Can we teach empathy?

Is it possible to teach compassion and empathy in school? Fifth grade teacher Lisa Teeling writes about those lessons are embedded into the Gilman curriculum.

By Lisa Teeling, 5th grade teacher

Recently, many educational blogs, twitter feeds, websites, and conferences have been debating the best methods of teaching empathy in schools. It seems that along with geography and algebra, teachers need to somehow fit into the school day life-lessons about compassion.¬†At Gilman, we embrace this idea. Mind, body, and spirit initiatives have long been part of the fabric of the school, and character building through our “Gilman Five” is encouraged in every subject and activity.

I was thinking of this recently during a typical fifth grade reading class. The boys read books throughout the year that require the reader to “walk in the shoes” of the main characters. (Recently, we even created shoes out of recycled objects that demonstrated the resourcefulness and resiliency of individuals in war time.) Class discussions provide a catalyst for learning, and my class never ceases to amaze me with their insights.

88-year-old Rubin Sztajer of Timonium spoke to fifth grade students and parents about his experience as a Holocaust survivor.

88-year-old Rubin Sztajer of Timonium spoke to fifth grade students and parents about his experience as a Holocaust survivor.

After reading Number the Stars this January, the boys listened intently to the first hand experience of a Holocaust survivor. He encouraged them to think about the experiences of others who were denied the most basic of human rights which most of us take for granted every day.

As we read the novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Parks, the boys discussed what life is like for so many people in the world today that go without adequate water, food, or even a day without fear. The boys discussed ways children cope with adversity and ways they can make a difference in the world someday.

Of course as fifth grade boys will do, the subject of playground experiences gradually made their way into the discussion. Our novels have “bad guys” and “good guys” just like every playground. Can we show empathy for the boys that are mistreated during a game? Would we be able to stand up to the boys that have influence but use it to bully others? And interestingly, they have wanted to explore the idea of showing understanding, compassion, and even forgiveness for the bully.

Fifth grade boys solving the problems of the world? Not likely. However, we may be gaining a more global understanding of how to get along in our own backyard.



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