Monday 30 January 2017

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy

There is no better place to tackle issues traditionally covered in PSHCE lessons than in a reading session. I don’t mean just by reading non-fiction texts about the issues, I mean by reading fiction. Consider these two quotes from two generations of British authors:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” – George Eliot

“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman

Many-a keen reader would identify with what both Eliot and Blackman said. In fact, when asked, many would admit that the main purpose of their reading is escapism – being given a window into another world where they can almost ‘be’ someone else for a while. I remember how emotionally attached my wife became to the characters in ‘A Time Travellers Wife’ – she thought about them, and cried about them, for weeks afterwards, often returning to the book to re-read excerpts. Those of us who love to read also love experiencing that feeling of empathy, as we learn about the lives of others, whether they are lives we’d love to live or not.

And it’s those lives that we’d not love to live that it is most important that we read about. Especially with children. C.S. Lewis said:

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Many of our children will come up against these cruel enemies and so need to know how to respond, but we also need to protect them from becoming those cruel enemies. To extend the idea behind that quote: since it is so likely that children will meet those who live life differently to themselves, let them at least have heard of how to treat those people when they do meet them. Fiction is a perfect gateway into the worlds of others who live life differently.

If you are a reader of any quantity of children’s books, titles will immediately spring to mind which have the potential to evoke empathy in children. Indeed, many children’s writers specifically aim for this, just as George Eliot did in her time. Two such books spring to my mind immediately: ‘Wonder’ by R. J. Palacio and ‘Hitler’s Canary’ by Sandi Toksvig, which, as readers of this blog will already know, I’ve used in my year 6 whole class reading sessions this year. Both books help children to be “better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them”.

‘Wonder’ was written, according to Wikipedia, “after an incident where [Palacio] and her three-year-old son were waiting in line to buy ice cream. Her son noticed a girl with facial birth defects. Fearing he would react badly, Palacio attempted to remove her son from the situation so as not to upset the girl or her family but ended up worsening the situation. Natalie Merchant's song "Wonder" made her realize that the incident could teach society a valuable lesson.” ‘Wonder’ is written precisely to challenge the reader’s thinking, to present them with a different viewpoint to their own and to provide them with frame of reference to access when they experience people who differ to them in real life.

And it does just that from my experience. The children in my class this year responded incredibly to the book. Not only did they think that it was ‘the best book ever’, but they articulated clearly how the book, and the discussions we had surrounding it, had helped them to understand better those with disabilities. It’s hard to quantify but I’m also sure it has made them kinder to one another too.

‘Hitler’s Canary’ is about the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War Two and the resulting rescue of the majority of Denmark’s Jewish population. Obviously, it explores racism through its characters and plot, but it also challenges attitudes towards differences in general. At one point early on in the novel the mother character says, “In this house we respect and cherish differences. Let me tell you that the very atrocities you are worrying about occur when people are obsessed by their differences.” This is in reply to comments about a homosexual character in the book.

The linking of non-fiction texts to our reading of ‘Hitler’s Canary’ has enabled children to engage more with the novel than the group of children to whom I read it last year. An almost unexpected effect of this increased engagement is the depth of thinking that children have displayed. During a recent lesson, prompted by the children’s thoughts, we discussed many related issues which proved that the text was causing children to draw parallels to real-life issues. These parallels were only drawn because of the heightened understanding of how others feel; it showed that the children understood not only how historical and fictional characters felt but how those same feelings might be felt by real people in real and current situations.

We discussed the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict, including its origins and its complexities and I had the opportunity to share my wife’s experience of a press trip which allowed her to speak with officials on both sides of the conflict. They had their own ideas about how the conflict could be resolved and the non-fiction text we had studied about Danish underground resistance groups (some of which were started by young people) provided me with fertile ground to encourage them that one day they could make a difference in situations like this – this led to an exploration of my role as a teacher and how I hope to make a difference in my work. Children began to show empathy not only for the characters in the book but also for a range of real people who have lived or who are living.

Our reading material also allowed me to challenge attitudes towards the Jewish people. One child in particular held some negative views about Jews which he revealed he had gained from internet searches. Without the discussion around both the book and the supporting non-fiction texts I would have been unaware and thus unable to challenge the views. In addition to this I was also able to advise on safe and sensible use of the internet as a result of this debate. As well as teaching empathy a novel can highlight where there is a lack of empathy, thus being an important assessment tool.

These conversations have also provided me with ideas for further reading content. It is clear that I can use future reading sessions to read around anti-Semitism with a view to dispelling myths and increasing understanding. I will also use texts to continue to encourage children that they can make a difference in society. It has also been made evident that the children have some awareness and understanding of current issues and that some of them like to have the forum to discuss them – an increase in the use of reading materials related to world affairs would seem to be a way to further engage them in reading and discussion. So, the added bonus of reading for empathy is that it can provide the teacher with a clear path forwards, making imminent text choice easier.

So when selecting texts (fiction or non-fiction) choose wisely; not just based on reading ability, links to topic, enjoyability and so on, but also on the issues that are covered in the texts. Try to find texts which will promote discussion about social, moral and cultural issues and the values that we’d like our children to hold. In doing this reading sessions become multi-purpose, providing an arena for exploration which does not appear forced but becomes a natural part of classroom life, thus embedding and interweaving your approach to education hot potatoes such as British Values and the Prevent strategy. Carefully-chosen fiction really does have the power to change hearts, minds, lives and the future.

I’ll leave you with one more quote:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” —Katherine Patterson, author of Bridge to Terebithia
Click here for a great list of books which promote kindness, compassion and empathy from Book Trust
Click here to visit the Empathy Lab UK website to find out more about the creative power of words to build empathy, and the power of empathy to make the world a better place
Click here to visit the Empathy Library website, "a digital treasure house to share inspiring books and films to spark a global empathy revolution"
Click here for CLPE's Celebrating Kindness booklist

Additional Reading for the science behind all this:

Good News for Bookworms: Reading Novels Boosts Your Empathy
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, Study Finds
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (sign up for a free account to access this journal article by psychologists and researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano)

More great quotes from authors about reading and empathy:

"In reading, you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals." - Neil Gaiman

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