Thursday, October 12, 2017

Teacher Profile: Teaching "Wonder," Teaching Empathy

Abby Beauchamp embraced by a group of students at 

By Jessica Simonson 

I have read Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my fifth graders as our very first read aloud for the last three years. It is an important book. As a children’s literature superfan, I’ve read thousands of picture books and novels, and Wonder stands out in its ability to connect with its young readers and communicate empathy. Studies show that empathy is an emotion that needs to be taught. It is a human trait found in our prefrontal cortex and is developed through experiences and conversations about “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”  I am comforted knowing that as I read Wonder to my students, I am helping them develop this very human emotion.

I also love that Wonder has provided a shared language to use with my students. I can encourage them to “be a Summer” which they know means: be the kid that finds someone who needs a friend. Reach out. Kindness can take a little bit of bravery because you are the one putting yourself out there, but it’s worth it!

This year, our read aloud was brought to the next level. We met a Wonder Kid! Abby Beauchamp, a 24 year-old who grew up with craniofacial differences came and met with our third through fifth graders at an assembly. I have never seen a group of 400 children so riveted. When Abby shared her story of how she was treated throughout her school career, you could see the shock on the faces of the children. When she told them that she ate lunch by herself in the bathroom stall for the better part of middle school, they were outraged. They were hurt for her. You could see empathy being developed in 400 little hearts and brains right before your very eyes. I was moved to tears. And to put things in perspective for you, I didn’t even cry during the movie Titanic! (And my thirteen year-old-self LOVED Leonardo DiCaprio with all my heart!)

Abby left the assembly feeling like a rock star which to her, was a very new experience! My kids left feeling like they had made a new BFF.  We all left knowing that next time we meet someone that looks different, we shouldn’t point or stare or whisper. We shouldn’t assume they have special needs. We just need to smile, shake their hand, and treat them like we would anyone else because really, they are just like us! All we need to do is change the way we see.

As one of my kids wrote in his thank you note to Abby, “you helped change our hearts and our minds, and I’ll make sure that no kid will ever feel like they need to eat lunch alone in a bathroom stall ever again.”  #ChooseKind

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