For several weeks my blog will focus on concrete ways teachers and mentors can help shape the future through their students. Today is Part Two. If you missed Part One: Doing It NOW, you can find it here.
Compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it ~Mirriam-Webster
It is no secret that there are many problems in our world–hunger, war, unemployment, depression, discrimination, and so on. Identifying these is not difficult, but truly understanding these issues and then dealing with them can be difficult when one has never had to worry about where one’s next meal is going to come from, being imprisoned for expressing an opinion, or being shot or kidnapped walking to school. In other words, identifying problems can be easy, but developing compassion for those who are encountering these problems is much more difficult.
So as teachers and mentors, how do we help our young charges develop the compassion necessary to confront these problems head-on? How do we help them understand and empathize with people in situations that our students have never encountered?
One wonderful solutions: Literature.
Today I give you three reasons why teaching literature is a great way to help our students develop an understanding of and desire to help those in need.
One: Literature, by its very nature, tells its readers a story.
When reading a well-written story, we become attached to the characters and invested in their lives and problems. Even fictional stories take on a sense of reality. By using literature that addresses situations and problems that our students have not encountered before, we can encourage a deeper level of understanding and compassion in them than we can with just a factual description of a problem or situation.
An Example: A few years ago I taught both U.S. History and Literature class to a group of eighth graders. In both classes we discussed the Jim Crow South and the effects of prejudice–as a part of units on both Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement in history class and as part of a novel study on To Kill a Mockingbird. While my students could tell you about the facts of Jim Crow, segregation, and the KKK in their history essays and class discussions, the students connected much more deeply to the issues in Literature class. I even had one student in angry tears when she finished reading the section of To Kill a Mockingbird when Tom is convicted and then shot.
Two: Teaching literature in a classroom setting involves directed thought (in the form of journals, essays, etc.) and directed discussion (in the form of small-group and whole-class discussions).
By leading students to specific questions and lines of thought, teachers can encourage students to begin to understand and empathize with the situations the characters are in, consider how each of them might react in similar situations, and develop compassion for the individuals in the story and thereby individuals in the real world.
Consider This: When teaching the wonderful sci-fi novel Ender’s Game my classes spend a good chunk of time discussing what it means to be an enemy and whether Ender’s behavior toward his enemies is appropriate. By discussing the specifics of a fictional character in a fictional setting, it allows your students to discuss difficult and complicated topics and then develop opinions within the safety of a fictional scenario instead of attempting to look directly at the real world with all of its emotional and political baggage. Once students have developed these opinions in a safe environment, I can then encourage them to see parallels with the real world. Through literature a level of understanding and compassion can develop where it would have had difficulty doing so otherwise.
Three: Compassion is a skill, and skills improve with practice.
When literature is regularly used to help students imagine what a given situation is like, to make the people in a situation real and not just statistics, and to have their go-to reaction be compassion and not an us/them mentality, these things become easier for students to do on their own.
Teach It: Compassion is not easy. Understanding people in very different circumstances than your own or people who are themselves slightly scary to downright terrifying is a complex and difficult task that is often easier to ignore than act upon. But that is one of our many roles as teacher and mentor to our students. And by encouraging the skill of compassion as the natural response among those who will be our future politicians and leaders as well as our everyday citizens, we encourage a more compassionate and therefore more peaceful and gentle world.
As a addendum, below is a short and very incomplete list (in no particular order) of books that I find especially helpful in encouraging compassion through literature. Feel free to comment upon or add to it in the comments section below.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Crash by Jerry Spinelli
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Taste of Salt by Frances Temple
- The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall
- The Road to Paris by Nikki Grimes
- The Schwa Was Here by Neal Schusterman
- Tangerine by Edward Bloor
- The Upstairs Room by Johanna Reiss
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Have a great day, and…
This Week’s Featured Product
Looking for a way to encourage your middle or high school students to discuss or journal about big ideas? Here it is! Using quotes, students are asked to consider and respond to the thoughts of others. These make great no prep bell work and extra time fillers! For more details or to download this product, click here!
This Week’s Journal Questions
For the teacher: What books do you teach? Besides standard Literature terms and structures, what do you use these books to discuss?
For the student: What type of people do you understand best? What type of people do you struggle most to understand? How can you work to understand this second group better?
A Recipe from My Kitchen
Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies with Chocolate Chips
- ½ c. butter, softened
- ½ c. peanut butter
- 1 c. brown sugar
- ½ c. white sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 T. honey
- 2 T. water
- 2 t. vanilla extract
- 1½ c. all-purpose flour
- 1 c. rolled oats
- 1 t. baking soda
- ½ t. salt
- ½ t. cinnamon
- 1/8 t. ground nutmeg
- 2 c. semisweet chocolate chips
- 1 c. chopped walnuts, toasted
- Preheat oven to 375°.
- In a large bowl cream butter, peanut butter, and sugars until smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add honey, water, and vanilla. Mix until combined.
- In another bowl, mix together flour, oats, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
- Add dry mixture to wet mixture about a third at a time, stirring until combined after each addition.
- Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts.
- Place cookie dough in 2-3 Tablespoon heaps on greased cookie sheets (smaller or larger amounts if you prefer smaller or larger cookies).
- Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Let cookies cool for 2-3 minutes on cookie sheets before transferring them to wire racks to cool completely.
- Makes about 30 cookies.