Teaching empathy is not like teaching how to determine the central idea of a text, but it is just as essential, if not more so, to educating youth. As Elena Aguilar wrote recently in “How Reading Literature Cultivates Empathy,” “there's enough evidence in our world today that we need to intentionally cultivate empathy, and then there's evidence that people are reading less than they ever have; and so I'd suggest that within our decision-making spheres, we intentionally and strategically incorporate fiction into the nooks and crannies of our days.” We can extend this idea even further when it comes to “Welcoming Immigrant Students into the Classroom” and use the act of writing stories about family immigration experiences to foster empathy and deep understanding about how we are a nation of immigrants.
The Connections between Digital Storytelling, Immigration, and Empathy
Telling stories is an innately human experience that straddles cultures and time reaching back into ancient oral traditions. It allows us to connect with others and create a sense of belonging. It also lets us see and hear from another person’s perspective, a key component of empathy. Writing stories of family immigration history – no matter how distant or recent – allows for common threads and variations of the immigration experience to be seen, heard, and reflected upon.
Using digital storytelling to capture immigration stories is a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for “empathetic moments” among students. Adding images and sound help to fully imagine another person’s immigration experience as evidenced in this example from the 2013 winner of the American Immigration Council’s Multimedia Contest. Digital storytelling offers the advantage of authentic engagement to reach multiple learning styles as well as to teach writing skills while exploring connections and understandings to an issue that affects everyone.
Establish a Culture of Listening and Respect
Being able to tell one’s immigration story can be especially important for recently immigrated students who are trying to adapt to a new life in the US while maintaining ties to their home country. Marriage Family Therapy Intern, Jill Pettegrew, at Family Paths, a community mental health agency that serves a multi-cultural population, including many immigrant children and families, says, “Telling stories of their homeland, culture, family, and friends helps bring these parts of themselves present. While some immigrant students may be trying to forget their past, especially if it involves traumatic experiences, telling stories of the things they love about their homeland can help keep the good memories separate from challenging memories.” She advises teachers “to work closely with immigrant students as they craft their stories for presentation, and prevent the retelling of traumatizing events,” adding that “a child should be referred to counseling if stories of trauma emerge during the process.”
A foundation of listening and respect must be in place so that any student does not feel excluded, or at worst, ashamed. A former undocumented student, now a U.S. citizen, shared a decidedly “unempathetic” moment with me about a well-intentioned family history project she experienced in third-grade. The teacher asked everyone to create posters about their family history, but it was painfully clear to her that only she and one other student had recently immigrated. “Everyone else was from America. I dreaded it.” Luckily, the other student presented first and was so proud of her cultural heritage, that it “empowered me to do the same.”
Create “Empathetic Moments” by Modeling, Conferencing, and Sharing
Teachers can lead by example and share their own family’s immigration story thereby taking that vulnerable first step. Even better is to write alongside students – modeling the writing process from research and inquiry to drafting and editing. Brian Kelley, an eighth grade teacher, uses this method with his students and blogs about his process in the classroom. He demonstrates his discoveries and writes alongside his students and provides frequent opportunities for peer and teacher conferences. Kelley says he finds “empathy arises when students linger to share something with me one on one, in written drafts as they develop their thinking, and during conferencing.” They are also encouraged to talk at home, bring in artifacts, and of course, more stories. “By writing about family heritage and immigration with my students,” Kelley says, “my chain of empathy is available for students to connect with and learn from.”
Perhaps what is difficult about teaching empathy is that it can be hard to provide evidence of it in our data-driven age. It’s the kind of thing that you know when you see it, or more importantly, feel it. One student in Kelley’s classroom wrote that "my mother always gives me examples of her patience, like how she had to wait a few years for my father to be able to take her to America. The worst story she ever tells is how she had to leave me in China for three years. I can only wonder what pain a mother would feel if she had to leave her child voluntarily behind, and the patience needed to continue on in life."
Students cultivate empathy by sharing, listening, and connecting to other immigration stories. Consider viewing finished digital stories by hosting a movie night open to family and community members, or by providing a gallery-walk and listening tour in your school. If you are looking for ideas and how-tos, the American Immigration Council’s Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling provides a step-by-step customizable plan for classrooms as well as ways to collaborate with other teachers. What are other ways to support and share students’ digital stories on immigration and create “empathetic” moments?