Thursday, November 10, 2016

Empathy Education: It can come from books!

A small selection of incredible books that transport kids out of their bubbles.
I grew up in southern Orange County, California. There were two Latino kids in my grade level (hi Ernie and Michelle) and one African-American girl (hi Tammy).  When John moved to our neighborhood, from China, not speaking a word of English, the school assigned me (who knew only 3 words in Chinese, and a different dialect to boot) to be his buddy, because my last name made me the most-Chinese kid they had to offer. In the '80s, I was exotic because I was biracial, but because I knew almost no other kids of Asian decent, I usually just considered myself white.

I dearly loved history. But in conservative South County, I was taught that the Civil War was not about slavery, but rather about railroads and states' rights. I was taught that Manifest Destiny was an unfettered good. When my award-winning History Day project, "Casualities of the Westward Trail," won only third place at state level, dinged by the Native American judge who wondered why I only included white casualties, everyone assured me that he had been terribly unfair to me.

And yet, when I got to UCLA and read Zinn's People's History of the United States for the first time in Sociology 1, I understood it immediately.  The notion of looking at the world and history from various points of view made perfect sense to me. Why? How could this Orange Country girl, who had really only been taught one view of history and power, so easily accept looking at the world from another angle?

I "got it" because, without realizing it, I had always seen history from a variety of angles. Cassie from Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry taught me about sharecropping and the Jim Crow South. Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins taught me about native Californians and surviving off the land.  Laura Ingalls Wilder completely won me over with her portrayal of homesteading life.  Anne Frank taught me about the horrors of the Holocaust. And while Scarlett and Melanie taught me about privileged white life in the pre-Civil War South, Mammy and Prissy taught me about slavery. I learned the "women's point of view" from the main characters of the scores of YA historical romances I read growing up, from pre-Revolutionary indentured servants to Lowell Mills girls to Suffragettes. These characters quite often wore beaded bodices on their book covers, but from the pages, they told the stories of actual girls living in other times. I can see now that many of the mental images that these characters gave me were far from perfect. Far too many were wealthy (and dreamed mostly of silks) and the soldiers and blacksmiths who swept them off their feet were often far too progressive to be realistic. Nor would I ever recommend studying Prissy to someone wanting to understand the cruelty of the Antebellum South. But, every book added up. Every character was a friend of a sort. I grew up in an almost entirely white world, but through my books, I grew up with friends and confidantes of every color and class background, and every historical period.

Our country is deeply divided and increasingly segregated. It's no wonder we don't understand each other. We don't know each other. We can't move kids from neighborhood to neighborhood to teach them about difference and diversity (And yet, it would help so much!  How many of us have changed our minds about some class or group of people after befriending a member of that group?). But, we can share books.  And we can talk about books. And we can share discussions of those books -- bringing together a diversity of voices, about a diversity of topics.

Through books and discussion, we can teach history and culture, and we can foster empathy and compassion. Books help us to step into another person's shoes and see the world through their eyes.  Let's spread that experience as much as possible. (And, as I write this, here at EdBoost, we're formulating a plan to do just that....).

For now, here are a handful of my favorite children's and YA book recommendations:

I Am Malala by Malala Yousefsai: Everyone should read this book. It's an amazing window into Taliban rule, and the people who initially welcomed it, through the eyes of a truly inspirational young woman (the "Young Readers" version of this book is not quite as historically and geographically detailed as the full version, but it's a great read for the 5th-8th grade set).

Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo: Welcome to rural Florida. See it through the eyes of kids who not only have very little in terms of material goods, but in terms of compassion from their peers. And see how a couple of outcasts build a happiness of their own (for slightly younger kids, Because of Winn-Dixie, in the same setting, is also a great read).

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis: This book, by the author of The Watsons go to Birmingham, is set in a tiny village of runaway slaves, just over the border into Canada, just after 1850.  Elijah, the 11-year-old main character is so likeable and his adventure so interesting, that the historical import of the setting just seeps into you as you read. 

Trash by Andy Mulligan: The poverty of the third-world trash heap is overwhelming.  But see how these scrappy kids survive on what the rest of society discards -- and enjoy a gripping and thrilling mystery to boot.

Sold by Patricia McCormick: From America 2016, it's easy to take for granted that "women are equal" -- but watching Lakshmi, a 13 year old Nepali girl, sold into marriage puts it all in perspective.  Learn about her world and also her tenacity.

Cut also by Patricia McCormick: Many of us know someone who suffers from anxiety, depression, or some kind of self-harm disorder. But it's so hard to know what's inside people's heads.  Why do people act the way that they do?  Why is it so hard to help people who are suffering?  Cut takes you into the heart and head of a cutter and it really helps you see mental illness from the inside.

What books do you recommend to kids who want to broaden -- or burst -- the bubbles that they live in?

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