Empathy…until the cows come home

When people ask you what the most important thing to teach a child is, how do you respond? I (jmf) have heard some school librarians answer:
teaching young people how to read;
+ how to be curious about the world around them; or
+ how to communicate.
A rare response for me to hear is empathy. For the purposes of this post, we are defining empathy as an ability to experience the emotional state of others and then respond with moral sensitivity (Allen, 1975; Goldstein & Winner, 2012).

I (jmf) have seen very few school library conference sessions centered around professional empathy or empathy education for young people. While our professional literature highlights collection materials for purchase related to empathy, only a few trailblazers have published their work related to empathy (Kehret, 2001; Perrault & Levesque, 2012; Stripling, 2012; Hassig, 2012). Most school librarians find benefits in teaching young people about empathy. But do our philosophical claims match our professional practice?

Recently, I (jmf) asked urban elementary school students to write down ways in which they have showed empathy for someone who was experiencing grief. Here are a few of the written responses students in grades 2-4 shared with me:


The majority of children listed gifts of  financial significance as their way to show empathy, while others considered gifts of sacrifice (giving something of their own that the grieving person may enjoy). The next most common responses were related to physical touch (i.e. hugging or holding) and acts of service (going to funerals; remembering; or undefined, vague ways of “helping”). A smaller group of students listed communicating with/for the grieving person (e.g., letter writing or speaking words of blessing/prayer). Spending quality time with those in grief never appeared in the students’ responses. Close to 5% of students chose to not respond at all, perhaps because they were unsure of what empathy was or found it difficult to recall a circumstance when they expressed empathy.

While there is great import on teaching young people what we call person-to-person empathy or local empathy, this is not our only responsibility. As school librarians who are internationally minded, we must also teach young people about global empathy. How do we create guided inquiry projects related to international events that engender empathy (if at all)? How do we teach the ways in which nations productively respond to national grief (if at all)? In the paragraphs below, we share two examples of ways in which nations respond empathetically and productively to national (even international) grief.

Example (1) The Maasai Show Empathy for the United States of America

A seldom-discussed, but very moving example of empathy between nations, was demonstrated by the Maasai people in the wake of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. A semi-nomadic ethnic group in Eastern Africa, most of the Maasai had never heard of skyscrapers or a faraway place called New York City. But when they learned of the heart-rending stories of the collapse of towers of the World Trade Center, and of the thousands of lives lost, their empathy for the grieving people of the United States was profound.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 12.05.24 PMAs a deep expression of their sympathy for America’s great sadness, the Maasai, people of modest means who live off the land, gave the most sacred gift to the United States that they possessed: cows. They gave the very cows they needed to help them survive in their harsh environment in order to provide comfort to the people of the United States. 14 cows to be exact, presented to the United States Embassy official who came from Nairobi, as the Maasai elders chanted blessings.

These seemingly ordinary people made an extraordinary gesture and in doing so, lifted the spirits of those who were touched by it and ennobled the suffering and sacrifice of the scores of thousands directly involved in or affected by the events of September 11, 2001. The picture book, 14 Cows for America retells this beautiful story of empathetic response to national grief (Deedy, Naiyomah, Kimeli, & Gonzalez, 2009)

Example (2) The National Park Service’s National Memorial for Flight 93

While the United States’ national responses to the attacks of September 11th has not always been remembered as productiveScreen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.08.19 PM, the Federal Government has financially supported the National Park Service’s efforts to create a memorial that encourages empathy and productive expressions of grief. The memorial allows visitors to reflect on the 40 passengers and crew on the United Airlines Flight 93, one of the four planes hijacked that day. The passengers and crew were seemingly ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Their extraordinary resourcefulness and bravery brought down their hijacked flight on that day in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Their acts prevented their plane from reaching and crashing into its intended destination, believed to be the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The Flight 93 National Memorial hallows the ground in a Pennsylvania farm field where the flight fell to Earth, and today marks the spot with public spaces to:
(1) express empathy for those affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11th;
(2) reflect at a solemn memorial;
(3) experience a remembrance tour (including a cell phone tour that can be accessed as distance education);
(4) listen to over 800 oral histories of people connected to the Flight;
(5) observe webcams; and
(6) tour the National Park Service Visitor’s Center.
Programs and resources are being developed to help children and educators to better understand what happened in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and in the skies above on September 11, 2001.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.10.40 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.09.57 PM

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Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 1.04.20 PM

These are two stories of productive responses to national grief, in which empathy is a foundation for action.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 6.07.30 PMIf your students hear both stories, they may ask questions such as, Where are the Maasai cows now? Are they grazing in the Pennsylvania field next to the Flight 93 Memorial? Or are they in an enclosure in New York City’s Central Park? Or perhaps they are in an open field on the grounds of The Pentagon, another of the locations hit by a hijacked plane on that fateful day? As it turns out, the cows were never accepted for shipment into the United States. Officials at the State Department decided that logistical obstacles and the costs of shipping would exceed the value of the herd. The Maasai continue to watch over the herd in Kenya, where it has grown larger and where they are still tended today for Americans.

Is there another lesson in these stories of global empathy? Would your students believe that the United States showed Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 12.55.56 PMappropriate global gratitude to the Maasai people in deciding that the cost of shipping the herd was too high to justify receiving their gift in our country? Do students feel as if the degree to which an act of empathy causes them inconvenience should be part of their consideration as to how they respond or accept the act?

We challenge you to glance back over your “most important things” to teach students during the 2015-2016 school year. How will local and global empathy appear in your inquiry units? Or perhaps it is the concept of global gratitude that fits with your co-teaching plans? Whatever your approach, we hope you’ll be in touch to share the ways you are approaching these topics of global significance in your library classrooms. And never hesitate to contact the rangers at National Park Service sites to collaborate with you.


Until the cows come home,

~jmf and Vaughn Nuest

Authors’ note: All images, unless otherwise stated, are property of the United States National Park Service.


Allen, R. (1975). But the earth abideth forever: Values in environmental education “etc.” In J. R. Meyer, B. Burnham, and J. Cholvat (Eds.), Values education: Theory/practice/problems/prospects (pp. 1-24). Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Deedy, C. Agra, Naiyomah, W. Kimeli, & Gonzalez, T. (2009). 14 cows for America. Atlanta, Ga.: Peachtree Publishers.

Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2012). Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind. Journal Of Cognition And Development, 13(1), 19-37.

Hassig, R. (2012). “Harmony with Voice:” Poetry with Purpose. School Library Monthly, 28(6), 9-11.

Kehret, P. (2001). Encouraging Empathy. School Library Journal, (8).

Perrault, A. M., & Levesque, A. M. (2012). Caring for All Students: Empathic Design as a Driver for Innovative School Library Services and Programs. Knowledge Quest, 40(5), 16-17.

Stripling, B. K. (2012). Fostering Empathy: Who Cares?. School Library Monthly, 28(4), 20-22.


Author: Julie Marie Frye

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Thank you for your interest in Flight 93 National Memorial and including us in your article. We currently have a children’s Junior Ranger program in place here at the memorial that is targeted to the site’s Memorial Plaza area. It targets children ages 6-12 through activities designed to be completed during a park visit. Participants then share their answers with a Ranger and receive a Junior Ranger badge and certificate.

    Flight 93 National Memorial is embarking on an exciting year in our growth as a park with the upcoming dedication of a new Visitor Center in the park. We have not had a visitor center here since the park’s creation in 2001. We will be updating our Junior Ranger program booklets to incorporate exhibits in the visitor center. We are also dedicating a Learning Center on September 10, 2015, which will allow us to offer educational program to audiences of all ages, and even begin to explore distance learning with future programming here on site. As part of our learning through distances program offerings, the Friends of Flight 93 are currently developing an Online Companion, which will reside on their website at http://www.flight93friends.org/learning-center. Park Rangers and subject experts are writing articles to augment the exhibits and serve as a resource for teachers throughout the world. These articles will provide more in-depth, accurate information about the events that led up to the September 11 terrorist attacks, what we discovered through investigations, and where we are today, Post 9/11. Online visitors will also be able to learn more about items and artifacts from our collection that are on exhibit in the Visitor Center. We are currently in the planning and development stages for on-site program offerings, and I encourage you and the school librarians to continue to check on our website for program listings. Once the building is open, we are looking forward to connecting with educators through curriculum-based programming, in-service workshops and guest speakers in the Learning Center at Flight 93 National Memorial.

  2. I am so thrilled that Dr. Frye cited my piece about empathy in her article! I’m a MS librarian in an affluent KC suburb and we won ALA’s Sara Jaffarian Award for Exemplary Humanities Programs in 2010. Ms. Jaffarian felt, as I do, that the library is the perfect place for fostering empathy. (I like your word better Dr. Frye – because we’re not “teaching” empathy). For the past 10 years we have collaborated with our 7th grade ELA teachers on a poetry unit. I contacted an Afr. Am. poet, Boni Lynn Tolson, and she shared her book “Naturally Nappy” and taught students her writing technique. The students read their poems aloud to their peers and we printed a poetry book. The student poems were good. But when we decided to step outside our box, and their bubble, and work with a woman’s homeless shelter, the poems became insightful, thought-provoking, and empathetic – poetry with a purpose! Then we added technology. Student poets began blogging with student artists in our district and the artists created bowls to represent the poems! Last year 7 schools participated! Finally, we sold the poems/bowls at a community auction and all proceeds went back to the shelter.
    Boni and I reflect every year about the amazing strides we are making with our students and the community. We’re even publishing a book about SOUP (Service Opportunities Using Poetry). Together we’ve learned so much. Having the homeless ladies speak about their situations is crucial to the student’s finished poems and bowls. We make sure the shelter brings a diverse group so that students can’t stereotype the homeless. Vital to ensuring empathy is the student’s understanding that “Yes, you are being kind and generous by writing your poems and creating your bowls for those less fortunate than yourselves. But even more important, the ladies have shared their stories with you, and now that story has become part of your story. Your heart has grown and you are forever changed by these lessons.” Can a more meaningful gift be given? Students win, the shelter wins, and the library wins!

  3. MaryJane,

    Thanks for reaching out and letting us know more about your plans and dreams for the Flight 93 National Memorial. We look forward to collaborating with you!


  4. Ronda,

    Your work reminds me of an important lesson: when you have a good thing going, build on it. This amazing project of yours continues to evolve…10 years in the making! Awesome!

    Have you done any evaluations to gauge the short term or long term impact of the project? It sounds like you have qualitative data or perhaps informal reflections of students. In addition to your article and book you’ve written, I could see the qualitative/quantitative data from students participating in your project being of great interest to school librarians. I’d be happy to work with you on this… if you’re still building this aspect of the project and have interest. Seriously, what if your students graduate from high school and pursue degrees in social work or non-profit management at higher rates…because the project not only altered their perspectives, but also changed their life’s course? Talk about library IMPACT! ;) I’m not sure if we could isolate the project variable, but I bet the CLASS research summit folks would have some ideas!

    I can’t wait to read your soon-to-be-published book to learn more. Thank you and Boni, too, for caring about fostering students’ empathy.


  5. Julie,
    I was so pleased to read your blog about the importance of empathy. I think it’s important for our students to move beyond sympathy (feeling sorry for someone else) to empathy (understanding the beliefs, attitudes and actions of another from the other’s perspective rather than from one’s own). Both your blog post and the comments offer powerful examples of empathy,

    I learned from my research on empathy that context is a necessary ingredient. I think we have always known this as school librarians. If we expect students to understand and empathize with the perspectives of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, then we need to be sure that students are reading background information that represents multiple perspectives. Students need to understand what was actually going on if they are to understand why soldiers behaved as they did.

    The need for context may be even more important today in our global world of information. Our students will form judgments based on their own impressions of other cultures unless we ensure that they have accurate contextual information and the skills to probe beyond the surface chatter on the web or social media. Our responsibility, as school librarians, is to enable students to take an empathetic stance in the world through our teaching, guidance, and modeling.

    I believe that, once students learn how to empathize, they are propelled to take action. The examples above illustrate the direct path from empathy to action. My goal is that every student develops both the capacity for empathy and the responsibility to act. Our work, as school librarians, empowers our students to be independent, empathetic, and responsible participants in the world.

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