Practicing Empathy

The year is 1936. An African American named Victor Green had witnessed and experienced discrimination despite the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment had ended slavery decades earlier. He took very concrete action to address the inequality black Americans encountered as they traveled on the public roadways by writing a travel guide called The Negro Motorist Green Book. This book listed hotels, restaurants, gas stations and businesses that would welcome and serve black travelers so individuals and families could plan their route and know that basic needs would be accommodated. Esso gas stations sold this guidebook and served everyone regardless of race. Over the years, Victor Green updated the content and expanded the geographic areas represented with the final edition published in 1964.

I did not learn about The Negro Motorist Green Book in a history class or through public outcry about discriminatory practices or from articles in the Internet or the paper. I learned about the Green Book from a children’s story entitled Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, which received an American Library Association Notable Book Award. Fortunately good authors are writing excellent historical fiction, fine illustrators bring meaning to the words, and educational journals and professional conferences are informing teachers about these resources. This genre makes history more accessible and understandable to young readers by providing factual information in storytelling format. This writing style is attractive, engaging and personalized.

Yesterday I read Ruth and the Green Book to all the third graders. My learning goal for these students included but went beyond factual knowledge. I wanted the children to make text-to-self connections, to reflect upon the privileges they enjoy and to push a bit deeper to recognize the emotional and life style impact of discriminatory laws and mindsets. In other words I wanted to lead the students through a discussion to practice empathy. Empathy is more than the capacity to see and understand the feelings and emotions of others. There is a sharing element in which a person experiences to some degree another person’s feelings through the power of imagination (

I cracked the door open with some simple questions and comments. When you go on a trip, what do you do if you’re hungry, get tired or have car trouble? Imagine having to pack all your snacks and meals, bring cans of extra gas and spend the night in the car. Did anything surprise you? How would you feel or react if you were treated this way? Were there examples of kindness in this story? Empathy is not a permanent mindset or quality, but rather is a dynamic part of our relationships and attitudes. Each person brings personal experiences and opinions to our interactions, and so becoming a more empathic person develops as much from creating a window into ourselves as it does by looking outward at those around us.

This brings me to the three-day weekend, which we are about to enjoy. While it is a wonderful time to slow down a little bit and have fun with friends and family, it is important to focus our students on the man it honors, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a time to share stories and history, reflect upon his great words, and look at the broad context of his impact on our culture – and not just for a single day, but also as part of a continuum in the growth of our country and of ourselves.

Children have a concrete, even startling awareness of the social categories of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture, economic status and physical differences. As educators, we must look at the views and perspectives of our students and help them “think critically, adapt, communicate, collaborate, imagine, understand and grow.” (From Derby’s Diversity Statement)

What is on your bookshelf? Here are some books well worth finding in the Derby Lower School Library or adding to your own collection.

  • White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman
  • No Mirrors in My Nana’s House by Ysaye M. Barnwell
  • The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
  • Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford
  • A Home Run for Bunny by Richard Andersen
  • Picking Cotton by Sherley Anne Williams
  • January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco
  • Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Practicing Empathy

  1. the Schwartz family says:

    We are really going to miss you, Polly

    • Trisha says:

      I didn't know there was a market for cranberries near Grays Harbor. My parents used to have a home in Ocean Shores and we never heard th,t9is&#3i;s very interesting. Your recipe sounds delicious, I've bookmarked it to come back later and copy it down. Happy Pink Saturday and have a wonderful weekend!

Leave a Reply

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