Character Counts

Our school instituted six school-wide character lessons several years ago. The topics included the development of scholarly habits, the power of zero, GRIT, and ways to combat bullying on campus. We have two sets of lessons that alternate by year that way 7th graders do not receive the same lesson in 8th grade.

Some of the lessons are more powerful than others (but isn’t that the way all lessons are in the classroom?). But in thinking about the development of a culturally responsive classroom environment, I think that we have one gap in our lessons and that is on the topic of empathy.

For my classes, the topic of empathy is not new. In fact, it was a goal of mine several years ago to integrate lessons to help students develop historical empathy. According to Nieto’s (2008) levels of multicultural education support, the end goal is to develop a learning environment that goes beyond tolerance, acceptance, and respect to one that encompasses affirmation, solidarity, and critique. In fact, Nieto (2008) wrote the “most powerful learning results when students work and struggle with one another, even if it is sometimes difficult and challenging” (p. 26). This notion of working and struggling with one another will only be successful if students develop empathy skills.

So that got me thinking. What kind of character lesson could our school design that introduces students to the notion of empathy? One website that all history teachers should know about is Teaching Tolerance. When looking for lessons specifically about empathy, I came across one that might work for our school: Developing Empathy. This lesson should take about 15 – 20 minutes depending on how long teachers allot for the activity portion. But it has good bones and is something worth considering as an addition to our character lessons. One of the things I would add to this lesson, however, is a hook. It’s one thing to tell students what empathy means, but I think visuals tell a more powerful story. Check out the following videos as I think both would generate a good discussion about what empathy looks like before proceeding to the activity from the Developing Empathy lesson:

I think either or both videos are a good place to begin a conversation about empathy, what it means, what it looks like, and why it’s an important skill to develop. Because let’s face it, our society could use a serious reminder about what empathy is.


Nieto, S. (2008). Affirmation, solidarity and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in education. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays (pp. 18-29). Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.

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