Teaching History Empathetically

By Cindy Schwartz, co-founder and executive director of secondary education at Attentive Teaching

Can history teach us how to empathize?

It’s all in the way you approach it.    

We can teach empathy in our classrooms if we utilize specific activities that will  enable students to understand how it feels to  ‘walk in someone else’s shoes.’

 How did Abraham Lincoln feel when he learned about the first shot at Fort Sumter that started the Civil War? What went through  Teddy Roosevelt’s mind when the government of Colombia refused his offer to buy the isthmus of Panama in 1902 so he could build a canal? Did President Harry Truman feel guilty about his decision to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945? How did President George W. Bush feel when he learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after he had used that as one of his justifications for sending troops to Iraq between the years following 9/11? 

Posing these questions to students and allowing time for quality research and deep conversations about the research findings can help them become more mindful and empathetic about historical events and the people who  are responsible for many of them.

In 2013, Social Studies Research and Practice, a historical organization, defined teaching history empathetically as an “understanding” about “how people from the past thought, felt, made decisions, acted and faced consequences within a specific historical and social context.” 

However, some scholars think that there is more to it than that. According to Jason Endacott, an assistant professor of secondary education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas and Sarah Brooks, assistant professor of education at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois, there are three steps that teachers need to take when they are teaching history empathetically.

  1. Teachers need to help students become aware of “historical contextualization.” Students must consider how living in the past time period was different from today. 
  1. Teachers must help students understand “perspective” by helping them understand a past person’s way of thinking within their respective time period.  
  2. Teachers must help students have an “affective connection,” which means that students must see a connection between the emotional life of the historical figure and their own life. It has to become personal for the student for empathy to occur.

That advice gives us food for thought.    

Teaching history empathetically is possible. In my 30 years of teaching social studies, I’ve noticed that helping students to experience the events, rather than just hear about the facts, cultivates an empathetic mindset.. 

Need some practical ideas? I’ve tried all of the following in my classrooms with much success:

  • Mock trials of famous trials (ie – The case of Sacco and Vanzetti) 
  • Debates about historical issues (ie- slavery)
  • Role-plays (ie-Teddy Roosevelt reading correspondence to Upton Sinclair)
  • Creating poster art (ie-Spanish-American War yellow journalism posters)re
  • Listening to and composing music representative of the time period being studied (PRO TIP: Get a record player! The kids love to learn how they work.)

These are but a few of the ways that students can “put themselves in the shoes” of those historical figures that they are studying. Once they can do that, they’ll be on track to take a more hands-on role in understanding the various relationships and current events that occur in their own lives.

In the words of iconic education philosopher, John Dewey:

School must represent life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.

Teaching history empathetically is simply teaching about real life.

Do you have any techniques to bring empathy into your classroom? Share them in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.

1 thought on “Teaching History Empathetically”

  1. Pingback: Teaching SEL with Rock n' Roll - Attentive Teaching

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *