Building Empathy Through Diversity in Literature

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January 19, 2021

This is the fifth in a series of guest blogs by the 2020-21 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. Erin Carlson is a middle and high school teacher at Sandusky Junior/Senior High, Sandusky Community Schools.

Michigan is an incredibly diverse state. However, that diversity exists in pockets. Growing up and teaching in rural America has presented me with the challenge of helping students experience diverse cultures and ethnicities even if they have never witnessed diversity in their face-to-face encounters.
So how does one go about building empathy and presenting this diversity? Books can provide the starting point. 
While it is important for all races and ethnicities to see themselves as heroes/heroines in the stories they read, it is equally as important for my rural students to see other races and ethnicities as the hero/heroine of the story. A personal challenge I gave myself the past two years was to read as many books as I could that did not depict the white, heterosexual, middle class character.
I have lived that life; I know how that character acts, thinks and interacts. A large majority of my students can identify with that same character. Furthermore, there is no shortage of literature that depicts a character that my students can identify with. What they are lacking is the exposure to characters they have never been asked to understand.
I very quickly learned that I needed some guidance to pick out which texts to start with. A resource that is sometimes overlooked is the public library. The Sandusky District Library has always been a valuable resource for me and our school system.
When I mentioned my desire to read and share diverse texts, the staff expertise shined. They arranged “Book Tasting” events for my students that showcased all genres of literature with multiple ethnicities and races, they set aside books for me weekly, they arranged book discussions, and they helped order books for our school library. If you have never reached out to your public library, I challenge you to make that connection.
As I read more and more diverse texts, I learned there was so much I didn’t know and/or understand. Therefore, my next steps involved finding experts and those that have done the work in identifying texts that will make an impact.
As a starting point, I learned that Twitter provides a plethora of networks like #DisruptTexts that share and discuss current, impactful literature. In addition, I reached out to a former colleague who has done extensive work on this topic, and I was grateful to join her and a group of educators throughout the state to virtually share our learning with these diverse texts. This group has helped me unwrap my own bias and challenge my thinking, and has brought me incredible growth not only as an educator, but also as a person. This network has also provided access to a diverse student book club in which my students can be participants. We must continue to build virtual networks such as these for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

Our rural high school students are craving the chance to understand diversity. Exposure can happen with small steps.
For example, make a bulletin board with printed pictures of the book covers you have read this year, print bookmark recommendation cards and place them in books in your school library, build an online recommendation page featuring the books in your library. I found that most students don’t check out books from the library because they don’t know where to start. Help give them some recommendations and be a person they can discuss literature with.
If we never challenge ourselves to read something different or outside of our comfort zone, we won’t know the impact it can have on our learning. We must no longer lean on the excuse that just because we aren’t exposed to diversity, it is OK for us not to recognize and discuss it.Empathy and understanding can be built if we take the time to learn.
Open a book: The places we can travel to and the people we can meet are endless.
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