HELPING TEACHERS INSPIRE COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS, PEOPLE & THE ENVIRONMENT

Classroom Resources

Throughout time and across cultures...

stories have been used to pass on history, beliefs, lessons and values. Stories engage our imagination and allow us to identify with characters and see the world from their perspective. Research suggests engaging, good quality stories that encourage perspective taking are an effective way to bolster empathy for others – including animals.1 Fiction, in particular, helps us to develop the ability see from others’ perspectives, or put ourselves in their shoes.2 Sharing stories from diverse perspectives, including ones written from the view point of animals, or considers the view point of animals, helps build understanding and arguably, is a critical component to classrooms.

What about picture books?

Even reading picture books can foster empathy! Picture books teach life lessons gently, have quick plots to sustain attention and include characters that students can relate to.3 While picture books are great on their own, engaging in reflection, discussion and analysis is when students have the opportunity to further practice critical thinking, perspective taking and create meaning from what they are learning.4 Furthermore, picture books featuring animals are regularly used by teachers across grade levels as they are interesting to students, and for some, discussion about animal characters can be easier than with human characters.5

However, the messages that we send to children though books and other media are not always positive or accurate. As with all media, it is important to think critically about how animals are portrayed. For considerations about books with animals, see our tool: Tips on Selecting Animal-Themed Books

What other ways can stories be useful?

Literature can also be used to help students deal with issues or problems they will inevitably encounter as they mature and grow. Topics such as dealing with grief, responding to bullying, overcoming fears, developing positive relationships, and understanding and appreciating differences – to name a few – are reoccurring themes in children’s stories.  Students realize that they are not alone in encountering problems and can learn positive ways of dealing with these issues.1,6

Stories can inspire change:

Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty was published in 1877; and novel for that time, was told from the perspective of a horse. The story presents realities horses faced in the 1800s such as being overworked, neglected and abused.7 The story is widely credited with improving how horses are cared for, including moving towards banning devises such as “bearing reins,” that caused significant pain and distress.8 Although Sewell intended her book for an adult audience, it has been a popular children’s book for well over a century and highlights the power stories have for motivating change – sometimes at a societal level.

A more recent anecdote also supports this message. In the introduction of Better with Books, author Melissa Hart highlights that after reading The One and Only Ivanher daughter took a passionate interest into the plight of homeless dogs and cats, and paid greater attention to the well-being of her own animals. With this type of positive change, she questions, “Why wouldn’t we encourage powerful epiphany through literature.”2

Our tools feature a free book-lending program featuring animal-themed books and curriculum connected activities to foster empathy, as well tips and suggestions for books with animals to help foster perspective taking and understanding. 

References:

  1. Kucirkova, N. (2019). How Could Children’s Storybooks Promote Empathy? A Conceptual Framework Based on Developmental Psychology and Literary Theory. Frontiers in Psychology 10(121) doi: 3389/fpsyg.2019.00121
  2. Hart, M. (2019). Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Sasquatch Books.
  3. Crawford, P. (2014). Beyond words: Using language and literature to teach compassion for others. In Jalongo, M. R. (Ed.), Teaching compassion: Humane Education in Early Childhood, pp. 161-173
  4. Brynildssen, S. (2002). Character Education through Children’s Literature. Family Learning Association Bloomington IN.  [ED 469 929]
  5. Crawford, D. (2019). Using picture books to grow compassion and empathy. Canadian Teacher Magazine. Retrieved from https://canadianteachermagazine.com/2019/04/22/using-pictur-books-to-grow-compassion-and-empathy/
  6. Tu, W. (1999). Using Literature to Help Children Cope with Problems.  ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN. [ED 436 008]
  7. Hankins, J. (2002). The beauty myth. The Guardian. 18 May Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2002/may/18/weekend.justinehankins
  8. Norris, M. (2012). How ‘Black Beauty’ Changed The Way We See Horses. NPR. Nov 2. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2012/11/02/163971063/how-black-beauty-changed-the-way-we-see-horses

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