How Do You Teach Empathy?

Over the summer, I did a lot of thinking about my read aloud books for this year. I knew that there were some various student needs in the classroom and in the school, and I wanted students to develop empathy. About a month before school ended last year, I received the book, Wonder, from @PNeerja after a presentation at her school. I heard wonderful things about the book, and I eagerly read it over the summer. Wow! What powerful writing. I knew this had to be my first read aloud of the year.

I started reading Wonder on the first day of school, and the students loved it! The other Grade 5 and 6 classes at the school began reading it too. We were all at different points though, and then when reorganization happened, my new Grade 5’s were almost 100 pages ahead of us. They were happy to listen to the book again, but I started to question if this was the best use of class time. Almost 1/3 of my class already knew and worked with the material, so what was I doing to help them progress? My initial plan was to read a bit more, and then have my new students summarize and catch us up to where they were in the text. We could then continue from there.

But then the other day, I had another thought. Also over the summer, I read Out Of My Mind: a phenomenal book that was also part of the Global Read Aloud Project. I’ve been involved with this project as a Grade 1, Grade 1/2, and Grade 6 teacher, and I wanted to be involved again this year. I love how the project has students meaningfully connecting and conversing over books. The Global Read Aloud links so well to our TLCP and Success Criteria, and I couldn’t imagine not taking part. So I decided to leave it up to the students.

I told the class about the Global Read Aloud and what it entails. I explained that if we take part, we’ll need to stop reading, Wonder, but that I have multiple copies of the book and students can read it on their own. They can even form a mini-literature circle to discuss the book if they want. If they’d prefer to finish reading Wonder as a class though, it means that some content will be a review for some students. I then gave students a chance to think and talk, and then vote. The vote was unanimous: everyone wanted to start Out Of My Mind(As an aside, I’m thrilled with the number of students that already borrowed a copy of Wonder to continue reading it independently.)

Last night, I previewed this book trailer for Out Of My Mind: deciding how I wanted to introduce the text to students.

As I watched the trailer, I thought back to a tweet from Pernille Rippan amazing Grade 5 teacher from Madison, Wisconsin that also happens to be the founder of the Global Read Aloud. Pernille shared an activity she did in the class to help students understand what it would be like if they were unable to talk and move. What a great way to teach empathy!

I really wanted to link this activity to curriculum expectations, and this is when I thought of The Arts. After reorganization, I started to teach my own Visual Arts. I knew that one of the curriculum expectations was on design challenges. I pulled up the Curriculum Document on the computer, and read the specific wording.


Perfect! With this expectation in mind, I developed this challenge.

out of my mind art challenge_2

Students started by activating prior knowledge and sketching various line options. Then we discussed how to create texture using playdough or clay. After that, it was time for the students to sketch their person or creature, and decide how they were going to communicate the instructions to their partner without talking.

It was now time to start creating. Each person had 15 minutes to instruct his/her partner before switching roles. After completing Round 1, students shared some strategies that worked well for them, and then we started the “silent art” again.

(You can see photographs of this challenge here.)

Even after an indoor recess, students were completely engaged and totally quiet as they explored new ways to communicate with others. While there were the occasional giggles, the reflection here shows the true power of this activity.

Students sharing what they did & thought.


It’s amazing how students can develop active listening skills, even when neither one of them is talking.

So yes, the Art today was tons of fun, but the learning far exceeded that. Today, the students learned what it means to be empathetic, and they connected with text in a way that they never have before: they became that character, even if only for a short period of time. I’m excited to see what the impact will be on students as we continue to read, Out Of My Mind.

How do you teach empathy? I’d love to hear your ideas!

6 thoughts on “How Do You Teach Empathy?

  1. I love this idea! I hope you don’t mind if I use it with my 4th graders next week. We are also reading Out Of My Mind and I think it would be a great way to understand the book better. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for your comment! You can absolutely use this idea! I developed it based on Pernille Ripp’s initial idea. Share and share alike! 🙂 I’m sure your Grade 4’s will love it! Please let me know how it goes.


  2. Just wondering how (if) you might do something similar with grade ones? We are really trying to develop empathy in our school this year. I’d love to find some great activities like this that would work for grade ones.


    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah! I wonder if there’s a similar storybook that you could read. Then you could actually do an art challenge as well. Maybe scaffold it for them by problem solving some ways that they could communicate ideas without speaking. Let them give it a try! This elements of design are in the curriculum from 1-8, and the hand, face, and arm gestures would work for drama for any grade. Then follow-up with the conversation about how it helps them understand the character in the book. I bet it would work!


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