Getting Students to Empathize

This weeks reading kept reminding me of my current 9th grade students, a group with so much diversity that I could not name all the countries/nationalities they embody, and the variety of responses and perspectives I get from them on our daily readings. From Ch. 4 in Understanding By Design, it states “we talk about seeing things form an interesting perspective, implying that complex ideas generate invariably and legitimately diverse points of view.” I found this to be reminiscent, not only of my students, but of Blau’s students in his book. When he sets his students into groups of three, with a secondary objective to make diverse groups, he was able to get a variety of perspectives which enabled each student to garner a varied understanding of the work. I did a similar task with my students and required the same sort of diverse groups as Blau. As the groups worked on their reading analysis I was able to overhear a variety of unique thoughts, but there was one group that just did not get it. Perhaps it was this concept of not having “sufficient respect and empathy” for the work that disabled their capacity to comprehend the reading. The most frequent response from this troubling group was their distaste for the subject; “who cares” and jokes about other student opinions seems to exemplify the lack of empathy, which prevents students from even beginning to develop an understanding of most literature.
The challenge with the group made me think about “backward design” and what my goal for the students really is. It is not the story I am trying to teach, it is the skill of reading comprehension and the transferability of that skill to future readings. So what value is there to selecting a single piece of literature for the entire class, especially if several students are clearly not interested in the same materials as their female peers? Even after considering the possible difficulties I may face, I decided it would be best for the students if they had some freedom in picking the literature for which they would be applying my objectives. I set up a bookshelf with seven different titles and my students will individually pick the title that best fits a subject with which they can empathize. My instruction will be generic regarding the methods, I will model with a piece unique from the collected titles, and students will be able to demonstrate the transfer of knowledge by applying those skills to a work which I have not discussed in class.
There is quite a bit more to this, but it seems to be a good start in a direction which will allow for diverse discussions, flexibility for the students, and differentiation of instruction.