Teaching empathy through role playing
Role playing allows students to place themselves in a vulnerable social position without any real threat or danger to themselves. Vicariously, they can explore areas of experience that are not available to them in their real lives. In a teaching situation, they are able to discuss the causes, pros and cons, and even the dangers and the advantages of lifestyles unlike their own. It is important that students are taught how to role play, and that teachers do not automatically expect students to do this successfully. Begin with small, easy scenarios and move to more difficult issues later. Provide opportunities for social interaction so that students begin to feel more comfortable and trust each other. Here are some suggestions:
(1) Choose as many students as needed to act out the scenario. (2) Students should hold the right to pass on scenarios that hit too closely to home but are expected to equally participate at other times. (3) Read the scenario and give your students about a minute to give it some thought. (4) Tell them, "Act out how you would react to this situation, but remember to look at it from your character's point of view and be that person." (5) Allow students a few minutes to act out the scene. Although it may seem as though some students are making poor decisions or not taking the matter seriously, they will learn valuable lessons as they evaluate the short- and long-term effects of their choices. You also may choose to pick other students to act out the same scene, but tell them that they must do it differently. Or you may choose to do a role reversal where the same students exchange roles immediately after they're completed their first scenario. These options get students thinking about how many choices they actually have when making personal decisions. (6) The rest of the class should pay close attention because their job, de-briefing, is next, and it is important to the success of role playing. De-briefing can be done in two ways: either ask the class to answer these questions verbally or on paper: How accurately do you think each character played his or her role? Explain what you liked or didn't like about the actors' choices and decisions. How might you have handled the situation differently? Have you ever been involved in a similar situation? How did you react? Place the problem in a different context (community, family, school). How would it change? What biases do you recognize? As you use these scenarios throughout the year, you can begin to bring up the words empathy, sympathy, bias and prejudice and discuss their meanings.
Role playing ideas: (1) Lucas, a Caucasian, is friends with Jeremy, the only African American student in his school. As they are walking to their class, another boy passing by mutters a racial slur under his breath but just loudly enough for them to hear. Act out how you think Lucas and Jeremy should handle this. (2) Maggie, a high school student, wants to try out for the wrestling team. When she arrives at tryouts, the coach is surprised. She suspects he secretly doesn't want her on the team because she's a girl. But she is determined to prove that she would be an asset to the team. At the end of the week, she knows that she did her best and deserved to be on the team. But when she looked at the list of those who had made the cut, Maggie is not on it. She decides to speak with the coach about the decision. Act out this conversation. (3) A deaf student has been in your class for two weeks now but you and your friend have noticed that no one has attempted to talk to her, even though she always has a translator with her. You ask your friend to approach this student with you but she seems really hesitant. Act out a conversation where you are trying to convince your friend to approach the deaf student.