Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens Blog Series · writing workshop

Mentor Texts to Increase Empathy: Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens

I am not a leader of social justice reform and education in America today. I am, however, an eager learner and reader. I know, for myself, one of the ways I engaged in the understanding of those different from me as a child was through books. However, representation of cultures, religions, and races different from my own typically came in stories of triumph over adversity and resilience. As a citizen, I live and serve in two different worlds.  I serve in an area appealing to an empathetic idea through food drives and penny wars. I live in an area that fears injustice and feels powerless to it. By stating my lack of expertise, I risk less, which is an unfortunate result of my operating system that I must fight to push past. I feel a bit lost when it comes to injustice I have not personally experienced. Although this may be a reasonable feeling, it does nothing to push against the injustice many face every day. I know this about myself. I am a white teacher. I serve in a white community also home to a college, the second of which to open its doors to students regardless of race, gender, or financial status, and considered to be a co-educational facility in 1844. I live in a city reported as the second worst in America to raise children based on education statistics, health stats, and violent crime. Doing my best to disrupt the injustice in the world is a far cry from enough, but I yearn to do better. Assuming I have many years left on this earth to make some sliver of a difference, I do hope some act or action on my part sparks a wave within others to also do better.

–To recognize inadequacies.

–To realize imperfect balances of biases and integrity.

–To see each other as people deserving of love, care, empathy, and kindness.

And there enters my role as a teacher of a mostly white and culturally-similar population in a rural community. My students will journey on to many paths that deepen their personal identities venturing beyond these areas of their community. A story can be the turning point that flips the empathetic switch. Empathy is simply defined as “the art of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s situation” (Mills, 1995). In order to have empathy, one must have an imagination that extends beyond their own experiences. Books and stories allow for teachers to encourage this imaginative work and ask questions that engage ideas outside of their own worlds. As much as it is essential for students to see themselves represented in books, it is important to see those very different from ourselves within a caring, empathetic, and open community.

When introducing a book for multiple purposes, it is important to first read the book for enjoyment. This gives space and time for the book to do its first intended job, to share a story. Don’t skip this step. Following the first reading of a mentor text, you might engage in conversation, turn and talk, or revisiting for clarity. From there, the book then becomes a place for more in-depth learning and a study of styles, craft, voice, and author’s purpose beyond that of entertainer or informer. Instead, what did this author DO on PURPOSE to create a shareable story that not only sent a message of empathy but offered a set of techniques that strengthened the writing? Books can serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990), openings for conversation, as well as share valuable tools for young writers on their journey to share their own stories. Books like Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts and The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig become staples in the writing workshop as well as open conversations that strengthen the communities in our classrooms. Below I have shared books that hold these dual purposes. I have also listed some resources leading important work when teaching, learning, and sharing stories that inspire empathy in the classroom.

In preparation for this post, I agonized over what books to share. There are so many books that have become mentors, and each classroom community is drawn to different attributes a book carries along inside its pages. I hope you will share some of your favorites that I did not include in the comments. I also hope we can all work to be teachers like Ms. Albert in the book Each Kindness. As she showed her students with pebbles dropped in a pool of water, what we do can ripple out much further into the world. The stories we share, the conversations we encourage, and the voices of our students flowing through their pens can have a rippling effect.    

Additional resources for mentor texts and books that encourage empathy:

American Indians in Children’s Literature led by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza, shares important perspectives when choosing text to share within our communities representing indigenous peoples.

Children’s Books to Support and LGBTQ Inclusive Elementary Schools, from Welcoming Schools

Clare and Tammy, from Teachers for Teachers, share many boards on Pinterest to help get you started. Here are a few I chose, but you can see their full page of ideas here.

Power of Choice Text Set

Power of Being Kind Text Set

Acceptance Text Set

Colby Sharp, the co-founder of the Nerdy Book Club and The Yarn Podcast, shares excellent book suggestions on both his website, Sharpread and his Pinterest boards.

Empathy Lab shares book collections and guides for National Empathy Day.

Jillian Heise’s blog, Heise Reads and Recommends shares several books and encourages teachers to read a picture book each day with her #classroombookaday movement.

Cited References:

Mills, V. (1995) Fiction, empathy and teaching history. Teaching History, 81, p. 7

Rudine Sims Bishop, Perspectives, Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, Vol 6, No. 3, (1990)


  • This giveaway is for a copy of Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
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12 thoughts on “Mentor Texts to Increase Empathy: Teaching Writing with a Social Justice Lens

  1. What an inspiring piece of writing for me to start my day with! It is my passion and love of books that inspired me to teach and I feel the most important vehicle we have to reach the minds and souls of the children we teach in profound and lasting ways. I also teach in a community where often stories (fiction and nonfiction) are the only exposure my student get in their young lives to begin to develop a conscience for empathy and social justice of the world beyond their privledged lives. Our role as teachers can be so powerful and far reaching….and your thoughts in this piece helps us to not lose focus of what’s truly important in our roles as educators and as responsible individuals.Thank you.


  2. “To see each other as people deserving of love, care, empathy, and kindness” – vitally important words. It is vital that they’re more than words, that they become a way of life. “Believe” means “to live by,” to put the thoughts into action. I think of Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” Be the spark. Yes. Brings to mind the gentle yet courageous life of Fred Rogers documented so poignantly in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And the way that the book Wonder affected 5th grade classes when we read it aloud … empathy for Auggie and others was real, the discussions of fairness, deep. Such an important series and post today, Betsy. The resources are amazing – thank you!


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