As educators, we are more than curriculum drivers. We are character builders, supporters, shoulders to lean on, authoritative figures, mother and father figures, and so much more. We choose this profession not only to share our passions in our subjects. We also want to help build the future by aiding in the development of strong individuals who care about our global community. One of the biggest ways we’re to do that is to help build a sense of empathy within the young minds that we teach.

The difficult question: How do we “make” our students empathetic without truly getting into their brains and rewiring their emotions?

I’ll admit, building a sense of empathy in seventh grade is a daunting task. They’re at the age where, naturally, they’re very much focused on themselves. Not in an arrogant, self-centered way. It’s just really all they know. Not many middle schoolers have traveled to various places around the world or experienced different cultures, backgrounds, or events. If they have, the majority of the time it’s through week-long isolated cruises, lavish vacations, or short stints somewhere in Europe.

So how do you help students understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes when they haven’t had many experiences themselves to refer back to?

Answer: Hit them with identity.

This year, we’re adding a slight change to our curriculum in world geography. Our school participates in the week-long Days of Remembrance, in which victims of the Holocaust are remembered and honored. Last year (my first year experiencing this) I felt something was off. It was a week of honor, dedication and remembrance, but then it stopped. Friday came and went, and Monday started back up as if the whole previous week didn’t happen. We decided to include a mini-Holocaust and global genocide unit this year to help students understand the impact and the purpose of remembering dark and saddening events in our past.

Most 7th grade students know that the Jewish population was the main target of the Holocaust. I only had a couple of students who were unaware of what the Holocaust was. We decided that even though we were going to look at a dark time in our history, we wanted students “walking away” with a sense of hope and legacy.

To have them understand this unit, I used terminology that students can relate to the most: bullies, victims, bystander and upstander. When you think about it, the Holocaust is an extreme story of bullying. Immediately, students were able to relate to this part. Most students said they have at one time in their lives felt “victimized” from teasing, feeling isolated, or being different. The act of being an upstander can be difficult, but it’s not always easy to do the right thing.

To have them empathize with what the Jewish populations felt while parts of their identity were being stripped away, we had students create identity silhouettes. Within their own personal silhouette (tracing their silhouettes is probably the closest I may have been to some of my students physically) students were to identify traits, hobbies, and such that made them who they are. They had about a full class to color, fill, design their “mind.” What do they think about? What’s important to you?

As we were wrapping up, I placed sticky notes over some of their identity: family, sports, heritage, favorites, etc. The tension of what I would cover up grew. I asked them “How would life be different for you if part of your identity was taken away?” Below are some of their responses:

  • My life would probably be very, very different because most of my really close friends are at karate with me or they do drama with me and that’s really the only times I get to see those people because of other busy parts in my life. But if karate had been taken away from I probably wouldn’t have the same drive i have right now because my instructors have always taught me to persevere and have a positive attitude and also to always give 100% in everything I do so that would definitely affect who I am today If I didn’t have karate as apart of my personality.
  • If my singing ability was taken away from me, I wouldn’t have any way to express myself in a way that I’m comfortable with. Also, I’m very Irish and one of my ancestors was even a duke in Ireland! Being Irish means a lot to me and taking that away would be awful.
  • I would be lost in life because the things that Ms. Mandeville took away somethings that were very precious and valuable to me.
  • Everything that i love would be taken away and i would be really sad and wouldn’t know who i am because of those things being taken away.

When we discussed actions, such as the Star of David, the burning of Jewish books, or the loss of jobs, the students found it difficult to connect. But take away something that is important to THEM? A bit of empathy is developed.

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What sort of activities have you done in your class to help students develop a sense of empathy? What resources do you refer back to?

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