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A co-educational private school for Preschool–Grade Eight

Empathy: An Underutilized Tool

As the 3:40 p.m. bell rings and students race out the school doors to dismissal, phones come out of backpacks and are switched on in one fluid motion. Reconnected to social media, Google, and video games, students disconnect with their peers and stand around in small groups in silence staring at the devices in their hands. Names have to be called several times for pick up to be heard because while the students are physically on our private school grounds, they are no longer present to the community around them. The smartphone, a fantastic invention, allows students to be both more connected to the world while at the same time, less present to the people standing right near them. It is in this paradox that we are challenged to teach through the school year.  

In this moment in time, how do we help students at our private school relate to and understand the important figures of history or literature. What is it like to be a young Jewish girl in Amsterdam in 1942 hiding with your family? What does it mean to be a member of a community that requires sameness from everyone? And, even more importantly, how can the lessons of these lives be relevant learning opportunities for today’s middle school students? 

All English teachers know the importance of checking reading comprehension as students begin a new book, news article, or short story. When providing high-quality education, it is crucial to ensure the student understands what they are reading before proceeding. Beyond the basic plot and character questions, all of which students can Google the answers to, we are challenged today to help students feel empathy with the experiences of others. When students face questions they are unable to Google the answers to, they become frozen and fearful. Class discussions, writing assignments, and various projects become frustrating experiences for both the teachers and the students. Again, we confront some critical questions: What can today’s middle school students learn from Anne Frank? How is the harrowing, dystopian tale of Lois Lowry’s The Giver relevant and important for students? On what level can students relate to or empathize with these characters and tales?  

Realizing that research suggests that empathy is an underutilized tool (Neuroteach, 56), we set out as a private school English department to use this pathway into greater appreciation and understanding of literature. These texts, The Giver by Lois Lowry and Anne Frank’s diary, highlight two aspects of literature that we aimed to maximize in our development of empathic middle school readers and writers: the understanding of a human-centered dilemma and the ability to find a personal connection with the person or character.

In the dystopian novel The Giver, the author, Lois Lowry, imagines a society where memories do not exist. Jonas, the main character, has operated without memories until he is called upon to be the “Receiver of Memory” at age 12. Now, he experiences positive and negative memories. While reading The Giver, Grade 6 students grappled with the danger of sameness and considered the value of difference. Memory is essential to all of our lives. We find joy calling on positive memory. We make decisions based on memories of past experiences. We use our memory daily to complete tasks and to excel. To deepen their understanding, students composed creative writing essays, giving one of their memories to Jonas as if he was experiencing it for the first time. When doing so, our students had to account for words, objects, and feelings that Jonas had never encountered. To convey the novelty of their experience, students used empathy to recognize Jonas’ current understanding of the world. They also used empathy to call upon their knowledge of descriptive language, such as strong verbs and adverbs, and literary techniques, such as simile and metaphor. 

After studying the memories Jonas “received” in the novel, the students were ready to complete their own. One student described a happy memory of an excellent golf swing as “a tingling sensation...came to Jonas when the small, round ball hit the green and abruptly stopped.” Another student expressed the awe of snorkeling: “At first he saw a torrent of bubbles swirling around him, and when his mask cleared, he gasped at the incredible sight of strange creatures of all shapes and colors surrounding him.” 

Some students elected to share more challenging memories. When describing experiencing the pain of an injury: “After Jonas felt something puncture his foot, the sharp object quickly retreated and the throbbing foot released a sharp pain with each step he took.” Regardless of the mood of the creative writing essay, the personal relevance of sharing the student’s memory increased engagement. Simultaneously, the use of empathy assisted students in achieving the writing goals at hand.

Our Grade 7 students began reading Anne Frank’s diary almost 75 years after Anne and the other residents of the secret annex were discovered, sent to various death camps where, ultimately, everyone except Otto Frank, her father, met their death. Anne’s diary, published years after WWII, is a complicated read for students and without a narrative driving it, students have trouble finding a way to identify with the story and the residents of the annex. To bridge this gap, we created the packing project to help students ‘experience’ a small part of what Anne Frank went through. The aim of this project is for students to empathize with Anne and her family.   

After reading the first few entries of the diary, students are asked to pack for an escape. They can only bring what they can carry and must look like they are attending school, as that was Anne’s aim. Students are then asked to take a picture of themselves once they are ready to escape and write a diary entry about the decisions they made when packing. What did they bring? How did they decide what to leave behind? Having only read about 15 pages of the diary, the students are obsessed with packing favorite objects, lucky items, or sports equipment. One student wrote, “Some things special to me that I brought were my lucky hat, books, and a musical instrument (in my case a ukulele). I love music, and I could not live without it for two years, so I took a ukulele, the smallest instrument that I play.” Students cannot relate to the idea of survival, silence, and being hidden. They are unfamiliar with the boredom and loneliness Anne experiences over the two-plus years she is hidden. While students are thoughtful about what they want to bring, they have a hard time empathizing with Anne’s situation or problem.

The students’ understanding of what it meant to live in the annex changes as we continue to read. They are struck by the hours upon hours that Anne and her family were forced to be quiet and still. They can’t believe the bathroom situation and the lack of privacy. Most importantly, they begin to understand Anne’s loneliness, her lack of contact with the world. When they are finished reading the diary, they look back at what they packed. At this moment, most students laugh or giggle at what they thought about bringing. They realize they would have brought more books, no ukuleles, and many more small objects that would have helped them pass the time and not feel so alone. Middle school students know what it is like to be lonely. It is in this small moment of quiet reflection that students genuinely feel empathy for Anne.  

Ultimately, our goal is to help our students connect in a real way and to build community beyond Jonas and Anne Frank. We are hopeful the empathy built for the characters in the novels translates for the people they will meet across a variety of life experiences. Asking what is it like to be and what does it mean to be, builds the foundation for students when confronted with the unfamiliar. 

Excerpt 1 from student writing (Grade 6): The memory of hide and go seek

When the memory started, Jonas was in a small field with beautiful flowers and the smell of damp grass. When he looked around, everything around him was filled with bright colors. He could not understand why he would feel pain in this memory. He did not feel pain, in fact, he felt exhilarated. “Ready or not! Here I come!” Jonas was crouched down behind a tall plant. His eyes followed a girl as she walked by not aware of Jonas’ presence. When she left out of sight, he got up and started to run away from her. As he ran, Jonas was drowned in the sensation of the fresh thick breeze that cooled his damp skin, as a trickle of sweat softly trailed down his cheek. 

Excerpt 2 from student writing (Grade 7):

I took this assignment very seriously. I first dug through my closet to find clothes that I could wear. I wore over 5 pairs of socks, 3 or more shirts/sweaters, 3 to four pairs of pants, two hats, and more. I put two additional pairs of underwear in my pockets. Inside my backpack I decided to put games, books, and a puzzle to help with boredom. I also brought paper, pencils, sticky notes, and other things to write on. I left out some of my stuffed animals in my packing, which made me a little sad. I decided to bring what I did as an approach to help stop boredom. After reading the first part of the diary, I realized how hard it must have been for Anne. Throughout the experience, I knew it was just for pretend, but this really happened for her. It makes me feel awful.

Meet the Authors


Emily Seelaus                                              Natalie Young
English Teacher & House Director             English Teacher