Memoir Remix: The Empathy Map

Today, I’ll get back to a series of posts I started in December, sharing how we revisited and remixed the study of memoir in our Grade 12 courses.

When we sat and discussed what we felt we wanted to “get” out of studying a memoir, my awesome teaching homie Rachelle was emphatic that we wanted to see our students empathizing with the memoirist. This was pretty obvious, and we all know, when we’re working with our students, the moments we cherish most are when we they communicate to us their empathy for someone they’re reading about. However, how does one encourage that empathy, and how exactly do we get it into something that students can share, and ultimately, we assess?

There was a time when, as English teachers, we had a model for this. We all read the same book, and there were chapter questions, and in those questions, we would specifically ask students how the things that happened to the character made them feel. In the essay that was invariably assigned post-reading, we might encourage a section that explored this empathy piece.

Obviously, the chapter question model doesn’t really work when 25 students are reading 18 different memoirs. (Actually, I don’t really believe in that model in any way anymore.) The essay piece was still available, but since that was the task we were working to replace, it didn’t really make sense either.

As we discussed this, we realized that what we wanted to encourage was a regular practice of reflection, of looking for moments of empathy throughout their reading. We talked through the idea of a notetaking process, filling notebook pages with a bunch of “When they… I felt…” statements. I wasn’t sure what made me recall these, but I thought about those big body biography projects that were all the rage a decade ago, where students made a big poster of the character, and put all kinds of notes all over them, highlighting feelings, actions and whatnot. It didn’t seem feasible to have 25 big posters on the go, but could we replicate this in our notebooks.

We could. My initial whiteboard sketch, which came to my notebook is pretty much what we encouraged students to create. A two page spread in their notebooks, on one side, they draw the character in profile, leaving room to add notes. On the other side, themselves in profile, again, with room for notes. As they read, they added the things that happened to the person, their thoughts and actions. Each thing they added to that page generated a corresponding response from them on their page. Somewhere along the line, the phrase “empathy map” was put into my brain, and that’s what we called these.

Since I believe in transparency in teaching, I’ll openly admit that the first swing at this idea, specifically in the memoir study didn’t work very well. And it’s on me. I had a wonderful group of Grade 12 students, totally open to trying new things, and good with the empathy stuff as it was. However, simply giving them a sheet with a brief explanation, and talking it through with them didn’t pan out. I mean, their pieces were okay, but a lot of them wound up being things that were constructed at the end of reading, and not accumulated while reading. It was like a prettier version of the paragraph from the after reading essay.

I loved the idea though, and held onto it. As my 12s were wrapping up their memoir studies, my Grade 9s were starting our study of The Outsiders. I decided I’d give the empathy map another try, and do it better.

Empathy Map exampleTo do this, I began by actively modelling what I wanted. A big whiteboard sketch went up, and there was Ponyboy and I. We talked about it, and chose a couple of moments that resonated with us. I added those things, and then, I modelled my responses. I asked them to add a couple more things from the chapter.

Photo 1 (4)And each time we read, our task was to add the things that resonated to our empathy maps. They really seemed to enjoy the task, knowing that it was an easy one in many ways. They simply needed to respond to what happened with how it made them feel. It’s funny how easy they felt this was, considering how we felt it was such a difficult thing for us to create as teachers. Many of their pieces extended beyond the boundaries of the pages in their notebooks, with layers of sticky notes, and extra fold out pages taped in. This was what I wanted, beautiful notebook pages full of messy ideas they were working through. The option remained to polish and present these, but I like the chaos of thought captured in the notebook.

Photo 2 (4)The beauty was, I had modeled, and received what I had hoped to see from my Grade 12s. The importance of how we teach something became apparent, again. As well, assuming that I do something similar with texts over the next few years, when these 9s roll into the memoir study in Grade 12, how awesome are their empathy maps going to be then?

As well, because the TeacherBrain never shuts off, how versatile is this strategy? This empathy map could be a notetaking strategy for an essay later. There’s a certain level of character analysis that is embedded in this we could mine. I could dust off that old body biography project, and have students collaborate, discussing, and sharing where their empathy overlapped, or diverged. I saw this happening with the creation of the empathy maps in their notebooks, and there was some pretty rich discussion. Though the intention wasn’t to create that avenue to discuss, it happened, and that’s awesome.

What have you revisited and revamped lately? What do you want to remix and refresh? How do you encourage students to empathize with characters they’re reading? How do you have them express that empathy?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

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