Can I Teach Empathy?

Yesterday I read a post from The Hays Crew.  She asked the question, “Can I teach empathy?” (You can check out her post here:  While this question was swirling around in my head, I witnessed this moment.

It is 9:42 on a Tuesday in a fourth-grade classroom in the middle of Missouri.  The teacher has read Eve Bunting’s The Memory String.  She has brainstormed in front of students people in her life and objects she has from them that spark memories.  She invites her students to do the same kind of brainstorming.  As they do, she circulates around the room.  Students quickly get started.  Whispers break through the silence as memories are shared with their table group.  She stops to work with one of her students, helping him find his memories.  One memory overtakes him.  He breaks down from the heaviness of it.  I see her put her hand on his back, rubbing in small circles, passing comfort and understanding with her touch.

“It’s ok.  Not all memories are happy ones,” she whispers.

Inside I smile, as I think how true this simple statement is.  This is what writer’s workshop is about–finding our stories and working through the memories.  Giving voice to our memories.

His glasses are pushed down to the tip of his nose.  Hands fisted over his eyes.  Shoulders wracking from the memory bombarding his brain.  From another table in the room, a girl rises.  She walks silently across the room.  Her feet make no noise as she moves across the floor.  She does not attract the attention of her peers.  She reaches for a tissue from a box at the front of the room, turns back, and crosses to the boy.  She gives him the tissue and walks back to her seat.

Empathy can be taught.  Community can be created.  Writing can be that vehicle.


10 thoughts on “Can I Teach Empathy?

  1. Students need to see empathy in action and what a great learning moment you describe. This teacher has built a safe community for her class. They witness her actions and know follow her lead. Your details bring the reader right into this classroom. I agree with Fran, beautiful slice!

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