Synthesis of Session 9 & 10: Cultivating Empathy on the Way to Radical Change and Social Justice

8 11 2011

Empathy as a creative element?  That’s how Dan Pink sees it and explains in A Whole Mind that empathy or the ability to see from another’s perspective can make all the difference when you’re trying to reach out to them on an emotional level whether to design for them, work with them, or for our purposes, learn with them.   Cultivating empathy is a goal of Shelley Wright’s work in teaching for social justice.

I think empathy is one of the most important attributes for young people to develop. We need to cultivate in our students from a young age the gift of empathy; the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.

And so empathy is much about perspective-taking.  Perspective-taking seems to be a hybrid element of creativity — a combination of both empathy and story.  When we begin to understand the story of another, then we can feel empathy.  Visual and social artist, RagakavaKK has created a children’s book for the iPad designed to “shake things up” and help us begin to look at the world from multiple perspectives and imagine different stories.

I’m also contemplating a different perspective on empathy.  What if empathy seemed a little less miraculous as Thoreau asked:  “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”  Barrack Obama suggests that empathy is a little more accessible when he describes it as “to recognize ourselves in others.”  It would follow that we must also come to understand ourselves in the process.

How to encourage creativity, empathy, perspective-taking, and self-awareness through literature?  Rosenblatt’s reader response theory seems to offer much promise by offering us a way to engage and encourage personal responses to literature.

Also, Henry Jenkins and the Civic Paths team have been studying forms of activism that involve popular culture, participatory culture and youth.  Two literary-inspired groups under study include John and Hank Green’s Nerdfighters and the Harry Potter Alliance — two groups that do good work for others.  Jenkins ended his TEDx in NYC speech by asking, “If we think this (participatory culture plus activism) works on an organizational level to mobilize citizenship, shouldn’t we bring it into the classroom?”

Here’s an evolving theory of how this might work in the English Language Arts classroom.  You’ll see that I’ve connected our work in bookcasting which provides through reader response an opportunity to share a personal response through self-expression — two elements that Oldfather and Dahl (cited by Guthrie et al., 2004) suggest are often missing from the English Language Arts classroom and may be in part responsible for the decline in reading for pleasure by many young people.

Diagram of Literary-Inspired Activism

What’s the connection to Eliza Dresang’s Radical Change theory that seems to grow more and more relevant each day of our digital age?  With the increased interconnectivity, connectivity, and access that Dresang sees as common attributes of many digital age children’s books and the resulting changes in form/format, perspective, and boundaries, we are seeing books, whether traditional “dead-tree” or of a new ebook/audiobook/hybrid web-enhanced experience, that use the visual and the verbal synergy to engage us both cognitively and emotionally.

We are all asked to develop new literacies, what the New London Group called, multiliteracies, to be successful at both consuming and creating as literate individuals across many modes of communication and a growing cultural and linguistic diversity.  Henry Jenkins uses the term “transmedia” to describe being able to tell stories across multiple platforms using digital technologies.  First we must be “transliterate” or able to map meaning across different media.

J. K. Rowling may have single-handedly inspired a generation(s) of readers, and now she’s creating a new offline-online experience that may usher these readers into a new world of transliteracy.  Welcome to Pottermore!

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