In my high school social studies classroom, I make a point of melding CASEL’s SEL framework with historical thinking concepts so that empathy becomes a key component of my students’ historical literacy.
Visual approaches, I’ve learned, can be particularly powerful when it comes to building empathy among my students. They already have plenty to say about memes and viral videos, so when I use that strategy, I’m tapping a type of literacy they’re already developing. Doing so inevitably leads to rich conversations and learning about what it means to be human and the importance of compassion. Oral history can be very effective too.
Appreciation for Lived Experiences With Virtual Reality
According to a Stanford study, when virtual reality participants, including high school students, perform any perspective-taking task, like selling items in an apartment in order to be able to pay the rent, they report feeling a surge in empathy. I’ve seen this firsthand with my students: VR helps them experience and appreciate the past and current events and expand their understanding of the world they live in.
I tend to rely on the educational VR offerings from the New York Times and Google Arts & Culture. For example, after learning about Enlightenment philosophers or post–World War II diplomacy, an exploration of human rights can start with reading the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR); from there, students can dive into the Syrian crisis with The Displaced, a New York Times VR and text experience where students can follow the stories of three children and exercise their empathy and understanding of social justice. This activity can be paired with the Madaya Mom, a compelling online graphic novel (but not a VR experience) about a Syrian family coproduced by ABC News and Marvel.
When I first used The Displaced in my class with Google Cardboard, there was a lot of laughter and “This is cool!” Then came the “OMG” and “I can’t believe that” from students. When we debriefed, students shared that using VR brought the crisis in Syria to life—it helped them understand and empathize with the plight of Syrian children far better.
After examining the refugee crisis, students can create a PSA using a social media template or an infographic with resources such as Canva, Piktochart, or Adobe Spark. They can peruse the BBC, UN News, or Freedom Forum Front Pages to learn about the current state of refugees and then create an infographic or social media post sharing their findings. Their creations can then be curated with Padlet to serve as a gallery of student inquiry. Rich discussions always emerge when my students examine each other’s work and share what they’ve noticed.
Don’t let the price point of VR scare you off: As of this writing, a basic Google Cardboard device costs $5.99. The New York Times has created several lessons to help teachers get started using VR.
Insight With Photography
Teachers can also set the stage for inquiry and empathy utilizing provocative images and visible thinking routines. What’s Going On in This Picture?, another resource from the New York Times, shares a weekly image and then reveals the story behind the picture at the end of the week; I use the images to spark wonderment and discussions about empathy. If you explore the resource’s top 40 images, you’ll likely find many images that can help teach empathy.
Another strategy to foster empathy with images is Step In—Step Out—Step Back: students examine a person in a situation, try stepping into their shoes to imagine what they are experiencing, step out to identify what they need to learn to understand the person’s experience, and step back to observe their own reaction. I’ve found that the magic happens in the last step of this activity, when students reflect on what they noticed about their point of view and what it involves to take on another’s point of view.
This routine is ideal to have students do collaboratively in the beginning of class to frame an inquiry lesson and serve as a metacognition and self-reflection opportunity. Did their initial thoughts hold through the inquiry? What did they learn that made them rethink their initial observation? Why might we want to incorporate investigation and reflection into a life skill?
Visible thinking activities work well for bell ringers, but you can also have students share their responses more formally with Padlet or create a Poster My Wall or memelike visual.
Compassion Through Oral Histories
Oral histories, whether audio or video based, complement narratives found in textbooks and help students examine history through the lens of empathy. When my class is studying the Holocaust, for example, I rely on firsthand accounts from iWitness from the Shoah Foundation and the Institute for Visual History and Education; it has dozens of video testimonies arranged by topic, so you can search by topic and then by story. For example, if you search within the topic “Human Rights,” you’ll find clips from survivors of genocide in Europe, Cambodia, and Rwanda. I also routinely turn to oral histories from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the British Library Sounds.
An additional go-to: the Medal of Honor Character Development Program, which I pair with the Medal of Honor oral histories. Tibor Rubin’s story is particularly powerful among my students; he was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he shares how he experienced anti-Semitism in the U.S. military during the Korean War, an account that works well with the Medal of Honor Integrity in Decision Making lesson.
The BBC is also an incredibly rich resource. My students have learned the story of two Chinese soldiers, Zhang Kaiyi and Zhang Hengshui, who fought in the Korean War, from a BBC video, so they better understand the experience of multiple actors in historical events, including those we have fought against as they served their country. The story of Capt. Mamo Habtewold, an Ethiopian who was a hero in the Korean War, explains some of the lesser-known aspects of that conflict.
His story is from the BBC’s Witness History collection, which features nearly 3,000 oral histories. I used some of them for a Cold War choice board to give students an opportunity to learn, reflect, share, and make the connection to empathy. One could also have students create a mock Twitter or Instagram post of what the people might have shared about the event based on the oral histories or a magazine, again using a template.