The Art of Empathy: Teaching Students to Care

Article excerpt

Since the beginning of my days in the classroom, I have been interested in empathy and care. What evokes these feelings, who experiences them and who doesn't, and whether they can be taught have long been open-ended questions. In reflecting on my early years in teaching, I can recall a poignant incident that served as a catalyst for my concern and, on that particular day, split the class right down its empathic middle. I was teaching language and visual arts to eighth graders. It was afternoon and I was leading my rambunctious teenagers down a hot, open loggia to the library. As usual, neighborhood dogs were resting in the grassy strip between each hallway, waiting patiently for their owners. As we neared the library, I heard a loud YELP! Everyone turned just in time to see a small brown dog, tail tucked, limping away; we also saw Larry, giggling proudly at his accomplishment Other laughter joined his. Next, came a barrage of angry shouts and a mini `lynching mob," wearing bellbottoms and peace signs, moved threateningly toward the perpetrator. Plainly, we never got to the library. The principal arrived on the scene, helped restore order, and I turned the class around and shuffled their resentful feet back to the room where they readied themselves for my "lecture." To their surprise, I said nothing; on the surface, work continued as usual. In my mind, however, things were different. I felt uneasy and kept replaying the scene in the hallway. I heard the cruel laughter, saw the angry faces reacting to the abuse, and for the first time, I saw the faces of indifference, the glazed eyes of those who just didn't care. I spent that evening in careful reflection, and after some time, I moved beyond disappointment in my students; the teacher in me kicked in. Though the far-reaching outcomes of those after-school ponderings will be revealed later, suffice it to say, by the next morning, my anticipated lecture had evolved into a project of a much larger scale.

Though our principal saw the event as minor, in my thinking it was more problematic, a symptom of something more pervasive. As I reflect now, I think of the chapter on "Caring For Animals, Plants, Things, and Ideas" in Noddings' Caring(1984), where she states, "An ethic grounded in the natural caring of ordinary life must consider our relation to animals" (p. 148). At that time, in the 1970s, I thought of Amory's Man Kind? (1974) and his discussion of our callous treatment of animals and environment. Neill's (1960) writings on children's motivation for cruelty and insensibility also came to mind. Above all, I was reminded of Gandhi's belief that a society's real measure is revealed in how it treats its animals. For me, my students' inauspicious behavior had given birth to a cause. From then on, I was determined to grapple with what Barrow (1975) calls the "single most interesting and difficult question in education" (p. 162): Can we teach students to care?

For the remainder of the year, I set out to reform my curriculum. At that time, as now, the idea of a synergistic relationship among the arts held great promise, so I capitalized on my double teaching assignment in visual and language arts. Instructional strategies centered around interdisciplinary partnerships, transfer and reinforcement between and among the arts. I developed a series of instructional units aimed at stimulating imagination, developing empathic awareness, and instilling the capacity to care. We explored a variety of art forms across time and cultures, all chosen to invite imaginative participation in a diversity of human experiences. All were intended to evoke empathic response to fel low human beings as well as to other creatures with whom we share this earth. We took time with these studies, reading, writing, drawing, and photographing. There were many class conversations; some hasty and emotional, some deep and reflective. Though I avoided the incident with "Ginger" (the wounded canine), some students bore a guilty conscience, but that was not the aim. …