George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Boy standing in front of the class holding a big key

How important is integrating empathy instruction into the curriculum? Essential. As Edutopia blogger Elena Aguilar wrote recently, "There's enough evidence in our world today that we need to intentionally cultivate empathy." As I've suggested in a previous post, welcoming immigrant students into the classroom is important, given that we are a nation of immigrants. These occasions can also be an opportunity to foster empathy.

The Connections Between Digital Storytelling, Immigration, and Empathy

Straddling cultures and beginning with ancient oral traditions, telling stories is an innately human experience that connects us with others and creates a sense of belonging. Hearing another person's perspective is also a key component of empathy. Finally, writing family immigration stories -- no matter how distant or recent -- helps students read, reflect upon, and empathize with the common threads and variations of American narratives.

Using digital storytelling to capture immigration stories is a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for empathetic moments among students. Digital storytelling builds writing skills, targets multiple learning styles, and authentically engages learners as they connect to diverse peoples' histories. Watch how the addition of images and sound help to more fully realize another person's immigration experience in the following video, based on a poem written by a fifth grade student about her grandfather’s immigration from China to the U.S.

Establish a Culture of Listening and Respect

Sharing their immigration story can be especially important for recently immigrated students who are trying to adapt to a new life in the U.S. while maintaining ties to their home country. Jill Pettegrew, a community mental health agency intern who serves many immigrant children and families, says:

Telling stories of their homeland, culture, family, and friends helps bring these parts of themselves present. While some immigrant students may be trying to forget their past, especially if it involves traumatic experiences, telling stories of the things they love about their homeland can help keep the good memories separate from challenging memories.

Pettegrew advises teachers "to work closely with immigrant students as they craft their stories for presentation, and prevent the retelling of traumatizing events." If stories of trauma emerge during the creative process, she suggests that educators refer these students to counseling.

Build a classroom community that respects and listens before introducing an immigration story project, so that students don't feel excluded or ashamed. A former undocumented student, now a U.S. citizen, shared a decidedly "unempathetic" moment that occurred during a well-intentioned third grade family history project. When creating posters about their family history, she and one other student realized they were the only children who had recently immigrated. "Everyone else was from America," she recalled. "I dreaded it." Luckily, the other student presented first and was so proud of her cultural heritage that it "empowered me to do the same."

Create Empathetic Moments by Modeling, Conferencing, and Sharing

Teachers can share their own family immigration stories, thereby taking that vulnerable first step. Even better, they can write alongside students, modeling inquiry, drafting, and editing. Brian Kelley, an eighth grade teacher, uses this method with his students and blogs about his process in the classroom. He describes his discoveries and provides frequent opportunities for peer and teacher conferences. Kelley says he finds that "empathy arises when students linger to share something with me one on one, in written drafts as they develop their thinking, and during conferencing." Learners are also encouraged to talk at home, bring in artifacts, and -- of course -- more stories. "By writing about family heritage and immigration with my students," Kelley says, "my chain of empathy is available for students to connect with and learn from."

Some educators may find it difficult to produce evidence of empathy development. You know it when you see it, or more importantly, when you feel it. One student in Kelley's classroom wrote:

My mother always gives me examples of her patience, like how she had to wait a few years for my father to be able to take her to America. The worst story she ever tells is how she had to leave me in China for three years. I can only wonder what pain a mother would feel if she had to leave her child voluntarily behind, and the patience needed to continue on in life.

Students cultivate empathy by sharing, listening, and connecting to others' immigration stories. Consider viewing finished digital stories by inviting family and community members to a movie night, or by hosting a gallery walk and listening tour in your school. Other step-by-step customizable plans, how-tos, and opportunities to collaborate with other classrooms can be found at the American Immigration Council's Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling.

Please share other ways to support and share students' digital stories on immigration and create empathetic moments.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

I absolutly love this post! Thanks for sharing these amazing tips for teachers. We all know about the power of storytelling, what better way than to combine that to foster a classroom culture that is safe, culturally responsive, and engaging!

When we did digital storytelling, some of the stories that my students shared based on their immigrant experience were amongst the most powerful ones. There were many tears shed while watching. I think it creates an environment that is empathic and kind, pillars to have in all classrooms.

Dorothy Hastings's picture
Dorothy Hastings
Director of First school

Empathy education develops several component skills like self awareness, ability to distinguish feelings, person's perspective, emotional responses etc. So, teaching empathy to teens is a great decision.

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thank you Rusul for your feedback! Digital storytelling on immigration really does have great potential -- and with cultural sensitivity a teacher can really transform classroom culture. I've learned also from other teachers to be sure to offer options for students like telling someone else's story in case it is too emotional for them. Always up to the student to tell his or her story.

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thank you K for your comments and for recommending ListenCurrent! I had not heard of it. I love the collaboration made possible at Edutopia! I totally agree that a "primer" activity and/or one that offers a larger historical context for the collected stories enhances this opportunity for learning. With those links you sent, it also made me think about the connections of digital learning from political cartoons in the 1800s to present digital stories on immigration. Here is a link for quick digital lessons that connect past to present with high school students: Enjoy!

Teacher 4's picture

I think this is a fabulous idea to get students motivated and interested in sharing their personal stories. I have taught immigrant students for a few years now and they are fascinated with technology. This project would be of high interest to them and extremely engaging. Having the presentation already made for the class to view would also ease students' nerves when presenting. This is a great method for creating a classroom community as well, where all types of people are respected. I am going to implement this project into my next year's lessons. Thank you for the wonderful idea!

Kari T.'s picture

I'm a grad student working towards my teaching license and am currently developing my cultural insights through online forums. After reading your post, I believe I could modify your idea of using storytelling in the classroom for use in the primary grades. My initial thoughts on how to obtain this would be to invite parents into the classroom to share stories about immigration, traditions, culture, etc. In addition, I could also invite parents to write a short story that I could then read to the class if the parents are not able to visit. I can see a kindergartener bubbling over with excitement. Great lessons to foster empathy and cultural knowledge; thank you.

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thank you Teacher for your thoughts! Storytelling always helps to open the classroom conversation. In fact, for one of my 10th great classes, that's how we opened the year. We each had to brainstorm three quick stories that revealed something about us that we would be willing to share and then give a brief tagline to entice interest. The person we talked to would chose the story that most interested them. After doing this a few times with different people, we talked about the art and importance of storytelling to build connection and what makes a good story? Storytelling is a fabulous way to build connection and how much stronger is that bond when you realize you have something in common with another person - the fact that we as Americans are a nation of immigrants -- even if for a variety of reasons.

Sara Burnett's picture
Sara Burnett
Non-profit Education Associate

Thanks Kari for your comments. I, too, think this is a perfect project to build community beyond the classroom walls. It is a great idea to invite parents, family, and community members to participate. If some parents don't feel comfortable writing a story, maybe they could share a favorite story from a picture book on immigration. Lee and Low Books has some great books on immigration for kindergartners! Would love to hear how it goes -- and the online learning as well. By the way, Little Bird Tales is a great, free tool where even kindergarteners with some guidance, can create their own digital stories. They also have an app! Completely school-appropriate and very kid-friendly!

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