Starting Small: Building Empathy from "The Streets of Memphis" to Your Own Backyard
I implemented part of the module Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing with my core 40 9th grade inclusion class on a much smaller scale to get the class thinking about how telling stories from our real lives can help create commmunity and acceptance. My classes do have fairly easy access to technology because we have mini net books in the classroom for student use and students are familiar with using moodle. At this point, I felt that trying to use twitter would take more time (and perhaps money) to implement, so we are used the technology resources we already had at our fingertips. For the most part, these 9th grade students are struggling or reluctant readers, so it was manageable to begin with this notion of empathy and filling in the gaps of a character by using a very short, yet powerful non fiction piece by Richard Wright entitled "The Rights to the Streets of Memphis."
Reading through the initial module inspired me to think about teaching the personal narrative as a way to teach and encourage empathy in a way I had not thought of before. I introduced the genre of personal narrative as a powerful writing tool that bridges differences and builds roads of understanding and that the students should view writing and sharing their personal narratives with eachother as a way to better understand not only the perspectives and life experiences of their peers but for their peers to better understand who each one of them is. Through this small exercise of sharing significant life experiences, we can really build a more tolerant world.
Beginning with Personal Narratives from 9-11
We started this process with students reading stories from survivors of 9/11. I selected some one page narratives that appeared in the most recent Time magazine entitled 9/11 and Beyond. These vignettes were written by a number of different "survivors" including a widow of one of the men who died on Flight 93, a former CIA operative, a female combat pilot, a firefighter, Dick Cheney, and a young man in Iraq whose home was bombed by the American military waging war in Iraq. Students were just asked to write a summary of the main ideas/events in the narrative that they chose and then write a short response to the article.
Moving to "Rights to the Streets of Memphis," 1st Person Point of View, and Using Creative Writing to Walk in Someone Else's Shoes (otherwise know as the moral imagination according to Toni Morrison)
Next, I assigned students to read "Rights to the Streets of Memphis" and they had reading questions to complete. Next, my students posted a response in moodle for a group forum in which I asked them to do the following: Choose a moment in "Rights to the Streets of Memphis" where you would like to explore and explain more what you imagine the narrator might be feeling and thinking. Using the first person "I" perspective, write as if you are Richard Wright in this particular situation and explain what you are thinking and feeling and explain how events you have experienced in your life have effected your feelings." (Students could choose from poverty, to living with a single mother, to being abandoned by one's father, to being afraid, to being beat up, to standing up for oneself; there are a lot of moments to choose from). Initally, I thought of asking students to post a picture that captures what they imagine the narrator might be thinking or feeling, but I decided not to include this requirement this time as I feared students would spend more time surfing the internet rather than exploring the young Richard Wright's feelings. Students were asked to post at least a 5-6 sentence response.
Students were also required to respond to eachothers' postings (at least two) by responding to this question: "Based on your peer's post, what do you feel you have learned about Richard Wright or his life experiences and how did this 1st person writing from your peers help you to develop empathy with Richard Wright?"
My hope was that this brief creative writing exercise would get students thinking about how to encourage and elicit empathy when writing their own narratives and that this would motivate them to choose a significant and interesting point in their lives rather than just any story.
From Creative Writing to Formal Personal Narratives to Student Reflections
Students had approximately 5 days to work on the rough drafts of their personal narrative essys which included one day of reviwing a sample personal narrative, one day of brainstorming possible topics, two days of prewriting, one day which focused on writing an introduction and the final days focused on revising a rough draft. After the students finished their final drafts (students were aware of this throughout the writing process), these papers were shared anonymously with many of their peers. Students were asked to turn in two copies - one with their name and one without. The one without the name was "reviewed" by other 9th graders who may or may not be in the same class period. Attached to each paper was a set of questions for each reader to answer about the personal narrative. These questions were:
1) What did you feel you learned about
the writer of this essay based on the personal narrative that he/she wrote?
2) Did reading this narrative help to
create a sense of empathy (a feeling of greater understanding and appreciation of
the life, experiences, and feelings of another person) with the writer? Why or why not? Please
3) What was your favorite part of this
narrative and why?
4) Was there anything this writer
accomplished in his/her personal narrative that you wished you would have been
able to accomplish in yours? Please
I have taught writing personal narratives with my 9th grade classes a number of times, and it is hard to know if this set of personal narratives was markedly better than previous personal narratives my students have written. I did feel the students had a concrete grasp of the idea of empathy as many of them, as evidenced by their postings on moodle, so strongly identified with Wright's confusion and anger as a young boy. Most students understood what it meant to choose a significant event in their lives as a focus for their personal narratives and wrote about such events as being placed in a foster home, meeting one's father for the first time at the age of six, and visiting a brother in the hospital after a major car accident. Others chose less serious moments, but still significant moments, and successfully achieved empathy through humor and universal experiences through writing about a family vacation, getting a puppy for the first time, or achieving in a sport. I do know that students enjoyed reading other students' papers and reading what their peers had written about their essays so adding this layer of self and peer reflection did make the writing of the personal narrative more meaningful to students and I hope to a certain extent has created a greater level of empathy within our own classroom environment.