I Hear You, I See You
Yesterday was the inauguration of President Biden, and while I watched the ceremony, I was brought to tears by the pomp and circumstance of the beautiful ritual that represents the honoring of the people’s voice, the foundation of our democracy. But this year, despite the beginning of a new era in Washington, my heart was also heavy. We have been through a lot as a nation of late, and I know my students are absorbing the message that we are a fractured country, and communication between the “two sides” has broken down. Sadly, images of violence, intolerance, and even death continue to flood the rhetorical space of national discourse in 2021.
I know so many teachers feel a calling to do their part in healing the public conversation by considering how their classes can help build empathetic citizens who, rather than walking away from a debate or a challenging discussion, have the rhetorical tools, patience, and inner wisdom to learn and engage with others who hold different viewpoints from their own. In my research, I often encounter so much rich material on how teachers can build relationships with their students through empathy, but I am also interested in how students can use their engagement with each other to build empathy, and how building empathy can be directly linked to instruction. Putting yourself in the shoes of another person at any age is difficult, but as a teenager it poses even more of a challenge as so much of an adolescent’s mental and physical energy is dedicated to developing self-image. However, as writing coaches and teachers, we can create experiences for them to practice these skills, and even use them as a form of authentic assessment.
In her teaching and research on empathy, Brene Brown cites Clinical Professor and Researcher Theresa Wiseman’s Four Attributes of Empathy:
Staying out of judgement
Taking the other’s perspective
Understanding the emotion you are hearing
Communicating our understanding about the emotion
Inevitably, when it comes to assessing their own writing, students often become nervous and self-critical, worrying if they are correct, good, or even perfect, as we are exploring in our work with perfectionism. As Brene Brown teaches, shame drives perfectionism, and an antidote to root out shame is to deploy empathy. What better way to crush shame than to create moments for students to empathize with each other as they journey through their writing process.
The empathy competency states, “I can participate in my local and global community by listening critically as well as respectfully so that I can build connections and empathize with others.” One area of the writing process that provides rich opportunities for building empathy is peer review and feedback. If students can use their empathy for their classmates as a way to self-assess and build confidence in their writing process, then growth cannot be far behind; their empathetic work will also support them later in their lives as they become participants in their communities, tackling issues of great importance in their careers, homes, and relationships.
By self-assessing on the competency rubric above, students will provide evidence of their empathy. By directly asking them to empathize with each other’s process in peer review, we can support them as they stay out of judgement by being vulnerable about shared concerns, take on the others’ perspective by doing the same work and going through the same process, understand the emotion of their partner, as well as communicate their empathy directly to their partner, shining a light on growth and, in turn, removing shame from the writing experience.
Often, peer review involves reading a partner’s essay and offering them editing or revision tips, as well as general shout-outs or feedback on what is working well, and what could be improved. However, let us consider taking the peer review a step further by asking students to give feedback on their process as well, building empathy through their shared experiences.
Two assignments that I have practiced with empathy in peer review are our Mid-Year/First Semester Portfolio Reflections, in which students reflect on their progress towards their writing goals and then present to a small group, as well as their Annotated Bibliographies on The Odyssey.
Here is an example of my Portfolio Reflection Prompt:
After reading the students’ emails to each other, I saw many examples of beautiful, empathetic language:
During your presentation I could relate with your struggles and was happy for your successes. I loved the way you presented your portfolio and I enjoyed seeing your writing, as well as your art. When you spoke of a coming of age story, you were sure to mention that life is not always an upward climb. I have felt that novels and movies depict it as a steady and straight line up, but it was nice hearing someone else talk of their ups as well as their hardships. If I were to describe your writing in three words they would be: charismatic, candid, and inspiring.
It was amazing getting to talk with you about your ambitions and success throughout the first semester. I really appreciated how open and vulnerable you were with your sharing, and it really opened my eyes to the reality of other’s situations. I’m beyond comforted that we seemed to sort of be in the same boat regarding our social situations, and while I can in no way compare myself to what you have gone through, I do have somewhat consolation that I am not alone. I would describe your work as clean, personal, and beautiful.
For the Annotated Bibliography assignment, I invited my students to do the following:
As a result, students wrote each other notes:
Students can now use these examples at the end of the year to guide them as they self-assess in the empathy competency.
While researching how to link empathy to writing instruction and pedagogy, I often remember Brene Brown’s assertion that, “What we are ethically called to do is create a safe space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to be truly seen.” In our quest to be purposeful in teaching empathy through writing, we can develop strong writers and thinkers uninhibited by shame, who ultimately will become the communicators in our future public conversation.
“I See You, I Hear You” is the first post in a series of reflections on English teaching and developing empathy by Her Voice at the Table.
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.
Click here for more on Brene Brown’s work with empathy and Daring Classrooms