Empathy: A Necessary Skill (Part 1)

I recently wrote an article for the Social Studies Review about two types of assignments I have my students complete that help them understand and hopefully develop empathy for various historical figures. One of the assignments focused on the use of emojis to encourage students to connect emotions to certain key events in the life of a historical figure.

Because I am always looking for ways to improve my instructional practices, I combined the Developing Historical Empathy emoji assignment (from the article) with an Open Mind template. My goal was to narrow the focus to emotions at pivotal times in the story of Muhammad and the origin of Islam.

To begin, I had students brainstorm emotions (in general).

Interestingly (and completely off-topic), I sensed a theme of emotions as relayed by my students from all six periods of world history. I was thankful that some students shared positive emotions to help lighten the mood.

From there, I explained that they were now going to step into the shoes of Muhammad and imagine the various emotions he went through from his tough childhood, revelations from the angel Gabriel, being run-out of town, and eventually returning to his hometown, Makkah.

The assignment was to come up with a minimum of four emotions (thoughts and feelings), draw/label the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain how the textual evidence supports their thinking or understanding.

As Muhammad left no written records, what the students come up with is purely conjecture. But that’s okay…because the goal is for students to learn how to empathize with the plight of others.

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another”

Alfred Adler

Because I believe in student choice, I like to give them several options for assignments. In this case, I suggested that students use the emojis from the iPad keyboard as a starting place as they reread the various sources on Muhammad’s life. Students could draw those emoji, name the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain the connection.

The other option was to use simple drawings that used body-language to convey emotions. Students still need to name the emotion, cite textual evidence, and explain the connection.

For the artists in the room (and I have some phenomenal artists!), I stressed that they do not have to feel constrained with choosing from the emoji keyboard or simple drawings of body language.

What I noticed today (Day 1) was that students who could identify with certain emotions had an easier time connecting the emotion to the textual evidence. Now, this is completely anecdotal, and I should have more concrete evidence on Monday when the Open Mind is due, but I’m thinking that students who have lost a parent or loved one will be able to better empathize with Muhammad’s upbringing as an orphan. I also suspect that students who have experienced bullying may be able to personally identify with Muhammad when he and his followers were run out of Makkah.

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that  happen.  Empathy is a quality of character that can  change the world.”

Barack Obama

However, even if students have not experienced personal loss or threatening behavior, they can certainly empathize with the various hardships in the life of Muhammad. My students have quickly learned that talking with their peers is a good support system, and I suspect that they will be able to help each other gain a better understanding of Muhammad’s life by walking in his shoes.

The newest layer to this assignment is for students to add a personal connection by reflecting on their life in comparison to Muhammad’s and how what they learned may impact them in the future. This written reflection will hopefully provide insight on whether this type of assignment has the potential to help students develop empathy (or not) and whether empathy is a skill that can be transferred to other situations.

Stay tuned.

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