiate connection to Walt Whitman and to empathy, which I think depends on perception.

    I think Thomas Newkirk addresses empathy in narrative in “Minds Made for Stories.” Of course, empathy is at the heart of our discussions of literature offering windows and mirrors. My niece, who is the mother of an African American girl, is very upset right now w/ B&N for not offering a section of diverse books she can lead her child to in their stores. We’re discussing how she can change that, perhaps in all B&N stores. It is a question of empathy, is it not?


  11. This is an awesome word and such a meaningful aim for the coming year. If I stumble across anything during 2017 I will drop back by and leave it in a comment.
    This is a topic that is very dear to me and I wish you the best.
    cheers to 2017….


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