Our Island and the Others: three ways to get children talking about empathy

11th August 2016 at 13:07

Subject Genius, Stefan Kucharczyk, Our Island and the Others

When it comes to a good book, the affinity I feel with a character is what draws me in. This is even more rewarding when, at first glance, I feel no connection with this ‘Other’, only to find later that their fictional life connects with my own. The understanding and empathy with this fictional being, can be a cathartic experience (I’m remembering Adrian Mole) or, if they are rather unpleasant, a shocking mirror to look into. When it comes to real life, those empathy skills are vital for understanding a complex world.

One author who produces challenging and demanding books for children is Armin Greder. A Swiss born illustration now resident in Australia, Armin Greder authors books that explore the themes of migration and multi-culturalism and forces us to face difficult truths about ourselves. This is especially true of his 2007 book, The Island: a tale of one isolated community’s response to the arrival of an outsider. As fate washes the nameless man onto the shore of the rainy, bleak island one morning, the people of the island face a moral crisis about how to look after him. As a reader, you are drawn in to their dilemma forced to admit how you would react.

In a compelling and powerful parallel, much like Greder’s fictional island, our islands face the same moral dilemma: how we view refugees and other migrants – the nameless Others who arrive and dream of arriving on our shores. As news events unfold like the plot of a far-fetched story, our ability to empathise is the decoder to make sense of it all. Deceptively simple, The Island is a moral challenge for any reader, but in the classroom it can be a priceless tool for getting children talking and thinking empathetically about events that are difficult to avoid.

One Year 5 class I have been working with in a suburban school in Leeds around the issues of the Brexit debate are an excellent case in point. As an almost exclusively white part of the city, the children had very little interaction with the Other except what they saw on television.

Subject Genius, Stefan Kucharczyk, Our Island and the Others

Nevertheless, they wanted to share their views on a range of topics from immigration to radical Islam, as well as the impending consequences of leaving or staying in the EU. In addition to proving their keen engagement with current affairs, such discussions brought to light some concerns and worrying misconceptions about migration in particular. “Is it fair to say that whilst most Muslims are not terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims?” one boy asked. Other children wondered if it was right that people who are “not English” should be entitled to benefits – “free money” as they saw it – and whether if we left the EU, would England be allowed to play at the next Euro football championship (although after their ignominious exit earlier this summer, it could be a blessing if they were not.)

The bigger questions looming above these queries were clear. Who are these Others? Are they like us? What will it mean for me if they arrive on our island? Do they bring danger? Armin Greder’s wonderful book is the ideal tool for helping them shape and articulate their moral responses to these tricky questions and empower them to enter the national discussion.

With this in mind, here are three ideas for getting children to explore the concept of the Other.


1. When reading as a class, take every opportunity to explore the perspectives of a range of characters.

The islanders are a mob but they are in no way united. Some initially express concern about what his arrival might mean, most are simply curious or confused until the fisherman – the character whose livelihood is earned away from the island – shows real compassion for the man, admonishing others for their lack of empathy and swaying the crowd into accepting him.

Exploring these viewpoints is an excellent starting point for a class writing and art project. Would the fisherman’s retelling of the man’s discovery be the same as that of the sceptical greengrocer? In one effective writing project, I challenged the children to write about the first meeting between the man and the others from two or three different sets of eyes. Focusing on the different character’s use of language to describe the man, focuses the children’s attention on their attitude; he’s a “poor thing” in some eyes, a “pathetic bag of bones” in others.

It’s a simple but effective way of pointing out to the children that adults don’t always agree but can be swayed for better and, ultimately, for worse.    

Subject Genius, Stefan Kucharczyk, Our Island and the Others

Where did HE come from? WE don't want YOU here! Children from Year 5 interpret the perspectives of characters through drawing and writing


2. Drama is essential for getting under the skin of deeper issues.

The key to unlocking this book’s potential is drama. The islanders’ heated debate upon discovering the man at the beach is a perfect context. Explore the pros and cons of what accepting the man could mean and let the children argue it out in character.

Drama and discussion lessons should of course be underpinned by clear ground rules. If you’re asking children to think, talk and behave as someone else, it is possible that others may express something that they don’t agree with, in a way they don’t like. Once they have had a good argue – and a good laugh at themselves – challenge the children by getting them to argue the direct opposite. Much trickier than it sounds!  

Seen in the context of passionate debates about immigration and identity, being able to hear, accept and understand the viewpoint of the Other is a powerful step in developing empathetic listening.  

Subject Genius, Stefan Kucharczyk, Our Island and the Others


3. Quieten your inner-Ofsted and take a risk!

Delving into deep and divisive issues may seem a risky business and you may feel reluctant to invite potential ill-feeling or aggression into your classroom, especially when some aired views may clash with those that children are exposed to outside of school.

In a pretend discussion, arguing against allowing the man to stay, for instance, may force the children to express some possibly outrageous opinions or views that they don’t necessarily hold. Things might get noisy. Despite what your inner-Ofsted reflex might tell you, this is a good thing! The ability to argue for a position but be asked to listen to opposing views is the healthy way to learn from each other and build understanding. Indeed, the chaotic discussions between Armin Greder’s islanders are excellent pre-debate talking points, especially when they are heated by fear.

To channel this energy into something positive, ask the children to devise a set of rules or values for the island to make it a safer, more inclusive place to live no matter who you are.   

Political events in America, Europe and the Middle East ensure that the immigration question will be at the forefront of national debates as our children move into adulthood. But if it is the responsibility of teachers to prepare children for life outside school, then that involves developing and challenging their moral values. The benefits of such a challenge massively outweigh any potential risks. Armin Greder’s book is the perfect tool to do it with. 



Stefan Kucharczyk is a primary school teacher and a creative writing consultant based in Leeds.