Students are sitting in circles, heads close together, excitedly talking about books, and using the words “I felt empathy when . . .” over and over again. The murmurs of purposeful conversations fill the room, and I can hear student talk that demonstrates an understanding for the hardships others endure. This is a breakthrough moment for our fifth-grade class.
This past year, I had a unique group of students. Many of the boys were very sports-oriented and quite competitive, to the point of unsportsmanlike behavior. My girl groups kept changing friendships and could be quite unkind at times. In Monday share times, students would try to outshine one another with material things they had purchased. As is true in most situations, not all students fell into one of these categories, but enough did that it disrupted the flow of the community we had so carefully built together over time. I knew some action needed to be taken, but wasn’t quite sure what that would be.
As luck would have it, Mary Lee Hahn wrote a blog post about books that evoke empathy in the reader. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and it made me wonder about what the power of empathy book clubs might be in our classroom, and if participating in such a book club might help us refocus our energies as a community in more positive ways. It was time to start planning.
Preparing for Book Clubs: An Empathy Read-Aloud
Before I started the actual book clubs, I wanted to share a book that dealt with empathy during our read-aloud time. I thought it would begin this important conversation with the entire group. It would give us plenty of shared opportunities to define and discuss what empathy really is, noting the situations in the read-aloud that made us feel that emotion.
Several books immediately came to mind, but in the end, I chose Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. From the beginning I was astonished by the depth of the class conversations provoked by this book. We keep read-aloud notebooks in our class, where students track their thinking about our shared books. I don’t give guidelines about what they put in their notebook, except that it needs to help them think more deeply about the book. Normally what is recorded in read-aloud notebooks varies widely between students. But during our reading of Okay for Now, all but two students chose to keep at least one page in their notebooks where they noted how and why they were feeling empathetic. This one small detail in our read-aloud routine helped to greatly enhance our talk together.
As we read Okay for Now, I would jot some of their ideas about empathy on an anchor chart from time to time; this helped hold our thinking and made it visible, prompting conversations between my two language arts classes. Both classes were intrigued by what the other was saying, and that in turn prompted further conversation and thinking. This not only helped build the community within each classroom, but also built a community of learners and thinkers between the two classes.
Choosing Texts for Book Clubs
One of the next things I did was to compile a list of books I thought might interest my classes. Mary Lee’s list was a great place to start, and I added some texts of my own. There were many excellent books that might evoke empathetic feelings, but here are the texts that made my short list:
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (animal cruelty and animals being taken from their natural habitat)
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio (facial deformity, plus, because story is told from point of view of multiple narrators, issues of other narrators are addressed as well)
- Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper (disabilities)
- Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting (homelessness)
- The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson (unkindness to elderly neighbor)
- Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy (persecution of Jewish people during WWII)
- Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin (disabilities)
- Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord (foster children)
- Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal (homelessness)
- How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor (homelessness)
- One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (foster homes)
Over a two-day period, I talked about these books with both classes during the minilesson time of our reading workshop. A couple of interesting things happened during this time. First, once the students heard about The One and Only Ivan, both classes unanimously voted to make it our next read-aloud—no one wanted to have to miss the experience of Ivan. (It made my decision for the next read-aloud quite simple!)
Some students were so enamored with all the titles, they decided to read every single book together and have multiple book club meetings about them. They were independently letting me know that most likely, their book clubs would be continuing until the end of the school year.
Some students demonstrated resistance to the shared titles; these students were typically fantasy, nonfiction, or graphic novel readers. They didn’t enjoy realistic fiction, so they needed a gentle nudge to find the best choice for them. These students met with me in a small group so I could give them more specific details about each book to help them choose the best realistic fiction title for them.
Promoting Student Responsibility and Preparation
After all this conversation about the potential books, students were finally ready to make their empathy book club choices. They all got their first choice, and then it was time to read, reflect, and think. The structure for the independent reading of their empathy books was fairly simple. As they read, they were required to record thinking, either on sticky notes that went on a bulletin board in our room or on a KidBlog group I specifically organized for their clubs’ use. It was both delightful and enlightening to read their thinking as they read, and to watch as they commented on each other’s thinking. The give and take of these in-process conversations really enriched and deepened their understanding of their chosen book.
After several weeks of reading and thinking, the big day arrived. The students gathered their thinking from KidBlog, their sticky notes, or notes they had jotted in their reader’s notebook. Our book clubs were about to begin. I buzzed around the room like a hummingbird trying to collect nectar from many different flowers as I listened in and took notes during the student discussions:
- “I felt so sorry for Georgina when her friend saw that she lived in her mom’s car and then told.”
- “Why did the Nazis gather Jews into ghettos? That seems mean.”
- “I was so worried when Auggie went to school for the first time. I knew Julian was going to be mean to him.”
- “How great was it that Summer sat with Auggie at lunch that first day? I don’t know if I could have done that.”
- “I wanted to scream when Melody got to the airport and her team had just left her. I’m glad they didn’t win without her.”
- “Being a foster kid would be horrible—no one really wants you.”
What incredible insight the students shared. Their understanding of others’ plights had really developed as they had spent time first reading the book, then recording their thinking, and finally gathering to talk about these important books with their peers. Each student shared thinking that helped deepen the concept of empathy as they expanded on one another’s ideas in their book club conversations.
Our community wasn’t perfect after this experience, but we all grew and had more self-awareness than we’d had when the entire process began. Reading and processing books with empathy as their backdrop really helped my students see another side of the world, and were key conversation touchstones for us until the end of the year.