Teaching Empathy and Promoting Global Citizenship through Literature

By Edgar, Eir-Anne | English Journal, January 2020 | Go to article overview

Teaching Empathy and Promoting Global Citizenship through Literature


Edgar, Eir-Anne, English Journal


In the dual roles of educator and reader, a Venn diagram of overlapping desires and experiences emerges. In teaching literature, we want students to read and understand the perspectives of those who they might perceive as being different from them. We want students to learn about and consider the experiences of writers from faraway places and even time periods.

As readers, we want students to experience what it is like to be drawn into a story and to be compelled to act or to think differently about the world around them as a result of reading. To present my students with literature that provokes them into conversation, I think of them not simply as English students but as developing global citizens. In this article, I discuss how teachers can develop empathy in students through reading and writing about literature, which contributes to their development as citizens in a global community.

DEVELOPING GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP

As the NCTE Standing Committee Against Racism and Bias states, "There is no apolitical classroom. English language arts teachers must examine the ways that racism has personally shaped their beliefs and must examine existing biases that feed systems of oppression." By choosing texts that trigger empathic reactions, English teachers can help students better understand others' experiences with oppression and even promote good global citizenship skills such as participating in community efforts and promoting social justice initiatives.

On the other hand, as Miguel Conde writes in a LitHub essay, freighting literature-specifically what he calls "serious fiction"-with the task of promoting empathy ignores the multiplicity of ways in which readers can be transformed via fiction and poetry. He suggests that writing and reading literature does not need "a practical purpose," and even worse, that the reader's empathic response could possibly result in the eradication of others' experiences. However, by pairing literature with contextual materials, teachers can avoid the erasure of difference that Conde warns against.

As a teacher and a reader who feels compelled to proselytize the "good word" of literacy, my goal is for students to consider their relationships with others in the world through utilizing texts that ask them to do the emotional and intellectual work of putting themselves in someone else's shoes, so that they may begin the lifelong journey of becoming good global citizens. While teaching university and high school courses at the University of Kentucky and Interlochen Arts Academy in the past fifteen years, one of my primary goals in my English classrooms has been to think about my students as global citizens and to consider my role in preparing them to be citizens of the world.

What is English language arts learning? Is it merely proficiency with reading, writing, and conversational skills? Or is it something else? The Ideas for Global Citizenship website states: "Global Citizenship is a way of living that recognizes our world is an increasingly complex web of connections and interdependencies. One in which our choices and actions may have repercussions for people and communities locally, nationally or internationally" ("Global Citizenship").

LEARNING ABOUT COMMUNITY

To develop students for citizenship in our teaching involves learning about community in all its varied forms. Additionally, the position of "citizen" ought to be engaged with and challenged by these questions:

- What rights and privileges do citizens receive?

- How do you exercise them?

- Who is excluded?

- Why?

- What happens to noncitizens?

By viewing students as future global citizens, my goal has been to get students engaged in reading and writing about literature that serves multiple purposes. The course includes texts that explore, challenge, and raise questions. I invite students to think about characters' experiences in relation to their own. I employ a variety of historical contexts (through lectures, listening to music and looking at visual art from the time period, discussing legal policies from the era, and so forth) so that students can consider the context that may have influenced the text. …

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