An unexpected and contradictory intersection between reading and empathy

This timing of this post arrives when two areas of thinking I’ve informally explored over the past few years are intersecting in unexpected and contradictory ways.

Part of the intersection occurred in October, when I attended a session by Dr. John Feland at The Nueva School’s 2019 Innovative Learning Conference titled, “Stumbling Toward Empathy; Lessons Learned in Building Cognitive Empathy in the Unmyelinated Teenage Frontal Cortex”. The research Dr. Feland shared revealed that teenagers are actually unable to empathize, as this requires a fully developed frontal cortex, which we now know does not occur until one’s early 20s. In fact, Feland further explained, when we expose teenagers to media intended to evoke an empathic response, the opposite can occur – these kinds of experiences can trigger distress in teenagers (Feland, 2019).

I made an immediate connection to the loud, collective voice from within the reading community of which I consider myself a participating member. We often speak of the power of reading, specifically that done by the pre-teen and teenagers I work with every day, to evoke empathy. I’ve come across this incantation, and uttered it myself many times. Most recently, I read it in Maryanne Wolf’s (2018) Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Wolf’s primary concern is that readers today are developing a reading circuitry in the brain which differs from the one developed in the past, pre-digital era; a question she poses in the first chapter reads, “will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences–from social media to virtual games–impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that are all part of deep reading” (p.8)? 

Herein lies the contradiction.

If you are not familiar with Wolf’s work, it is important to know that she is at the forefront of neuroscience when it comes to mapping what the brain does when it reads. If Maryanne Wolf says deep reading is connected to the formation of the process of empathy, she likely has some brain imaging to support this claim. This leaves me in a bit of a dilemma: Is the claim that reading can support the development of empathy, specifically in teenagers, a false claim, or is a more nuanced claim out there that can show a connection, albeit one that occurs over time?

I also wonder, what exactly are we seeing in our teenagers when they do read something that clearly has an impact, if it is not empathy? I recently asked a counselor colleague about this, and she shared her understanding of the teenage brain and its capacity and desire to help others in need (K. Haines, personal communication, November 24). This line of thinking supported an earlier conversation with yet another colleague over the need to implement empathic habits in our teenagers, even if the act of true empathy evades our learners (J. Binns, personal communication, November 21). And there is a larger issue for me, as a Teacher-Librarian specifically: I need to be very careful with my rhetoric about reading and empathy. This lifelong learning requires constant adjustment of my beliefs.

This is what I am currently grappling with on a meta, behind-the-scenes level. If you would like to discuss this further and perhaps even provide some next reads for me, I welcome your interest.

References

Feland, J. (2019, October). Stumbling toward empathy; lessons learned in building cognitive empathy in the unmyelinated teenage frontal cortex. Presented at the Nueva Innovative Learning Conference, San Francisco, CA.
Wolf, M. (2018). Reader, come home: The reading brain in a digital world. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Sip and Read!

What’s better than reading the newest and greatest books?

Eating, drinking, talking and getting FREE BOOKS while you’re doing it!

We all know as busy teachers that we NEED to gather new books and resources to engage our students in inquiry, introduce or consolidate ideas and concepts, or simply to immerse them in worlds other than their own.

Yet finding the time to do so can feel challenging.

In step the librarians!

We adore curating resources for teachers – it’s our superpower – and we are the best book pushers on the planet. With over 50 boxes of spectacular new books arriving so far this school year, we knew we had to get them in teachers’ hands, STAT!

Thanks to this week’s staff development time being dedicated to team time, each of the grade levels had purposely allocated time to head on down to the library to feast upon hundreds of the latest arrivals to our collection.

The delicious drinks (served in wine glasses to make us feel a bit fancier) and snacks (thanks to charity bakery, Bread of Life,) helped relax the atmosphere further.

Once bellies were filled, and the book shopping began, you could see shoulders relaxing and people losing themselves in beautiful texts.

Teachers flowed through areas showcasing beautiful picture books aimed at our youngest learners, introductory non-fiction texts and onto challenging and engaging sophisticated picture books and narrative non-fiction.

Deeper into the library were tables highlighting perfect read alouds, the perennial favorites in graphic novels and almost 200 genrified chapter books. Along the tops of the non-fiction bookshelves were new books that were purchased to match grade level inquiry units and Writer’s Workshop units.

    

But there was more!

Along the edge of the library were new high interest non-fiction books across all topics and ages and projected in one of the teaching spaces was the QR code for teachers to sign up to RB Digital for both student and faculty magazines and newspapers.

Finally, SWAG! (Who doesn’t love free stuff??)

On the way out the door, teachers were encouraged to take two gifts:

  • 8-10 titles from past Panda Book Award lists to add to their classroom libraries (they had just been deleted from the Teacher Resource Center),
  • Three posters of QR codes, curated for their specific grade level: search engines, royalty free images, and databases.

It was an incredible opportunity for us to connect with the teams we support, and to show them the ways new resources can complement their teaching. What a joy it was to have quiet, relaxed conversations about powerful books that have the potential to move students’ ideas and hearts. What a privilege it was to flesh out possible provocations for upcoming inquiry units and to provide easy and efficient ways to ensure ethical uses of information. 

Perhaps most happily of all was hearing teachers genuinely appreciate the dedicated time to relish browsing and borrowing without the need to simultaneously supervise students.

We always have chocolate, we always have ideas, we always have books, and we will always make time.

Come visit us!

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