EmoEmpathy: Where there is Story, there is Power
To Teach Empathy in a World on the Margins
A racial slur was once graffitied upon the walls of my school. Many saw it. Some laughed, some averted their eyes. But no one did anything about it until a teacher at our school came across it. She was shocked, as one can imagine. Everything this person of color had worked for, to obtain a life free of discrimination seemed to crumble at that very moment. While most educators would have set up a condemning assembly to talk about how writing slurs is incredibly wrong, she took a different path. One we will never forget.
She approached every class that afternoon. Every single one. And she did something so simple, yet so phenomenal; she told us a story.
She told us about her life growing up, how racism had impacted almost every aspect of her growth; school, ballet class, friendships – the very essence of her being. About how hard she worked to attain, without privilege, a life most white people take for granted.
This story was not one read out of a book. It was personal. It was emotional. And as every single one us in that room heard this story, our hearts and minds connected.
While discrimination did not miraculously disappear, things changed. You could feel it. People began to listen, to think twice.
All through the power of story.
It was a turning point for me, birthing EmoEmpathy, a 3-point, 3-principle concept based on the teaching of sensitive education through personal storytelling and pathos. EmoEmpathy is a practice of education – a lense with which we teach. It is based on three types of “story” omnipresent within all education, and must be focussed on as we dissect and reevaluate our curriculums to ensure they fosters empathetic learning. They are; the stories we read ( compositional ), the story of life ( historical ), and our personal story ( emotional, sensitivity ).
EmoEmpathetic teaching looks like this.
Step 1: To re-evaluate and expand our literary curriculums; the stories we read.
From just teaching the predominantly white literary canon, to including the voices of the marginalized, PoC, LGBTQ+
Step 2: To Re-evaluate and expand the perspectives with which we teach history; the story of life.
From teaching the history of slavery from the perspectives of just one party, to the perspectives, histories and experiences of all involved parties.
Step 3: To teach sensitive subjects via both objective and emotional means; our personal story. Teaching concepts such as racial injustice through personal storytelling, to share experiences, and make use of human vulnerability, just like my teacher did. Storytelling – the most powerful form of communication.
Storytelling is an ancient, time-tested tool. Yes, it has always existed. Yet, rarely ever is it used to teach empathy in an educational context. Why?
Scientific studies such as that conducted by Uri Hasson in Neuroscience proves, through Neural Coupling, that our brains react uniquely to stories. Upon hearing a story, our brain reaches a cognitive state known as ignition, also known as engagement. As humans, the cognitive state of neural ignition enables us to better comprehend and break down concepts and proceed to make connections, something that is critical in education. What this means, is that our brains are physically able to better function when we are taught via means of story – that verbal stories heighten our ability to comprehend and learn much more than lists, paragraphs, or any other kind of verbal presentation.
Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-14430. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107.
Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the way we teach, not via an objective lens, but an emotional one.
When we begin to put our educational institutions and real-world society side by side, we realize that schools are indeed microcosmic reflections of real world society. The parallels are astonishing. Our authority figures – governments, prime ministers, presidents, kings and queens, are at school our teachers, headmasters and staff. The “people”, who in the real world comprise of the rule followers and general economy-fueling citizens, are at school, our students, within whom the intricacies of social hierarchies and cliques naturally follow. The list of parallels could go on forever. When we begin to observe the correlations between school and the real world, we can understand that the significance of a school extends much farther than just the sole teaching of math, or english, but that schools serve as simulators to prepare us for living and collaborating in a society. Thus, if we want to raise culturally intelligent, empathetic leaders of tomorrow, we need to ensure that the reflection we produce within our schools is one of an ideal world. If that is a world of cultural and racial inclusion, a world free of the margins we face today, then that is the world we must reflect within our schools. For to make change out there, we must begin by making change in here, within our schools. That begins with what we teach and how we teach it.
Education is the foundation of life as we know it. With story-based EmoEmpathetic teaching, let’s create a world where no more little girls, no children, no men, or women feel cheated by their education – like I did.
So don’t tell your students what to, or not to do. The eternal prejudices of man cannot be understood objectively like 1,2,3 lists of mathematical equations. Tell them a story. Get your students to share experiences, and for just a minute, be vulnerable. Connect with one another. For our emotions are intrinsic qualities that define the human-kind, thus, don’t be afraid to use them. They are powerful.
So what are we waiting for? It’s time to tell a story.
“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” – Mary Catherine Bateson
“Where there is a story, there is the power to teach” – Mehar Suri
- Hasson, Uri, et al. “Speaker–Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful
Communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the
United States of America, 26 July 2010. National Centre for Biotechnology
Information, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107. Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.
- “How To Use Storytelling To Effectively Market Your Brand | Brand Marketing”. Echovme – Blog, 2017, https://echovme.in/blog/use-storytelling-effectively-market-brand/. Accessed 9 Apr 2021.
- Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-14430. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107. Accessed 9 Apr 2021.
Mehar Suri is a 16 year old ethnic-Indian global citizen studying at the International School of Amsterdam. Working with organizations such as the Anne Frank Huis, Stories that Move and AIELOC (Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color ), she is passionate about searching for and developing anti-discrimination tools in education. The founder of Care4buddies, a 45 member animal welfare organization founded in 2016, she is a lover of animals and a big advocate of vegetarianism. She is credited with the development of the principle EmoEmpathy.