Think twice

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Encouraging your pupils to see through other people's eyes could make the world a better place, says John Westmore
Encouraging your pupils to see through other people's eyes could make the world a better place, says John Westmore

"This afternoon we're going to look at something strange called empathy." It's a SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) lesson and there are puzzled looks from my Year 5s. Pressing on: "Turn to your partners and discuss what you think it might be - it does sound like another word."

Immediate chatter erupts - astonishingly all of it is on task. Judge it carefully, not too long, not too short - just enough time for some links to be established.

Allow children to give their suggestions - guide them towards the word sympathy. Establish that sympathy is a common feeling. We have it when we see others sad, distressed or hurt. Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Explain that they are going to make simple masks. They will become someone else to the outside world.

The masks may be ugly, sad, miserable, angry, or strange colours. On the reverse draw a nice face. Model a few for the children using blank masks.

Draw in a minimal number of lines - two eyebrows, two eyes, one nose, one mouth with felt tips. They are not intended to be realistic. The children have 15 minutes.

"One of you, in each pair, should put your ugly mask on. Watch your partner's face and listen to their words. Is this how they normally behave towards you? How does it make you feel? Ready, steady, go!" An eruption of noise. A lot of laughter. Now ask the children to swap - their partners wear a mask. Ask each pair to make notes (on whiteboards) on how they felt about others' reactions to them. Focus on words or phrases that describe feelings. Repeat with the nice faces. Explore.

With partners, talk about any groups that people might react to in a similar way - people with large noses, ginger hair, different coloured skin, different cultures, or who have disabilities.

What did you hope to achieve from this lesson?

It certainly seems that the children did understand empathy and it helped me use this as a reference in dealing with conflicts later on. Thereafter I was able to explore issues by asking "how do you think your behaviour made the other person feel?"

The SEAL website has downloadable resources:

John Westmore is deputy head at Hollickwood Primary School in north London.

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