Presenting a Lesson on Empathy to Graduate Students

Recently Helen Shoemaker and I were asked to present a poetry lesson from our book, Leaping Off into Space: A Travel Guide to Risk and the Imagination.  The setting was a class on language arts for graduate students in education.  Several were already teachers.  Interest was expressed in our discussion of empathy.  So we put our heads together and expanded and added to our chapter on empathy combining both the theoretical chapter and the lesson chapter.  Since these were graduate students Helen went into a discussion on constructionism as part of empathy.  We use what we know and understand to explain what we don’t know.  Our experiences necessarily influence how we view and understand the ‘other.’ We stressed the need to strive to understand and not to condemn simply because of the difference.

My talk took a two pronged approach first was how to teach poetry in a regular classroom setting.  I stressed the need to let go of grading and the needs of worrying about spelling and punctuation.  Here the goal became the release of the imagination. I did note the obvious opportunity poetry presents to better understand how language works. Adverbs, adjectives, active verbs sentences or not leap into importance as pieces in the puzzle of poetry. Encouragement becomes your byword, your goal when interacting with student writers. Encourage students to just let words flow. Don’t worry about ‘creative’ spelling unless you have them re-write. If you don’t know a word, ask without blaming.

We talked about how to present empathy to students. Giving up judgmental thoughts can be difficult.  To begin discussion one year, I walked around the class with a black and white photo of Albert Einstein gazing up into the sky.  I didn’t tell the students who he was. I asked students what they could tell about this individual from looking at the photograph.  One year the class got stuck.  The first response and subsequent ones went like this, “Who cares.  He’s fat.”  The ‘he’s fat chorus’ grew.  I discouraged this line of thought discussing the need to not say hurtful things even though the person wasn’t present.  Such a line of thought doesn’t lead to understanding.  Finally someone noticed that he seemed to be gazing up into the sky.  From there the discussion grew positive.  Suddenly one student unstuck his mind and realized it was Albert Einstein.  Ask students to go inside the mind of the other trying to see how they think, feel, experience their lives and how they might view you.

Following is the assignment I give students a bit expanded for this adult class. Since Helen and I were combining two chapters from our book, I used the photos I had discussed in the theoretical chapter.  I had these graduate students write from the art of Edward Hopper. Briefly, Hopper was an American artist who lived from 1882-1967.  His scenes were spare with vivid colors and he painted what he knew.  He is called the painter of loneliness.  He often shows people in a solitary state or scenes of just houses or empty streets.  Fortunately for teachers, the art of Edward Hopper is all over the web.  I printed out some of his paintings and gave two to each student so they had a choice.

Here is a brief version of what I gave them. This lesson provides an opportunity to present the concept of voice to students.  They can write in the first person either from the other person’s point of view or from their own. They could be the observer and simply describe (omniscient.)  The assignment:

  1. Be positive: Imagine being face to face with the person.  What can you discover by observing them and any detail of setting?
  2. Try to imagine person’s mood.
  3. Describe, show, the person using details
  4. Show the setting 3 and 4 great places for metaphors
  5. Does the setting show you anything about the person?
  6. Try to show what is the most unusual thing about the person in your picture.
  7. What can you discover about the person’s life from this picture?
  8. Focus on images to describe.
  9. If not sure how person is feeling, what mood is, keep describing-using detail-what person seems to be doing-if nothing else you get a word picture.
    1. But you may write yourself into a new idea, may surprise yourself may write yourself into an insight about the person.
    2. or about yourself in relationship to them.

Since I wasn’t sure about how a lesson meant for photographs would work with art, I made myself write a poem.

People Watching

on the painting “Chop Suey”

A day in early winter

a friend and I enjoy a cup of tea.

We love this warm and elderly café

that welcomes us like a visit home.

Looking past the worn and peeling

wall by the window, I notice a man bent over

a book.  He draws me in.

He sits alone at the table.

A book becomes his companion.

Cautious friends, books demand little.

In their silence is peace.

The man holds his book in both hands

like a rare vase he doesn’t want to drop.

His worn black suit and starched shirt

don’t speak very loudly.  Still I listen.

Book shop owner, I decide.  His bent

shoulders carry no pressure.  His body

relaxes into the book and I think

he’s pleased that we don’t chat loudly.

As we leave he looks up,

we smile acknowledgement.  I

make sure my blue clouche is straight.

We leave the warm oasis of the café

for the windy winter air

and the necessary duties of the day.

Janice DeRuiter 2013

 What follows is the model poem from the book.  I used one of mine since I could go into the background of why I wrote the poem.  On a trip in Greece, we visited one of the small islands off the Greek Peloponnese.  As in much of Greece, there were still elderly women dressed all in black still in mourning for loses suffered in World War II.  Everywhere I looked tourists were very obviously photographing them. Numerous postcards were available. I felt uncomfortable photographing in such an obvious and uncrowded setting.  So I strolled past her several times.  She was seated on a wharf on a bench in front of her house. Feeling I had enough details, I ran for my journal and began writing.

I encouraged these students if and when presenting a poem, use it to go through some of the pieces that make up a poem.  You can discuss line breaks for surprise (l.1.) Line breaks for shape and suspension. There is description and active verbs (see l.5.) It’s fun to see if students can find the metaphors.  In this poem they become true (see l. 5-10.) In the last stanza is the new idea I wrote myself into.


An immobile woman sits framed

by an open door.  Black dress

stark against the white house

with its vivid blue shutters.   Her eyes

lock onto the sea. Years

have pulled on her face

until her cheek bones are mountains

and sunken cheeks, valleys. Dark eyes

peer out from caves

in the cliff of her face.

To be Greek is to endure

here until your face becomes

an island.  As the summer’s heat

dries all your days, you watch

ancient temples crumble

listen to gods’ voices lament

in falling fluted marble.

Janice DeRuiter 1992

It was late afternoon when we presented to this graduate class.  Frankly I couldn’t tell if we were getting through to very many. But we were surprised; the poems that resulted were amazing.  I had not even tried to go into all kinds of poetic tools like metaphor etc.  I focused on details, voice and showing the setting.  The resulting poems were amazing.  I wish I had some to include here but we left them with their poets.  It started slowly but almost the whole class read their work at the end of the writing period.  As a group the students were delighted to be exposed to the art of Edward Hopper so my printed out copies went home with them as well. As we left we felt like small children spilling over with the desire to, “Do it again.”


About Winding Stream Press

Janice DeRuiter Eskridge, M.F.A. is a poet who worked for over a decade as a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools. Helen Shoemaker, Ph.D. L.M.F.T. is a university professor who teaches in the areas of child development and counseling. She is also a therapist in private practice.
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