MY STORY Empathy Day’s literacy challenge

he first ever National Empathy Day is on June 13,
created by EmpathyLab, a new organisation started by Miranda McKearney OBE who founded The Reading Agency to confront the social issues created by low literacy and to enhance the role of the public library in the community.
She ran it for 12 years but has now launched EmpathyLab
to explore how empathy, literature and social action
working together can improve the lives of 4-to-11 year-olds, and build stronger communities.

What will happen on Empathy Day?

The DAY highlights empathy’s importance in our divided world, and the power of stories to develop it. There is a #ReadforEmpathy social media campaign – everyone sharing books that help us understand other people better. Plus a free downloadable Empathy Reading Guide, with 21 “must read” books for 4-11 year olds.

Flagship events around the country feature authors talking about the power of empathy and sharing with children how they create empathetic characters. They include media presenters Gemma Cairney and Katie Thisleton, and children’s authors Cathy Cassidy, Jo Cotterill, Elizabeth Laird, Alan MacDonald, Ross Montgomery and Tamsyn Murray.

What is EmpathyLab and what are its aims?

EmpathyLab’s mission is to harness the power of stories to bring about an empathy revolution in homes, schools and communities. We’re a start-up, aiming to create a new national children’s empathy programme.

With hate crimes and cyber-bullying on the rise, we want to make the world a better place by equipping our children with stronger empathy skills. In three years’ time we want thousands more 4-11 year olds to understand the importance of empathy, and be putting it into action.

What influenced you to start EmpathyLab?

I “retired” from The Reading Agency to go trekking and spend less time on the 7.48 to Waterloo. But I also wanted to explore the fascinating research showing that reading fiction builds real-life empathy.

Four colleagues, who have now become EmpathyLab’s founders, were as fascinated as me. In 2014 we started reading, and meeting, and searching out experts who could tell us more. As well as learning more about how reading builds empathy, we heard from psychologists that empathy is an especially key strength from the basket of social and emotional competencies children need to thrive. They welcomed strategies to develop it using literature. We tested our initial ideas at South Bank Centre Think-In, and got a major thumbs up, especially from teachers who said they were increasingly worried about the impact of social media on children’s ability to empathise.

How do literature and the concept of empathy work together?

An exciting body of neuroscience research is proving that reading builds our understanding of how other people
feel and think - what psychologists call “theory of mind”. Scientists say that our brains react to fictional worlds
as if they were real, and the empathic emotions we feel
for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people. This has major implications for how society uses books with children, because it means that they can build their reading and empathy skills at the same time.

We produce tools which help children take a different pathway through a text, focusing more on characters and their dilemmas and feelings than on the plot, and using lots of drama and immersive activities so they can really feel, and name, the emotions of the characters.

You have a group of EmpathyLab pioneer primary schools. Where are they and how are they experimenting?

We’re working with 14 very different schools across the country, from Sheffield to the New Forest. With them, working individually and as a group, we’re testing our approach and sharing the learning from having a sharper empathy focus.

EmpathyLab provides input from psychology and literacy academics; a conceptual framework and creative ideas and resources. We work with headteachers on strategy and many are changing the school development plan to embed an empathy focus. Teachers and parents are introduced to the psychology of empathy and the research showing how reading is empathy-boosting. Then children are taught the meaning of empathy
in assemblies and circle time, and teachers give a new empathy focus to reading and writing. Pupil-led activities include Empathy BookSpotters, with teams recommending great empathy texts; Empathy Awards where the whole school votes for the most empathic book character, and Empathy Detectives, a club investigating issues like homelessness through stories. Parents might attend an Empathy Reading Café.

You have produced an evaluation of what they have done to date. What does it say and how can their findings influence other schools across the country?

EmpathyLab’s experimental, pro-bono work with the pioneer schools has yielded stronger results than we anticipated. The report is at schools. Embedding EmpathyLab’s approach into
the School Development Plan and subtly refocusing teaching and whole school activities can impact positively on: children’s pleasure in reading and their literacy and empathy skills; teachers and parents’ skills and understanding of the child; schools’ community connections. It can build pupils’ understanding of social issues and fuel their desire to put empathy into action.

This was EmpathyLab’s first major “proof of concept” step. Our partners tell us that a more systematic, funded programme has enormous potential to build children’s empathy skills, wellbeing, literacy and social activism. Our approach of combining stories, empathy and social action gives schools a framework for achieving different priorities simultaneously. Vitally, in can be fused into normal school activities, so it is not a bolt on, or yet one more thing to do.

What will your pioneer schools be doing on Empathy Day?

EmpathyLab’s pioneer schools will be running wonderfully creative whole school empathy-focused events.

In Great Yarmouth children at Moorlands Primary Academy are focusing on refugees, working with author Elizabeth Laird whose book Welcome to Nowhere was researched in Syrian refugee camps. Then the children want to mount a sleep-out to raise money for the Mandala Trust in Syria.

At Shef eld’s Beck Primary School children are voting on Empathy Awards for book characters showing exceptional empathy; their choices will be announced by visiting authors Cathy Cassidy and Alan MacDonald.

St Michael’s in Rochdale is also presenting Empathy Awards. CBBC presenter Katie Thisleton will visit
to talk to the children about empathy, and ask
for their ideas in answering letters from
children who write to Katie about their problems. The letters and Katie’s answers
will be published in Dear Katie in 2018.

How did the role of libraries in our communities change after you started the Reading Agency?

Libraries really embraced their role in promoting reading, offering a lively, social mix of reading groups, author events and other creative, community based activities. The Reading Agency contributed, with other

charities and researchers, to a growing understanding of the importance of children enjoying reading if they are to become fluent readers. The charity worked with national library organisations and individual local authorities to help libraries join forces to run big reading for pleasure programmes across the UK library network. The biggest of these was the Summer Reading Challenge, which has become a huge magnet for primary aged children, with hundreds of thousands taking part each year. It is libraries’ biggest and most successful shared marketing programme. Research shows its impact on children’s reading enjoyment, frequency and range.

How have they changed since you left in 2013?

Libraries have been entrepreneurial in developing their national role, focusing on universal offers to the public. They have strengthened their health and digital roles, with powerful developments such as Books on Prescription, coding clubs and Makerspaces. Together, they also focus on particular needs – for instance they have recently launched an Autism Friendly Libraries strategy.

Locally, libraries are under major pressure from budget cuts, and work to maximise capacity by working with partners like Children’s Centres.

How is EmpathyLab working with libraries?

We’re at the very start of the relationship. After several workshops with national library bodies, it was clear that there was a real appetite for this work, and for Empathy Day. We’re very excited to be taking our first formal steps.

We’re delighted that seven library services are testing activities for #EmpathyDay this year - Essex, St Helens, Sheffield, Libraries Unlimited (Devon), North Tyneside, Hampshire and Sandwell. These include empathy book displays, green screen selfies with recommended empathy books and events. Essex is running an after- school story challenge focusing on the different perspectives of squabbling crayons in the book The day the crayons quit.

Are schools using public libraries enough, and are libraries making satisfactory contact with schools?  

The picture is enormously varied, so it’s not easy to answer this. So much depends on staf ng capacity, and sadly there are fewer specialist children’s librarians as library cuts come into effect. In many areas there is strong partnership working during the Summer Reading Challenge, in others, the schools library service plays an important linking role.

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