Creating Empathy in the Classroom

One of my most essential goals as a reading teacher is to guide students towards a path of empathy. The more they read and the more they come into contact with characters that are different than them, it is my hope that they become more empathetic.

This year, I introduced a new text to my sixth graders and I finally found the sweet spot. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park is now a favorite among my students. It is about the true story of Salva Dut, a lost boy of Sudan who tried to flee his home during the Sudanese war. Park also weaves another story about Nya, a young girl who has to deal with the water crisis in Sudan.

These two stories weave together to create an amazing true tale that keeps students on the edge of their seats. One thing (among many) that I love about this text is that there is a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter and all of my students always beg to read more!

Even though Salva’s story didn’t take place that long ago, I still wanted to make this reading as relevant as possible. At one point in the story, Salva lives in a crowded refugee camp for many years. My students read articles from Newsela that documented the current refugee crisis in Syria and also what refugees must do to travel to new lands.

I also found an amazing paired text, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate that I used as a read aloud. This book told in poetry, is from the perspective of a 5th grade boy who travels to the United States from Sudan, and lives here as a refugee. All of his cross-cultural scenarios fascinated my students and they loved making connections between his story and Salva’s.

There are also awesome TED talks by Linda Sue Park about her process to write A Long Walk to Water (and why children’s books can change the world!) and by Salva, who explains what it was like to be a lost boy of Sudan and how his nonprofit Water for South Sudan is making an impact.

One of my favorite parts of this lesson was actually walking with gallons of water around our school! I wanted this idea of empathy to be tangible, for my students to have a better glimpse of what others deal with on a daily basis. My students brought in empty gallon jugs, we filled them, decorated them with messages like “walking for Salva”, “water for Sudan”, etc. and spent a long time walking outside with the jugs. In the future, I would love for us to raise money for Salva’s nonprofit. The craziness at the end of the school year got the best of me this time.

I would highly recommend this text for upper elementary or middle school students. You will not be disappointed! I finally found my students thinking beyond themselves, understanding what others deal with in the world, and coming up with plans of action to change that!

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