How Historical Empathy Helps Students Understand the World Today | Facing History & Ourselves
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How Historical Empathy Helps Students Understand the World Today

Developing historical empathy can help students engage with the past while understanding their own role in the world today.
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Empathy can be a powerful tool for action. Just look at how students across the nation mobilized to support the victims of the Parkland school shooting. But waiting for something drastic and tragic to happen is not the way we want to develop empathy in our young people. Building historical empathy can help students engage with history and process their own roles in the world today.

What Is Historical Empathy?

Historical empathy is “the process of understanding people in the past by contextualizing their actions.”

It’s probably difficult for young people to imagine fighting in the Civil War, working as a sharecropper during the Great Depression, or attending a segregated school during the civil rights movement. Exploring the lives of historical figures during these time periods can help students develop insights into not only the individuals, but also the political, economic, and social realities of the day. Through these insights, students gain a better understanding of the motivations behind historical events. 

Exercising historical empathy can also prompt students to consider how their own motivations shape what they do and say today.

How to Encourage Historical Empathy in Your Classroom

Here are some ideas you can use to cultivate historical empathy in your lessons.

Highlight lesser-told stories

This allows students to analyze history from multiple perspectives, and it creates more inclusive and empathetic classrooms. In September 2017, TIME magazine interviewed Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the Little Rock Nine, who shares her first-hand experiences of integrating Central High School. Using this article, alongside questions from Facing History’s Choices in Little Rock teaching unit, can provide students with a connection to a lesser-known personal account of that historic moment.

Use paired texts, especially primary sources 

Take an article published by TIME in 1957 that uses language considered inappropriate for today’s journalists but sheds light on how this moment in time was perceived across the country. Other resources like the TIME for Kids or the TIME Edge version of Carlotta’s story offer age-appropriate adaptations of the original TIME article that can make absorbing this difficult history easier.

Share stories of young people from history

Invite students into the stories of young upstanders and student activists like Charles Mauldin, Lynda Blackmon Lowery, or Linda Brown, whose landmark case Brown v. Board of Education ended school segregation. Giving students examples of how young people can make an impact can leave them feeling empowered, while also inspiring them to think about their own role in the world.

Use role-playing activities

Role-playing can help students put themselves in the position of someone else from the past. Using Carlotta’s story, have students role play by responding to this prompt: Imagine you are Carlotta Walls and you just completed your first day at Little Rock Central High School. Write a letter to a good friend (who lives out of state) about your experiences integrating the school. In your letter, discuss the challenges and choices Carlotta faced, as well as the consequences of her choices.

Why Historical Empathy Matters

Historical empathy not only helps students connect with the past, but also provides them with the tools to better understand how that past has shaped the present. Inspire your students to consider the impact of their choices and take action against injustice in their own schools and communities.  

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