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Teaching Empathy: Using Read Aloud and Text Sets to Think and Talk about Social Justice K-5


by Anna Gratz Cockerille 

In the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Atticus Finch teaches his children, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings, plight, or situation of another. It is recognizing and valuing perspectives that are different from one’s own. It is the basis for relationships and, some would even argue, is vital to survival.

Further, empathy is an important foundation for teaching social justice, which more and more school are including in their curricula throughout the grades. Now more than ever, children must learn to understand and respect their own origins and those of others, to celebrate diversity, to notice and push back on unfair treatment, and to believe in their abilities to incite change. These are all parts of an effective social justice curriculum. 

One powerful way to teach empathy is through reading. When readers aim to understand characters’ feelings and struggles, when they identify and consider different perspectives, or when they have an emotional response to reading, they are building their capacity for empathy. Empathy in reading leads to greater engagement, interference, and interpretation. Two parts of the reading curriculum that lend themselves well to teaching empathy are reading aloud and text sets. 

When reading aloud to teach empathy, teachers can choose texts that showcase different perspectives, that include clear emotional or power struggles, or that address social issues. While reading aloud, teachers can model the kinds of thinking and questioning that lead to empathy. Using prompts such as "I wonder what the character is feeling here…", or "If I were this character, I might be feeling…" models for students the kind of thinking that leads to empathy. Many units in the Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Heinemann, 2015) offer tips on how to grow students’ thinking through reading aloud. Units that particularly address empathy instruction are Meeting Characters and Learning Lessons (Grade 1), Series Book Clubs (Grade 2), Character Studies (Grade 3), Interpreting Characters (Grade 4), and Interpretation Book Clubs (Grade 5). 

Text sets are carefully curated collections of texts that address topics such as bullying or friendship in the younger grades and poverty or race for older students. Often, teachers set students up to read the texts and then to discuss their thinking in clubs. Here are few tips for putting together text sets that will lead to powerful thinking and greater empathy: 

  • Include a variety of kinds of texts. Sets might include any combination of books (fiction and nonfiction), articles, poems, songs, images, websites, artworks, or other media. 
  • Ensure that there are different perspectives on the topic represented. 
  • Encourage students to add to the sets. They can add texts they come across that seem to fit, or could even write their own. 
  • Teach ways for students to study and interpret the texts. Interpretation Book Clubs (Grade 5) is a particularly helpful resource.  

At this week’s Twitter chat, Katie Clements, Alissa Riecherter, and Marie Mounteer will lead the community in chatting about using read-aloud and texts sets to think about talk about social justice in powerful ways. Don’t miss what is sure to be a thought-provoking, insightful discussion. 

Each Wednesday night at 7:30pm eastern, The Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project hosts a Twitter chat using the hashtag #TCRWP. Join @clemenkat, @missalissanyc, and @mcmounteer tomorrow evening.  

Not on Twitter? Take Heinemann’s free Twitter for Educators course here.

    Anna Gratz Cockerille

Coauthor of Bringing History to Life (Grade 4) in the Units of Study for Teaching Writing Series.

Anna was a teacher and a literacy coach in New York City and in Sydney, Australia, and later became a Staff Developer and Writer at TCRWP. She served as an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and taught at several TCRWP institutes, including the content literacy institute, where she helped participants bring strong literacy instruction into social studies classrooms. Anna also has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement (Heinemann 2012), and Navigating Nonfiction in the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Grades 3–5 series (Heinemann 2010). Most recently, Anna served as an editor for the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, K–5 series.

Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, Education, Guided Reading, Katie Clements, Marie Mounteer, Reading, TCRWP, Teachers College, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Twitter Chat, Alissa Riecherter, Anna Gratz Cockerille, Literacy, Reading Units of Study, Units of Study for Teaching Reading

Date Published: 01/17/17

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