Building Community Through Empathy


A couple of months ago I wrote about an anchor experience I had at the post office during the summer Olympics. Yesterday I had another interesting post office encounter. I was waiting in line to mail a letter, along with seven other people. A young man approached the counter and explained that, just minutes before, he had purchased a money order for $625 to pay his rent. He had walked next door to Rite Aid, and somewhere along the way he lost the money order. He had come back to see what he could do about it.

This is a small post office, so all seven customers overheard the conversation. The group of strangers was transformed into an instant, albeit temporary, community. An older woman behind me said, “Oh, no.” Almost everyone gave some sort of sigh and shook their heads. They weren’t responding out of judgment but out of empathy. No doubt, they were thinking about how they would feel if this had happened to them.

The strangers began thinking of possible solutions. One woman said, “Are you sure you looked inside your wallet? Maybe you stuck it in there.” A man said, “I bet it will cost him $35 to stop payment on it.” Another said, “Yes, but that is better than losing $625.” One man went into the parking lot with the young man and started looking under cars to see if it had blown underneath one. On my way to my car, I found myself scouring the parking lot for a loose slip of paper, too.

This got me thinking about the communities we build in our classrooms, and I was reminded of a passage I recently re-read in Lucy Calkins’ A Guide to the Reading Workshop. On pp. 79-80 in the chapter about read aloud, Lucy tells the story of a teacher who had mastered the science of teaching. She had a beautiful classroom library, well-executed minilessons, effective classroom management, etc. But it seemed that something was missing. There was no spark in this classroom. Readers and writers were just going through the motions. Then one day a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project staff developer walked in and noticed an energy present in the room. Children were invested in their reading and writing. The staff developer asked the teacher what she had done to create such a transformation.

The teacher’s response? “We read together. That’s all. We read sad, sad stories like A Taste of Blackberries and Bridge to Terabithia.” The teacher explained that she also shared painful stories from her own life, and soon her students were doing the same. Reading aloud has a magical way of bringing children together into a community of readers and writers.

I’m not suggesting that we only read sad stories to our students. We need to read from all genres and about many themes and topics. Humor and silliness plays an important role. But we shouldn’t avoid painful stories. If they haven’t already, children will experience and witness others experiencing painful situations. When we share some of these stories with our students, we bring them together as not only readers and writers but as empathetic human beings. In this shared experience they can discuss, laugh, and cry together and learn to work through important life issues.

If a man losing a $625 check can bring together a small community of strangers in the post office, imagine what can happen to students who have shared a whole school year of common experiences through these anchor texts . If you are ever tempted or coerced into abandoning your daily read-aloud time in an effort to fill your day with more “score-raising” work, I urge you to consider all that is accomplished during this daily ritual.

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