We Teach Empathy

We Teach Empathy
Posted on 02/02/2018
Book Study

Empathy…the main idea of To Kill a Mockingbird.  All sophomores are reading, To Kill a Mockingbird, during their English ll Empathy Unit designed by fellow teachers, Jean Fischer and Rochelle Achenbach.  While the book has been part of the SHS English ll curriculum for over 10 years, empathy has been the focus for the last five or six years.  “We teach empathy,” said Ms. Achenbach. “Empathy is the overarching theme for the whole book.  Through our small group discussions, the students are talking with each other and looking at our essential questions which deal with how we learn empathy toward others and how empathy can keep us from having prejudices and show tolerance.”  Ms. Achenbach added that while the book is almost 60 years old, it is timeless, offering the opportunity to talk about the idea of empathy, which is still needed today.

“Even though the book is set in the 1930s and written in the 1960s, it is still relevant,” shared Ms. Fischer.  It is relevant in terms of racial issues, differing socioeconomic backgrounds, religion and gender, and throughout the book, all of those issues are discussed.  “The essential questions help us to comprehend how empathy allows us to understand others and how it helps us to learn and grow and mature,” explained Ms. Fischer. 

While reading the book, students spend several days in small discussion circles, and according to Ms. Fischer, “During that time, they go over the essential questions, and they go over parts of the book that they have questions on or quotations that they felt were significant.”  This provides more opportunity for student discovery rather than teacher-driven discussion.  The teachers monitor what the students are discussing, and after the small group interaction, they pull together as a large group, but they spend the bulk of their time in their discussion circles. 

The students also believe the book is relevant today.  When asked why, Tyler shared, “In the book, there are a bunch of adults who are trying to teach Scout and Jem, the main characters, how to have empathy, showing good and bad examples.”  Leah added that empathy is important because it teaches life lessons.  In comparing it to the recent news coverage of Spencer Schools, Tyler added, “I heard the rumors, and it made me feel bad, and I feel like if I had heard that about another school, I would feel bad as well, because I don’t think that any schools around here are like that.”  The entire discussion circle felt there is empathy in the halls at SHS, including exchange student, Eduardo Molet.  Spending the year in Spencer from Spain, Eduardo shared that while there are many differences between Spencer and his home, he feels welcomed and accepted by the students and staff. 

Important concepts, like empathy, are woven throughout the curriculum taught on a daily basis at Spencer High School, and educators take pride in challenging students to “think independently, inquire creatively and advance intellectually to develop the character and confidence to make a difference in a changing world.”