BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Launching the Reading for Empathy Project

By Maureen McCann
Launching the Reading for Empathy Project

This year, I challenged the middle school students I serve as teacher librarian at Hong Kong International School to select a book based on a character unlike them or about a situation with which they had no connection or experience. This purposeful literary selection would be called their Reading for Empathy choice and would be part of their Language Arts reading log. All students are required to read a variety of genres and record the titles and authors on their log, so I simply added an “empathy” category. I shared my idea with all the Language Arts teachers first, and they supported the project wholeheartedly.
The purpose of this tiny project was to explore whether our adolescent readers would be able to read and reflect about developing empathy for people not like them and places totally different from their familiar homes. The participating students completed a survey to share how they felt they had grown in empathy from reading the book they’d selected.
Like many reading teachers and librarians, I recently read several articles in magazines and newspapers about how students who read a lot of literary fiction tended to develop more empathy than those who did not. Since our conflicted world is in sore need of more empathetic people and problem solvers, I was interested in encouraging reading to nurture this character trait in our MS students.
I had many interesting conversations with students as they selected books. I told one athlete he might choose to read about a ballerina by choosing a biography about Misty Copeland or a romance like There You’ll Find Me by Jenny B. Jones. I advised an academically gifted student to read a book about a young person with dyslexia, such as Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Some students sagely told me that any book they read could be seen as an empathy book because all books make readers stand in the shoes of characters. My heart cheered at this astute observation.
After reading through the survey responses, a few titles emerged that seemed to resonate with several of the students. Two often-selected titles were Wonder by R. J. Palacio and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Hadden. Students enjoyed the plots of these books and reflected that they developed an understanding of what it is like to be different after reading them. One student noted that what is on the outside of a person does not often match what is on the inside of that person.
A few student responses indicated that, even though the reader realized characters were different from themselves, they also noticed many similarities. Students were becoming aware through reading and reflecting that we all share a common human experience, no matter how different we seem at first glance.
Several historical fiction books such as For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Bradley, The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig, and Morris Gleitzman’s Holocaust series Once, Then, Now, After, and Soon were mentioned as solid Reading for Empathy choices. Students that read about time periods from the past commented that they never realized how wars affected people. They said that reading the books made them realize that war impacts everyone in a society.
As the Middle School Teacher Librarian, I plan to continue to encourage students to read books about people unlike them and about situations unfamiliar to them with the intention of increasing student growth in empathy, thereby contributing in a small way to creating a better world.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.



Elevate Student Voice & Choice in Diverse Learning Settings
By Lindsay Kuhl, Jane Russell Valezy, & Esther Bettney
May 2021

Increasing Student Autonomy Through Time and Place
By Tim Johnson & Tony Winch
May 2021