In a special grant-funded class offered by UAA in 2001 -- the same year that the World Winter Games of the Special Olympics came to town -- high school students were encouraged to write with empathy. As a teacher, I hoped to help my students get "past the surface" and write about how other people might be thinking and feeling.
I soon discovered, however, that before we could get "past the surface," we had to get "to the surface." Students who felt comfortable writing about tangible objects and places, or writing about themselves, shied away from writing about other people, even at a superficial level. They felt awkward about watching or staring at people, especially other teens. They questioned the ethics of listening to other people's conversations in public places. When given the chance to interview someone their age, they didn't ask probing questions. Among this particular group of young students, self-consciousness was a barrier to candid, detailed writing.
Before we can be writers, we must learn to be keen observers. This requires looking (sometimes even "staring"), listening (sometimes even "eavesdropping" in public places to learn the cadences of dialogue), and reflecting. Here are some ways to practice observing:
- In the classroom, as a warm-up exercise, line up students in two parallel lines facing each other. Have line A face line B, and slowly look at the person opposite them, from head to foot. Then have line A turn around and change one thing about themselves -- part their hair on the opposite side, button up a shirt, remove a piece of jewelry, and so on. Have students face each other again and encourage students in line B try to pinpoint what their line A partner has changed. Then switch roles. Afterwards, ask students to free-write a detailed physical description about the person they were facing. They will be more candid if they know they don't have to share this description with other students.
- Listen to public conversations and sounds in a noisy, active place, such as a movie theater line, sports event, or lunchroom. Capture and record authentic fragments of dialogue. Pay attention to how people really talk, including the slang they use, their pauses or incomplete thoughts. Listen until you have enough dialogue to tell a story. Write a scene that tells that small story -- about the people, about the place, about this moment in time -- through the dialogue. What does dialogue capture that simple description does not?
Considering Perspectives, Examining Bias
As students become more skilled at observing, it is important to talk about the limits of superficial observations and to examine multiple perspectives. Here is where my students produced some of their strongest essays. Teens seem to excel at first-person writing. By encouraging them to write about how they feel the world has observed or assessed them (even falsely), they seem better prepared to carefully and fairly observe others.
- Free-write about a time when someone else misjudged you: a) based on your appearance (hair, fashion, skin color, body type) b) based on something you said and c) based on something you did. Spend at least 5 minutes on each (a, b, and c.) Then, choose the anecdote about which you feel most strongly and expand on it. Spend 15 or more minutes writing this anecdote in scene form, including dialogue, if desired.
- Write in detailed, scene form, for 10-15 minutes, about a time when someone made you angry. Now write this same scene from another perspective: from the perspective of the person who made you angry, or from the perspective of a neutral onlooker.
- Reflect on how the words we choose color how a reader "sees" and reacts to our writing. Even when we report factually, we put our own "spin" on the most basic descriptions. Pick any food and write about it in a way that will make the reader's mouth water. Now, without changing the facts (i.e. the food can't be spoiled now or different except in the writer's perception) describe the food so that it will make someone's stomach curdle. For example, "juicy" meat could also be truthfully described as "greasy" and a "silky" oyster might seem "slimy" to someone who doesn't like it. Use as many concrete, sensory details as possible.
- Describe a real person you know, from the imagined perspective of a) his or her best friend b) someone who is romantically interested in him or her and c) his or her parent. Try to capture the voice of the person doing the imagined describing (a mother talks about her son in one way, a girlfriend talks about him in a very different way) and consider how the same factual details of a person's life can be viewed through different lenses. Spend 5-10 minutes on each (a, b, and c.)
Ideally, to observe well and write with empathy, one should "step into another person's shoes" -- immerse oneself and even participate, for as long as possible, in the family life, work/school life and general subculture of the person or people being described. For most high school students, this is difficult to achieve. But even a short immersion can challenge perceptions and yield good writing.
Mature students will enjoy reading professional examples of immersion-style reporting in Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995).