The ability to feel empathy is essential to the emotional and social growth and development of young people. Although adolescents are famously self-centered, they are also increasingly aware of the world around them. Learning about empathy helps students connect to others within their family, class, community, and beyond. Empathy allows young people to respond with kindness and thoughtfulness and gives them a broader perspective on human history. It is also an effective tool against bullying, prejudice, and injustice, and in breaking down gender stereotypes. Being empathetic helps young people make and keep friends as well as understand those who have different viewpoints, backgrounds, and cultures.
This lesson begins with a preliminary discussion about the meaning of empathy. Students watch a video that explores this ability or experience in greater detail and discuss how a Native American saying, “walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins,” relates to the practice of empathy. As a class and in small groups, students examine a well-known fairy tale, Cinderella. To try to “walk a mile” in the shoes of each character, good and evil, students develop histories, backgrounds, and motivations for the characters and share these with the class. They then rewrite the fairy tale (or other well-known story) from another character’s point of view. For example, they could portray the villain as a sympathetic character. As an optional extension activity, students write about an experience from their own life regarding empathy.
- Approximately two class periods plus additional time for peer review
- Understand the meaning of the core value of empathy
- Identify characters’ backgrounds and motivations and understand how those factors impact their choices and actions
- Understand that there are (at least) “two sides to every story” and use that to evaluate notions of “truth” in singular narratives
- Evaluate the role of context (time, place, etc.) in shaping behavior and decisions
- Understand how perspective taking plays a critical role in developing empathy
Prep for Teachers
- Examine the media resources to familiarize yourself with the lesson content.
- Smart Board or whiteboard and markers for note taking
- Oversized sticky notes (or large paper)
Part I: Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes (15 mins)
1. Ask students to define empathy. Jot down students’ ideas on the board. You will return to these ideas later in the lesson.
2. Show the video Young Peace Leaders: Cultivating Empathy, in which middle school students complete an activity designed to help them gain the perspective of another person and explore the quality of empathy. They choose a shoe and imagine the life of that shoe. As they write about the shoe—figuratively “walking” in those shoes—they reflect on how the experience helped them become more understanding and compassionate toward others.
After watching the video, discuss the following questions:
- What was the most memorable moment in the video?
- Why did that moment have an impact on you?
3. The saying “Never criticize (or judge) a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins” has been attributed to various Native American tribes and is the inspiration for the exercise shown in the video. Examine the saying together.
- Why is walking or standing in someone else’s shoes such a powerful metaphor?
- Why might it be necessary to walk a mile (and not just for a moment or a few steps) in someone else’s shoes?
Explore the notion of perspective taking and how it leads to empathy. Ask students, Why is it important both at an individual and a more global level to understand and respect each other’s experiences? (People’s experiences inform their viewpoints.) Have students brainstorm other ways a person can use to become more aware of how another person is feeling, thinking, or behaving and why such insights are important.
Part II: Developing Empathy Through Retold Fairy Tales (40 mins)
4. Traditional fairy tales, especially those from Western cultures, generally provide one perspective. We are rarely shown a multilayered villain or a hero or heroine who is not perfect all the time. For example, in some versions of Cinderella, we are told that the stepmother had a cold heart and that the stepsisters are cruel. But what caused the stepmother to treat Cinderella so badly? What motivated the stepsisters’ mistreatment? Reimagined fairy tales are ideal for perspective taking.
Start by unpacking preconceived notions. Begin the discussion by asking students what they know about the story Cinderella. Students should discuss both the plot and the characters. Have them provide descriptions of key characters, including physical attributes and attitudes. Write the information in a graphic organizer on the board so students can keep track. If the story is not well known to all, give a summarized account of the story that reinforces these character descriptions.
Next, introduce the idea that there are “two sides to every story,” or multiple viewpoints. Use the following questions to help guide the discussion:
- What makes us identify with a character in a story? How do our attitudes and beliefs influence that choice?
- What does it mean to see a situation with a fresh perspective?
5. As a class, list the main characters in Cinderella and write each on an enlarged sticky note. Then, divide the class into small groups. Allow each group to choose a character and consider these questions:
- What does this character perceive (i.e., see or feel)?
- Where does this character spend his or her time? What are the surroundings like?
- What are some things that this character might know about?
- What are some things this character might not know about?
- What experiences has she or he lived through?
- What things does this character care about?
- What are his or her wants or fears?
- What are the character’s moods, goals, and beliefs?
As the groups deepen their understanding of their characters, they should write down or express their ideas through drawings. Circulate among groups and ask guiding questions to help students answer the questions. For example, “What did you read or hear that makes you write/draw that?”
Here is an example of what students might write down about one of the stepsisters:
This stepsister may be cruel toward Cinderella, but she is also fragile. Although she was born into a wealthy home, she has a cold, disapproving mother for whom neither she nor her sister is good enough. She has never felt loved. Her only self-worth is from her appearance. And because Cinderella is more beautiful than she is, the stepsister can’t help but feel competitive. That’s why she never misses a chance to put the shabbily dressed Cinderella in her place by showing off her own fancy clothes.
6. Groups should take a few minutes to share and reflect on their work, either with other groups or as a class. Here are some questions to consider:
- What new ideas do you have about the character that you didn't have before?
- Why might different characters see things differently?
7. Return to the notes you took at the beginning of class about the meaning of empathy. Ask students to add or revise their ideas based on what they’ve learned so far during the lesson. Then, ask students to talk about how viewing a character from a different perspective might lead them to have empathy for that character. Why might this be useful, not just as part of a school lesson but in real life?
If students are having trouble generating ideas, mention the following key points about perspective taking and empathy:
- listening without judgment
- putting your own opinions aside
- looking beyond your own experiences, concerns, and viewpoints
- acknowledging what people have to say (even if you don’t agree)
Part III: Rewrite Your Own Fairy Tale (30 mins + additional time for peer review)
8. After discussing some of the core skills that are needed to be empathetic, present students with their assignment as well as a rubric. Ask them to choose a folk or fairy tale or myth and rewrite it from the perspective of a different character. (They can choose a hero or heroine, but it may be easier to choose the villain.) How would a more empathetic understanding of the character change the narrative? How would it affect the meaning of the story?
If you prefer, you may connect this exercise with a book you have read in class, such as The Crucible, The Giver, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, or The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. If you do this, have students rewrite a chapter or section of the book from a point of view other than the narrator’s.
When students have completed their writing, divide the class into small groups for peer review. Review the rubric with the students and set norms for how to give constructive feedback. Then, have students critique each other’s work. Circulate among groups and direct discussions as needed.
Extension Activity: Challenge students to relate empathy to a real-world situation. Have students reflect on a time when they might have shown someone else empathy. Have them describe what happened and how the situation would have been different if they could have been more empathetic.
- What was the problem?
- Why was it hard to show empathy for the other person?
- If you had been able to be empathetic, how might that have changed the situation? How would it have affected how you and the other person felt about the experience and each other?
Check for Understanding (5 mins)
Briefly wrap up the lesson. Ask students:
- What new ideas do you have about empathy that you didn't have before?
- In what ways did the lesson content push you or challenge you?
- What new questions do you have?
This lesson is based on “Developing Empathy Through Retold Fairy Tales,” a lesson written by Rosemarie Sese, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.