How do you teach empathy?

In a world where information is abundant and free, traditional teaching practices must change, as well as our conceptions of what to teach. For a foreign language educator, this means that the grammar drill-and-kill style of teaching has to finally die. Students can find translations and conjugations anytime, anywhere. The majority of our communication will most likely be virtual, instantaneous, and informal (and probably is already). How does language learning fit into this new paradigm? Grammar and vocabulary will always be essential. But there's an app for that! If you strip away everything that can be taught or learned via a computer program, what is the essence of learning a language? What's urgent about it? What is something that only I, a human being, can offer my students? I think that every teacher should be asking themselves these questions and answering them for themselves. 

What's my unique contribution to my students' learning? Empathy: modeling it, guiding students to feel it and to make choices rooted in it. 

I've been thinking about this a lot, and Kevin Gaugler (@gaugler) totally called me on it at the ACTFL convention a couple of weeks ago. Manuela Wagner (@manuelawag) joined the conversation as well.

So, how do I teach empathy? If you talk the talk, you've gotta walk the walk. 

In my Spanish 3 class, we are discussing health. Students describe symptoms of illness, explain how injuries happened, and make recommendations for improving health. While I do guide students to learn how to do those things in Spanish, I think the most important unit goal (and probably the most lasting) is for students to understand Latin American perspectives on health by "engaging with other cultures in a relationship of equality" (to quote Michael Byram, a leading expert on intercultural competence or ICC). That is definitely an enduring understanding that Wiggins and McTighe would approve of.

Well-chosen authentic resources can reveal cultural perspectives. Kara Jacobs (@karacjacobs) posted relevant and appropriate resources about health on her Culture & Civilization blog, which saved me from having to search for them myself. I know she also used Zachary Jones' Zambombazo website to build her unit. (Love this PLN!)

My Spanish 3 students, who are in grades 9-12, listened to a song about a healer (curandera), interpreted the meaning of the lyrics, and watched an interview with the singer about the song's inspiration. Then I asked them to reflect in an exit slip on why the curandera is a popular figure in Latin America but not in the United States. These are some of their responses:

"Traditional medicine is not a trusted practice."
"Many Latin Americans are poor and can't afford modern medicine."
"Latin American culture is based on tradition and religion."
"The United States is progressive and modern."

These kinds of attitudes perpetuate stereotypes about Latin Americans, and also reveal a lack of knowledge about health systems in Latin America. But I didn't want to tell my students that. I just wanted to plant a seed and let it take root. So the next day, I posted their comments in Spanish and asked them to move to one side of the room if they agreed and the other if they disagreed. Then the students read this article from the New York Times about a healer in Oaxaca, Mexico who provides health services for free because the community hospital suffers from a lack of equipment and supplies. I asked the students to take notes while they read, keeping track of the challenges people face in getting medical treatment and the ways that they dealt with those problems. One student said that she thought she was missing something because her two lists were uneven--there were more challenges than solutions. I asked, "Is it possible that there are more problems than solutions?" And she said, "Oh. Yes. Probably." 

After they had finished reading, they further processed the information by talking with a partner in a 3-2-1 format (3 things you didn't know before, 2 reactions you had, and 1 question you still have). Then we shared as a group. Students picked up on the fact that unreliable infrastructure and access are major obstacles to medical treatment in Oaxaca. Then I reframed my question from the day before: "Why might some Latin Americans value traditional medicine more than modern medicine sometimes?"

They had some very impressive insights. They discussed how a trusted member of the community could offer more to a sick or injured person than an overworked doctor in a crowded hospital. They talked about how healing can be considered a god-given gift to be shared without monetary transactions. They talked about the profit motive of doctors, hospitals and health care companies in the U.S. I was impressed by the depth of their comments, which they made just 24 hours after their original, superficial reactions to the idea of curanderos and traditional medicine. They also recognized that the existence of the curanderos reflects a constellation of contexts and values, and can't be explained in one sentence. 

Teaching empathy is an inquiry-based process. As the teacher, I have the knowledge and skills to curate resources for my students and introduce them at opportune moments, asking questions that lead to more questions. And the intercultural competence model lends itself to both inquiry-based learning and the development of empathy. If you can recognize that other people, other cultures, are infinitely complex, then you cannot judge them based on stereotypes, or take actions that diminish or dehumanize them. This, I believe, is why the purpose of language teaching in the 21st century must be empathy.


  1. Sounds like a great lesson! I agree, that as language educators, one of my most important jobs is to help break down stereotypes and let students see the world from another perspective.

    1. Thanks for reading! Learning a language is so much more than memorizing verb tenses.


Post a Comment