Middle Schoolers as Role Models for Peace: Three Writing Exercises to Foster Empathy

By Kelly Quayle

Richie is five foot nothing and not even a hundred pounds, just months out of elementary school. He wears a SpongeBob backpack high on his shoulders and Gap Kids khakis picked out by his mother.  He’s never seen an R-rated movie, never been reprimanded in school, and rarely comes to class without a smile on his face. Rachelle could easily pass as a high school senior with her mature body, purple box braids, and perpetually jaded expression. She is old enough to be in high school, which means she must have been held back, or fell behind after expulsion from a previous school. She rarely makes it through a school day without getting in trouble. Her primary offenses are fighting and stealing—mainly food. What do Richie and Rachelle have in common?

They’re both in my middle school leadership class.

My students hail from every neighborhood in Oakland.  I teach mix-grade classes—6th, 7th, and 8th—so the range in emotional and physical maturity is significant. I have a handful of special needs students with upper-case diagnoses: Jessica has Cerebral Palsy, Rafael has Asperger’s, and Jose has Separation Anxiety, escaping out of class daily to find his twin brother.  It happens so frequently that they eventually just switch his brother into my class, too. Problem solved. Sort of.

Some of my students are meticulously mannered, while others have disciplinary files that read like criminal records. Straight-A students always striving for perfection, and those who don’t give a shit and want everyone to know it. Although of course they do. I’ve taught middle and high schoolers enough to know that the ones who protest the loudest are generally the ones who need the most loving. The more they hide, the more they want to be found. I’ve got the privileged and the impoverished, queen bees and outcasts. I’ve got bullies and the bullied, and sometimes they switch places.

As different as my students are from one another, they are the same in one crucial way: they are middle schoolers. And what is more volatile, more precarious, more combustible than a middle schooler?

Although technically a leadership class, the curriculum I teach is actually a mash-up of social justice education, social-emotional learning, and youth empowerment. For each unit, we focus on a human rights issue (e.g., gender equality), a positive quality of being (e.g., gratitude), and a service or activism project (e.g., anti-discrimination billboards). Basically, it is my self-appointed task to take these moody, unpredictable adolescents and transform them into kind, empathetic, and mindful young people.

Every year I start with the social issue, global poverty, and the quality of being, empathy, in order to get my kids to start thinking and feeling beyond their insular worlds. As it’s September, I’m also trying to build community and establish a positive classroom culture, so it doesn’t hurt to get my students’ empathy muscles working.  This year, I’ve decided to use creative writing as an instructional strategy to tap into this empathy—to see if the process and production of writing can strengthen my students’ internalization of specific social-emotional skills while deepening their understanding of curricular content.

For the first day of our Empathy Writing Project, we do an exercise I call “Contagious Emotions.”  In groups of three to four, students are given a slip of paper with an emotion on it and are instructed to come up with a role-play in which one character experiences that emotion (e.g., excitement: a kid gets an A+ on his big test and runs home to tell his mom about it). Each group then acts out the scene for the class, and the rest of the students guess the emotion.  After the emotion has been established, every student in the class completes the following prompt on a piece of paper: “A time in my life when I felt (said emotion) was…”    It is a quick sentence or two, simply meant to get them to make a connection between the emotion being acted out and their own life experiences.

Of course, role-plays are always risky in a classroom of 30+ middle schoolers.  Sure enough, when Verity pretends to receive a bad grade on a test (emotion: disappointment), he boohoos in the most dramatic fashion possible, slithering out of his seat and onto the floor—sounding somewhere between a laboring cow and a colicky baby. The whole class laughs, and Verity gets up grinning, immensely pleased with himself—looking anything but disappointed. The class also cracks up when Rachelle pretends to slap Tani in the face (emotion: anger), and when Richie makes a loud farting sound (emotion: embarrassment). This is a familiar situation for me as a teacher, when I find myself walking the tightrope between allowing students the freedom to have fun and reining them in before the class collapses into chaos. Part of me wants them to take the lesson more seriously—they’re supposed to be examining their emotions after all. But it’s hard to be frustrated when kids are fully engaged—not just in the lesson but with each other, sharing laughter that is intentionally evoked, not the consequence of another’s misfortune. So I loosen up, let them roll with it.

After all the groups have finished, each student chooses one of their own emotional experiences to explore in a 15-minute free write. At first the energy is still light with some residual laughter, but eventually they settle in, get focused, write. In the last stage of the lesson, the student actor for each emotion sits on a stool in front of the class. Other students who wrote about this particular emotion volunteer to come up and empathize with him, sharing their own stories of times in their lives when they felt the same emotion.  In every writing class I’ve taken, it is this—the sharing part—that is often the most powerful for me. When I listen to my peers read their stories, I gain access into their lives and imaginations, and when I read my writing, I invite them into my own. This particular exercise isn’t just about sharing writing, but also about sharing emotions and making connections—saying: You’re not alone. I’ve felt that way too. In other words, empathizing.

And for me, reading their free-writes later that afternoon, it’s about discovery. Because this is how I learn that Lucia was once checked into a psychiatric ward: “I felt scared when I was thrown into a mental hospital and cried for the whole day, thinking I was a crazy person.” And Madison felt angry when her aunt was “shot in the face for no good reason.”  Reading their free-writes, I am enlightened, given a deeper understanding of my students as individuals, not disciplinary records, not report cards, not Special Ed. IEPs, not even “I AM” poems. Because this writing was free and unbound and required only one thing: for students to tap into an emotional experience in their lives.

On another day, I lead a lesson I call “Letters of Love.” I start by asking my students to do a ten- to fifteen-minute free-write reflecting on a time in their lives when they have been stereotyped.  After they finish, I show them a short YouTube video called 2013 Kindness Challenge Winner– Hannah Brencher, More Love about a young woman who alleviates her own depression by sending letters of encouragement and love to strangers who are struggling. Following the video, I have students volunteer to share their stories about being stereotyped with the class. After each student reads her story, her classmates respond by writing the volunteer a note of encouragement/empathy.

At first, only a few students step up to the plate.  Tani, an outwardly confident yet emotionally volatile 8th-grader, shares how she gets called a “boy” because she acts tough. Lucia, who is Latina, writes about being told to “go back to your country.”  After each volunteer shares, her classmates bow their heads and immediately begin to write their notes. To my surprise, no one needs any prompting or direction on how to write a letter of love—their desire to ease their classmates’ pain is instinctual.

This activity is also a non-didactic way to help students recognize the harm of stereotyping.  Everybody knows middle school is a breeding ground for bullies. It’s not because kids are inherently mean, but because they don’t always realize the consequences of their words, don’t always think beyond getting a laugh or fitting in or masking their own insecurities. We, as teachers, can try to tell our students that stereotyping is wrong, that bullying is hurtful, but the message is much more likely to get through when it comes directly from the victim.  From hearing classmates say, This hurt me. 

When the rest of the students see their classmates getting envelopes full of kind notes, they want in on the love, and all of a sudden everyone is raising their hand to volunteer.  Some of the most powerful moments are when “tough” students, like Rachelle, get up to share—students who are viewed by their classmates as hard, impervious to hurt.  For the first time, their classmates get to see them as vulnerable, which makes them more relatable: less worthy of fear, more worthy of empathy.

And my students’ honesty is admirable. Richie, who is usually too shy to share, opens up about being made fun of for being so small. He describes the humiliation he endures in the gym locker room, how he is called a “pussy”—a word that is especially jarring coming from Richie. Imani shares about being bullied for her weight. Because her mom left when she was young, she didn’t have anyone to talk to about the bullying, so to ease her pain she started cutting herself. I look around the room, startled by the confession and apprehensive about the reactions of her classmates. But everyone is quiet, listening, and as I peek over their shoulders, I see many of these notes telling Imani how beautiful she is and how much they admire her for having the guts to share. And there is plenty of empathy in the letters, too. Comments like I feel the same way, people make fun of me too for my body and I hope you don’t hurt yourself anymore because you are precious. The whole process is moving for me to watch, especially because these are middle schoolers and kindness is not always their forte. As a teacher, these are the moments I cherish—when I witness my students’ hearts opening to one another, when I can sense them realizing, without my prompting: Huh, I guess we’re not that different after all.            

After several activities that challenge students to empathize with one another, we transition to exercises that require students to shift their empathy outwards—to connect with strangers and/or people in their lives with whom they have strained relationships. For their final assignment, I ask my students to write a “Day in the Life” story or poem from the perspective of a person facing challenges in his or her life. We spend several class periods working on mood, sensory details, and character development. The intention of these exercises is for students to “get to know” their focus people, at least through their imaginations, in order to create multi-dimensional characters, not caricatures or collections of stereotypes.

The Empathy Writing Project’s summative activity is a formal literary reading. To keep students engaged and connected as they listen to one another, I ask them to write down a positive comment for each writer. These compliments will eventually make their way back to the writer and, as with the letters of love, each student will go home with an envelope full of affirmation from their classmates.

Up first is Tani, who reads a story about a battered woman who disguises her beauty under baggy clothes and messy makeup for fear of being harassed. After Tani come Anna and Lizzie, whose stories are about a bullied girl and a bully respectively; and Javier, who reads his story about a young Jewish boy during the Holocaust. Rachelle takes on the perspective of an abused child; Richie imagines the life of a wounded vet.

Kelly writes about a day in the life of a homeless teenager: I wake up to clenched fists and a frozen breeze. It’s probably around 6 am but I have no way to tell. The slitted bench leaves imprints on my bare arm. Faces in business suits and expensive ironed dresses pass lifelessly.  Heels clatter on littered concrete rushing to boxed-in offices with noisy coffee makers.  I sit on the same couple corners every day, rotating as time passes. I people watch, inspecting every move they make as they carry themselves higher than myself. A girl runs along beside her dad, I was that girl once. Out-of-towners give empathetic looks but continue on their way to find New York’s most original pizza.  Quarters get tossed in my ratty cup. “Get a job” some say.

Jaia writes from the perspective of a Nepali child who is forced to work because of her family’s poverty: I lay in bed snuggled under my covers, staring up into what once used to be a sapphire blue roof, but now is musty grey and peeling at the edges. Dust has collected in the corners of my shared room. It floats through the air and the little light in the room coming from a small window next to my bed makes the dust glow a magnificent gold. It reminds me of the days when me and my family weren’t suffering the way we are now. I take a deep breath in, inhaling a small hand’s worth of dust. Coughing, I sit up slowly, taking in the depressing surroundings as I do every morning.

The quality of writing differs drastically student to student, but the audience treats every reader with equal respect, jotting down their compliments with dutifulness and sincerity.

The final student to read is Imani, who has been insisting for days that she’s too nervous to share her story with the class. It’s only at the very last minute that she gets up the courage to present.  Squirming on the stool, she does something that no one else has: she admits that this story is personal, explaining that the perspective she chose was that of her uncle. Her uncle, we all learn from her story, is a drug addict who steals from everyone, including his nieces. His behavior devastates his family and yet, under all the pain in her story, there is a sense that, as much as he hurts Imani, she still loves him and understands that his addictions are out of his control.

I wonder, listening to Imani—her story made all the more powerful by its honesty—how many of my other students were really writing about their own lives or people in their lives. Sure they wrote from the perspective of another person, but some of their struggles must have been familiar—being bullied, being abused, being shipped across the country from Mom’s new family to Dad’s. Maya, a quirky, inquisitive kid with bright clothes and a partially-shaved head, who once told me her mother considered being gay a sin, wrote a love story between two boys whose parents condemn their relationship. In the end, the boys follow their hearts despite their parents’ objections. The prose is lyrical and the story is heartwarming, and, looking over her classmates’ shoulders at their comments for her, I see that they think so too. In her reflection, Maya writes that she felt like she was able to “express myself without having to really do so.”  I’d like to think that the process of writing this story—and her classmates’ affirming response—provided Maya some comfort and reassurance in the face of her parents’ judgment. That it helped her recognize her own worthiness of empathy and acceptance.

Even those who wrote about people from another place or time reflected that they could empathize with their characters because: “Even though I’m not an orphan, I have a hard life,” or “I know how it feels to be different.” And this is the transcendent quality of empathy: we don’t have to relate to another person’s specific life experience to connect to their underlying emotions.  We don’t have to be homeless or bullied or abused to know what it feels like to be lonely or ashamed or afraid. I think about how easily, how instinctually, how urgently my students wrote letters of love to their classmates. When we connect to someone’s pain, it is human nature to want to alleviate that suffering. Imagine how much happier and safer our world would be if we focused on the commonality of our feelings rather than the differences in our skin color, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status, or country of origin.

I don’t know how this Empathy Writing Project will translate in the real world. Whether my students will see the homeless person they pass every day with different eyes. If they will stand up for that girl being bullied, or feel motivated to join the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. What I do know is that there is an unmistakable shift in my classroom culture. My students are more than a collection of kids from different neighborhoods and lunch tables and social tribes;  they are a dynamic community of young people, who are not afraid to be honest, or vulnerable, or even cry sometimes, because they trust in the hearts of their classmates. This gives me hope, especially now in our increasingly divisive world. If a diverse group of adolescents—privileged and poor, popular and outcast, perfectly behaved and constantly in trouble, Black, White, Latino, Asian—can create a safe and loving community, shouldn’t we be able to as well?  It’s amazing what a little empathy can do: turn middle schoolers into role models for world peace.


About the Author:
Kelly Quayle is a career educator who has worked primarily in urban public schools in Oakland and the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area. As a social justice and youth activism teacher, she is a fervent believer in the power and promise of youth to affect positive societal change.  Kelly is co-author of the book Doing Good: Inspiring Activities for Young People to Make the World a Better Place. She holds a BA from Princeton University, a MEd from Stanford University, and an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. Kelly lives in the Bay Area with her wife and young son. 

Photo (top) by Lincoln County Health Department

Teachers & Writers Magazine

Teachers & Writers Collaborative: www.twc.org