Teaching Empathy with Fiction

Teaching Empathy with Fiction
English author, Neil Gaiman says, “Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” As a middle school teacher of students who had been identified as at high risk for school failure, I wanted every activity to fulfill multiple objectives. As I saw it, that would be the best way to close those learning gaps. Along with filling the academic gaps, I wanted my students to have chances to build their stores of empathy.

When I taught reading, the students needed to learn about history and the world. Many reading programs focus on learning about themes, characterization, plot, key ideas, and on and on. To me, it often seems that students are taught about reading more than they are shown that reading can be a deeply satisfying activity that can open whole new worlds for them. In my classes, I chose books that I felt would engage their interest, even if the chosen book was higher that their reading level. The book would teach them about some aspect of the world and help them build empathy. One year, I chose Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

After I introduced the book, a story about a Black family, living in rural Mississippi in the 1930s, I faced a student reader insurrection. Nobody wanted to hear about this family. “What do we have in common with these people?” I got them settled down, and we started reading as a class. This meant that I would read the difficult parts or the emotional areas of the book. I would explain unfamiliar words in context. Students would read parts aloud that they could easily read. I had a student who was an 8th grader who read on the second grade level. As I read, I would look ahead to see those passages that he could read aloud with facility. Each student read passages where they could shine as they read aloud.

The story follows the four Logan children and their family, as they go about their lives. It is set during the era of the Great Depression in the times of the Jim Crow laws. Mississippi was a deeply racist place where the “night men” could burn the houses of Black sharecroppers with the people in them and not worry about having legal issues.

The Logans are different from their neighbors. The neighbors are sharecroppers and do not own land. The Logans own their land, but Papa has to work on the railroad in order to keep the land. Mama teaches school and their grandmother, Big Ma, works around the homestead. Papa brings Mr. Morrison home from the railroad to help around the farm. When Mr. Morrison is hurt, Uncle Hammer Logan comes from Chicago to help out with the land, because Papa needs the money that the railroad pays him. Within the story, the Logan family and other Black families encounter friction between the White and Black families, racism, financial problems, violence, and the ever-present possibility of lynching.

As our class moved through the book, which is based on stories passed through Mildred D. Taylor’s family, the students started looking forward to reading every day. They were very invested in finding out what happened to the characters. When the White students’ school bus deliberately splashed muddy water on the Logan children, my students were furiously indignant. The best books of fiction teach empathy.

As I read the final emotional pages of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the classroom was completely silent around me. It was like breathing had ceased, as the students digested what they heard. Then, one girl screamed, “Oh my God! That is the best book that I ever read! Are there more?” Pandemonium broke out as students expressed solidarity with her. I assured them that there were more books about the Logans, and that we would read another next semester.

By supporting them in their reading, I had opened up a whole new world of truth for these students. Most of the students in the school were White, and this book opened their eyes to what some of their Black classmates saw too often. It gave them an opportunity to identify with people who were different from them. This work of fiction gave them an opportunity to see the truth in its pages and to learn to extend their empathy for the other.

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