What is Empathy?

Source: Brene Brown


How does empathy play a role in the classroom?

Dave Isay, StoryCorps founder and president says, “Listening to people’s authentic stories, especially the stories of those we might otherwise fear as strangers, can help us recognize a little bit of ourselves in others, and in doing so can build indelible bridges of understanding.”  

Studies show that emotions are integral to learning. In the simplest terms, we only think deeply about things we care about. Students learn best when they are emotionally engaged. Good stories told aloud allow the listener to connect emotionally to the people speaking—making them feel something. This makes listening an extremely visual medium with great potential for use in teaching and learning. It helps students put themselves in someone else’s shoes and really feel that experience. Listening to a good story has the ability to spark memories, engage the senses, and elicit empathy.  

Public radio stories expose students to high quality, challenging, authentic content that features academic language, authenticity, emotion and tone. These elements provide students access to real people and real world issues, without limiting the vocabulary or adjusting the sentence structure. Hearing first hand from people in the news helps students make an emotional connection to events.  Listening to stories that share points of view and experiences of people from other circumstances, identities, or cultures helps students identify the humanity in others and understand the world around them.

If you are exploring empathy in your classroom try these audio stories with lessons to walk through different perspectives:


This story called, “Helping A Friend,” is about kindness and looking out for others. Listen to this story with your class to hear about friendship and a boy who wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. Have the class reflect on the story and put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes – ask them to think about and share in what ways could they help if a friend was in a similar situation?

This story, “Insight into what it’s like to be a refugee,” puts the listener in the shoes of a refugee. Among things the listener is asked to ponder is what possessions he or she would take if there was little time to decide and you could only select a small number of items. A thought experiment like this helps foster empathy for the displaced. Also, a story like this one can be used to link to a number of different points in the social studies curriculum including U.S. or World History. Topics where this story could connect well include the Jewish Refugee crisis in World War II, Chinese exclusion, or even the expulsion of Jews from Roman Palestine in the 1st century. The themes that tie them all together (being a stranger in a strange land, the impact of war on civilian populations) are ones that transcend time periods. They are universal human experiences brought into your classroom.

The second story, “Searching for empathy is Israel and Gaza,” is about how the segregation between Israelis and Palestinians has resulted in a lack of empathy for others. Building empathy in this situation could help change the course of history.

And lastly try this debate about virtual reality and how researchers are studying the impact of VR to teach empathy.  This story will introduce new language on how to discuss empathy and talk about empathy from a scientific perspective.


If you are looking for other classroom exercises, try this classroom challenge from Facing History:

  • Write something from your own perspective. Then write something from the perspective of someone else – someone who is different from you.
  • When you read or watch a story about war in another country, think about what your worries or fears might be if you lived in a country where war was part of your daily life.
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