We had quite a chat the other day in my 5th grade classroom. I looked around and noticed that almost everyone was reading either graphica (which is fine:) or Did You Know kind of books. But one girl was reading Fish in a Tree. While the majority of kids were furiously turning pages because of the nature of their books, she was quiet, intense, deeply focused. When silent read was over I asked her about her book. She shared that she really related with the character. That she felt like she was in her head. That she didn’t want to stop reading. Some of the others looked at her with quite the puzzled expression.
Because I saw this as an opportunity to discuss the role of stimulating empathy and the power fictional reading can have over that we shifted to a discussion about the state of affairs lately. My kids talk about what they hear, and they hear a lot about the political landscape of our country. But their understanding is lacking. They are confused, as are many of us adults! I mentioned that reading fiction could help them navigate life with a bit more grace and compassion than how our country is navigating its course right now. “How?” they wanted to know. That’s when one of my other fiction readers joined in. I didn’t have to say a word. This boy proudly said, “Well I think it must be like when I read I get into character’s heads. I can feel what they are feeling and sometimes I’m surprised or confused. But as I read I begin to understand them, kind of like walking in their shoes.” Wow, oh wow. Did he really just say that most perfect response to what reading fiction can capture!? Then a few of the girls chimed in supporting his notion that yes, reading fiction can help you see different viewpoints and understand characters, even ones you don’t agree with. And yes, that people in our country could use more of that, more understanding of each other. They gave many examples of how they or their families have been poorly judged for things others didn’t understand.
Reading fiction as a way to encourage empathy isn’t a novel idea. There is quite a bit of research out there on how reading fiction can encourage empathy. So as I read the above NYT article about our soon to leave president and the power that books and writing have had on him and his life, I thought about this conversation and the research I’ve read on this subject. It seems like the perfect time to pull out some fiction and get some empathy going. And you know what, that’s exactly what a few more of my kids did without my saying anything more. We are so eagerly waiting for Newbery Award announcements!