Literature Teaches Empathy
When teachers assign books to read for an English class, the purpose is typically to introduce new concepts in critical thinking such as: using contextual clues to learn new vocabulary words; examining plot structures; and of course checking reading comprehension. Undoubtedly, these are vital reading skills that deserve our attention in the classroom, but when I sit down to discuss a book with a student, more often than not we end up discussing their emotional reaction to the characters and what motivates these characters to make the choices they do.
Throughout the course of the year, the students of SEC have read stories about two young children trying to make sense of the racist attitudes that engulf their town, a holocaust survivor who insists he only survives through sheer luck, and two teenagers who suddenly find themselves stuck in a desert. These stories provide students with a blueprint for how to handle complex emotions that no other medium can match.
Isn’t that the joy of reading? To experience the intricate details of another person’s life, giving us the ability to both empathize and experience the worlds of other people. Life in these stories is far from perfect. Plots get messy, filled with trials and conflict...just as in real life; however, like the characters we read about in class, it is how we overcome these obstacles that defines our true nature and character.
I don’t expect the traditional method of using a novel or story in the classroom to teach literary concepts to change, but I do think using literature to talk about emotional complexities is just as valuable. It certainly is what students seem to identify the most with.