Three Ways to Teach Empathy Inside Writing Workshop

This video, narrated by Brene Brown, has been viewed over 7,000,000 times. Empathy is more complicated than its twin sister, sympathy. Empathy is a challenge for a lot of people–not just kids.

The great poet Nikki Giovanni has said, “Let me clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

But how do you teach empathy–the ability to understand and value experiences and emotions that are outside your own experience? Chances are you are already on your way if you teach writing workshop every day. Here are a few tried and true teaching points that highlight empathy (and perspective taking) inside writing workshop.

Empathize with Your Readers

  1. Today I want to teach you that writers try to read their own work with fresh eyes, imagining how their story sounds and feels to different readers. Think of a person you know (ex. your grandma), and then read your work trying to understand how they would see your writing. Then think of another person (ex. your daughter)–what would the second person notice or wonder about, differently from the first person?
  2. Try to picture the actual people who might read your work and then decide how you want your writing to make them feel. Then decide on the structure, word choice, and style that will get them to feel something. Test it out on somebody. Ask them if it worked.
  3. Read aloud your writing to a writing partner, pausing to notice their body language and reactions. Are they smiling? Frowning? Are they interested? Bored? Ask them questions such as, “What are you picturing?” or “What do you think is the most important part?” Their responses can help you decide how to revise your writing.

Empathize with a Character

  1. In fiction, personal narrative, and even in nonfiction, there will be people other than yourself on the page. Put yourself in their shoes as best you can, thinking “How would I feel if it were me?” and use dialogue, images, and other details to show each character’s personality, thoughts, and emotions.
  2. In writing, it’s good to remember that you don’t have to have experienced the exact same thing to be able to empathize with a character or an idea that you are writing about. Instead, you have to connect with an experience that made you feel the same way. Remember a time when you felt the way the character felt, remember the tiny actions, habits, phrases and words you used–this might help you to bring the character or idea to life.
  3. Often writers think to themselves, “How would I feel if I were this character, and it were happening to me?” But writers sometimes also have to say, “You know what? I REALLY DON’T KNOW how this feels. I have no experience that compares to this.” Writers sometimes have to do a little research by having conversations with real people or reading more books to understand human experiences, to make their stories or information writing more realistic, more detailed, and more meaningful.

Empathize with Your Writing Partner

  1. One way to empathize with your writing partner is to follow the golden rule: treat your writing partner the way you would want to be treated. Simple things like putting one piece of writing in the middle, taking turns talking, making eye contact, and asking questions show your writing partner that you care about their work.
  2. Writers understand that different people can have different perspectives on the same event. When your writing partner has a different opinion than you, or sees an event differently than you, you can “see” your partner’s perspective without having to give up your own. Writers can see things more than one way. (The book They All Saw A Cat by Brendan Wenzel is the perfect quick great read-aloud to support perspective-taking).
  3.  When someone shares a story or any piece of writing that holds a big problem, or raw emotion, one way to respond is to say, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” or “I’m sorry you had to experience that,” and “I’m glad you shared this with me.” Ask before you give advice or try to fix the problem. It’s okay to know that some problems can’t be solved.

Side note: Empathy is my “One Little Word” for 2017. I’m so glad I chose it. It’s become a theme now in my work. If you haven’t chosen a word for the year yet, I invite you to join me in my yearlong study and practice of empathy.

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Maribeth Berliner’s Fourth Graders at Richmond Elementary School in Vermont studied empathy as part of their social issues book clubs unit.