Build Empathy With R.J. Palacio's Wonder
A Characterization Project
What can I say about R.J. Palacio's masterpiece that hasn't already been preached? Wonder is simply one of those books that imprints on your heart and forever alters your life. If you've read it, you know exactly what I mean. And if you haven't, get off the Internet right now and go read it. You won't regret it, I promise!
I am not exaggerating when I say that reading Wonder changed my life. It shifted my perspective and opened my heart to a new understanding. When I finished the book I was utterly speechless. In a mere 300 pages, I gained empathy not only for the bullied but also for the bully. I stepped into the role of friend and bystander and saw that everything isn't black and white. And most profoundly, I encountered the power of kindness in Summer and learned that kindness always wins (Here's my precept for Summer ⇒"Even if hate has a bullhorn love is louder!" ~ Kid President).
Tool for Building Empathy
As soon as I finished Wonder, I started brainstorming with Kalie (my school counselor) how we could use it to cultivate empathy at our school. Our school's theme was (and is once again) "Building an Identity to be Proud of" and we both agreed that empathy is the foundation of a positive identity. It is only from empathy that we learn how to be kind, show respect, and learn to love. From this conversation, grew the task of having all 350ish of our students read Wonder and take part in a school-wide empathy building project* (it could also be done in a single classroom). The project I am about to share is what we created.
After reading Wonder, each class (groups of 15-20 students) was assigned a character. Charlotte, a.k.a. the Bystander was assigned to my group. The object was for my students to dive deep into Charlotte's character. The first step was to define Charlotte's character traits. Students made a list of all her positive and negative attributes. As they shared, they gave evidence from the text to support their findings. After students clearly define Charlotte's identity, they fill out and decorated a blank characterization card (⇑). Then I took the list of character traits and created a centerpiece for their poster (⇓).
Discovering Character Point of View
Next, students stepped into Charlotte's point of view and wrote in her voice. Students could create a poem, journal entry, screenplay, or comic strip to depict Charlotte's point of view on her first day of school with Auggie. The goal was for me to read their work and hear Charlotte, not my student. This girl simply blew me away...
Words to Live By
The final piece of the poster was to write personal precepts. Building on Mr. Browne's teachings, students were asked to write or find a guiding precept (or as R.J. Palacio says, words to live by). Students were then required to write a precept and share his/her rationale on a blank postcard. Here's one of the examples I shared:
After each class finished their posters and put them up in the hall, the final aspect of the project was a gallery walk. With a reflection worksheet in hand, students walked through the hallways observing and reading their classmates' posters, peering into the hearts and minds of other characters. Post gallery walk, my class took some time to discuss the questions on the worksheet.
And that's was our empathy building project. Auggie's story is one-of-a-kind and I encourage each and every one of you to read and discuss this book with your students. The empathy built while reading this story is priceless! Let me leave you with this amazing R.J. Palacio quote:
“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”
― R.J. Palacio, Wonder
P.S. If you like this post, check out this post about fostering belonging in your classroom!
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A middle school health teacher turned curriculum developer (and #WAHM). I'm on a mission to share the easiest-to-teach, most impactful health lesson plans on the Internet. Because your time and energy is better spent on teaching and connecting, not on planning and prep.