Using Fiction to Teach Empathy

Guest Post by Kimberly Dana

Bullying.  We hear about it a lot these days.  But today’s bully isn’t the big, burly boy on the playground shouting, “Cooties!” and looting lunches.  Today’s bully comes in a much more furtive form – often a skirt and pigtails.  Turns out sugar and spice and everything nice isn’t always what little girls are made of.  Girl bullies are common, covert, and too often cruel.  As a middle school teacher, I can’t count the number of times I’ve consoled sobbing girls who have been victimized by insidious, socially paralyzing tactics: “So-and-so called me a (four-letter word for promiscuous), told me I get my clothes at Goodwill, created a I-Hate-(Facebook) Page about me.”  And the list goes on….With the Internet as the perfect, covert dispatching medium, the Mean Girl Renaissance is in full swing. 

Alas, the indisputable truth is both girls and boys bully and the emotional scars can last a lifetime. So why are kids so mean and what is the answer?  I maintain that empathy is the biggest defense against bullying.  We need to educate our students at a young age that being mean to others is not just part of growing up, is not normal, and is not okay.  If empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is our preventative armor, then books can be our magic bullets.  By relating to fictional characters whom are the underdog or being treated unfairly, students are given the tools to self-reflect: Am I being mean?  Am I hurting someone else’s feelings?  If I make fun of my neighbor’s shoes or hair, how will it really make them feel?  By analyzing character, we build character and create a common respectful classroom culture in the interim. 

Now I know what all the teachers are thinking because I think it too…why should we teach kids to care along with all the other things we are expected to teach?  Is fostering an empathetic classroom really of value when we are assessed on our standardized test scores?  Is it really our job to teach (gasp) morality? 

A resounding YES!  Empathy, tolerance, and respect are not just throwaway words.  Creating an environment that is caring and safe should be as paramount as learning the story elements of plot, character, setting, and conflict.  Aha! – and here comes the real justification.  What’s greater on Bloom’s Taxonomy than making thematic connections and evaluating different points of view?  By using fiction to connect, self-reflect, and evaluate one’s treatment of others, we are not only teaching higher thinking skills, we are ensuring an environment that’s emotionally healthy for every student.  Now that’s truly leaving No Child Left Behind.   

Kimberly Dana is an author and teacher who enjoys teaching writing to middle school students who give her much inspiration and insight into the world of tweendom.  She is published by the National Council of Teachers of English and the recipient of several writing honors from Writers Digest and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.  Kimberly is the author of the delightful award-winning picture book, Pretty Dolls, an educational resource that can be used to teach positive character traits of fairness, courage, and respect in the classroom and beyond.  Readers can visit at her official author website


Posted on February 8, 2012, in Children/Juvenile, Parenting, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Important lessons to be sure!Where are the parents? Mine taught these principles at home, and made sure I was at church where these lessons were taught. Had I treated people this way at school, my parents would have corrected and/or punished me at home had they heard about it.Thanks for being a well-rounded teacher and leading by example!

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