Empathizing with the Many Voices of the Past:

Two Teachers Help Their Students Connect with United States History


Elaine Metherall Brenneman

For those of us who are fascinated by United States history, student cries of “boring” and “meaningless” are unsettling and, perhaps, somewhat puzzling. Within the study of history, many of us see a kind of symmetry between past and present, a story of social relationships built over time.1 We believe an understanding of history informs our own thoughts and actions, as well as the collective social and political landscape. Helping our students see and feel these temporal connections is our dearest wish as we plan our class time.

In our search, we try out new resources and innovative methods in order to involve our students as historians in the interpretation of past events. We may “ham up” our presentations or offer activities supposed to be “fun.” Yet, even if our students seem to be enjoying our classes, many of us are still left with questions about what they are actually learning. In other words, we still ask, “How can I help my students find connections between past events, people, and social contexts in a way that helps them to carry their understandings into their own lives?”2 Or, more succinctly, “How can I help my students reflect upon the potential lessons of history?”

To explore these questions, I undertook study of the work of two teachers regarded as exemplary by students, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators. At the time of the study, Ruth taught eighth grade in a middle school in a diverse working class/middle class school district outside a large city. She had been teaching for six years since completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history education. Mary had four years of experience teaching tenth grade students in a high school whose student body consisted of mostly white, suburban middle class students. She received her bachelor’s degree in history education from a small liberal arts college. For a year and one-half, I interviewed each teacher about her philosophy, goals, and practices. I observed in their classrooms, talked to their students, spoke with their colleagues, and examined their curricula, materials, and resources.

While Ruth and Mary differed in some of their goals and practices, they shared an unswerving commitment to the importance of developing meaningful connections between the history they taught and the lives of their students. This commitment wore a variety of faces. Both chose resources of interest to students, involved students in curricular decisions, and provided activities that allowed students to explore historical meaning from many perspectives. The central goal of each was to teach students to empathize with diverse people from the past in order to increase their understanding and promote personal reflection. They used this approach as a way to increase understanding and promote personal reflection. In Mary’s words:

I think a big part of any social studies curriculum is teaching people to respect all kinds of people. I think social history talks about what happens to the common person, what happens to all kinds of people in society. I try to ask students to put themselves in a lot of people’s positions ... the position of a farmer in the Dust Bowl, a Sioux at Wounded Knee, one of the pioneers. We look at things from a lot of different perspectives and try to carry that into today.

Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another, in either the past or present.”3 Its use in the history classroom is not new. In some ways, United States history instruction has always done this by encouraging students to emulate heroes.4 In Ruth’s and Mary’s classes, however, teaching history went beyond the simple narration of an accepted set of heroic stories. As one of Mary’s students described it, “Many times I’ve been struck by the feeling that this would have actually been me, not just me looking at those people over there, it actually would have been me.”

It is important to note that neither used empathy to explain away or excuse anyone’s actions. For example, the purpose of exploring slave owners’ perspectives was not to justify slavery, but to show students how circumstances can sometimes make moral decisions difficult. The question was not whether slavery was justified by the social circumstances of the times (it was not), but rather, “How would I have acted in that situation?” and further, “How do I think and act now in ways that perpetuate discrimination?” Fostering understanding through empathy does not mean sympathizing with untenable moral positions, but discovering that making decisions based on values has always been complicated.5 After all, isn’t that what we want our children to learn—how to make ethical decisions in the face of social complexity?

To look at how Ruth and Mary fostered empathy in their classrooms, this article explores two aspects of their teaching in greater detail. The first aspect is their presentation of history as a collection of diverse stories. The second is their use of social themes to pull together these stories into meaningful and connected lessons.


Fostering Empathy through Stories

A teacher’s values and perspectives on the subject matter greatly influence her practice.6 Mary’s and Ruth’s instructional goals reflected their strong interests in social history, or the stories of people. For both, these stories created an important lens through which to reinterpret the given curriculum. They told personal stories about famous people, about common people, and about those who were oppressed, using them to help reveal the underlying reasons for political change. They told stories about themselves, their families, and their friends, and they encouraged students to do the same. Both used narrative extensively in their practice, believing that multiple and detailed perspectives provide better understandings of past events.7 As Ruth commented, “History is human. Learning it has to be human.”

Ruth offered two reasons for telling varied stories of history to her eighth grade classes. The first was pragmatic; she told stories because they made class more interesting and she felt students would learn more if they were engaged. The second reason was related to her view of learning—that students could better understand history if it was taught in a way that connected with their previous knowledge and experiences. “Connections” was a word used very often in her class. In practice, this meant engaging students in activities such as examining primary sources, writing letters and stories, presenting dramas, building collages, and drawing. Many of these activities were teacher directed, as Ruth felt this was developmentally appropriate for her students.

One of her favorite approaches was sentence stems. In this activity, she gave students a sentence fragment to complete in short essay form. For example:

Early explorers are like rock musicians because ...

The Revolutionary War is like a divorce because ...

Artifacts are important to history because ...

In another writing activity, she asked students to respond to the idea that history is written by the winners, who often choose to ignore their own violence and emphasize instead the violence of the losers.

Mary wanted her students to connect with United States history at a deeper critical and analytical level. It was not enough for them to understand that there were different views of history; it was important for them to examine contradictory points of view and underlying ideologies in detail.8 She began the year by asking each student to write an account of the first school pep rally and following up with a class discussion. Some students said the rally was worthwhile, many said it was “stupid,” and others were indifferent. Mary had the group speculate as to why they wrote such differing accounts of the event. Next, students read five varying interpretations involving the Bill of Rights and analyzed them in a similar way. As she commented,

For students to become critical readers, they need to have an understanding that on a personal level we all see things differently. You can give students a primary source which is very important, but it’s also important to give them interpretations of that source and say “this is how it was viewed.” That is where they’re having such a hard time, it is such an important but hard concept. They’re struggling, but in the long run they will start to see it, and ask, “What perspective is this person writing from?”

Mary wanted to show her students that who writes history is just as important as what is written.9 She constantly reminded her students to challenge interpretations of history, including what she herself said in the classroom:

At the beginning of the year we talk about bias in history. I tell them that everyone who writes history books and everyone who teaches history, no matter what, everybody has an agenda they want to get across. Part of my agenda comes from the district and part comes from myself and who I am.


Fostering Empathy through Social Themes

Both teachers in this study love United States history and view it as full of significant and relevant meaning for the present day. While both arranged their courses chronologically, they planned their units (eras) around broad themes grounded in past and contemporary social issues.

Ruth provided experiences that encouraged her students to reflect on social issues by exploring the lives of many different people. While she had a variety of approaches, she often used structured discussions (teacher questions/student answers) and written responses as stepping stones to her goals. This sometimes involved a review of the previous day’s discussion to begin class. For example:

Ruth: What did the Declaration of Independence do?

(A number of hands are raised and Ruth calls on one student.)

Student 1: Declared war.

Ruth: Each man that signed the Declaration of Independence ... what was he doing?

Student 2: Signing a death warrant.

Ruth: Yes, if you were caught as a traitor what would happen to you?

Student 3: Death by hanging.

Ruth was asking her students to see the signing of the Declaration of Independence not as a hallowed act but as a radical and risky venture. She followed up with a voting simulation in which students chose for or against signing the Declaration. After students on each side made their case, Ruth pointed out that “it is easy for us to be lighthearted about our voting and think of this as a fun activity” as compared with the probable feelings of the signers in this tense situation. Moreover, she encouraged students to think about not only the influential men who signed the document, but the many others who had to make their own decisions about joining the rebellion or staying loyal to the king. As she told me later,

I do that a lot, make comments on the side, like “you don’t have to worry about it because you are free, this is just something we are doing in a classroom.” I want them to think about the fact that if you were a person standing outside Carpenter Hall, and your whole future depended on what was going on inside, you weren’t free. These people didn’t know if they would get killed because they were traitors. What if they didn’t win the war? Lives were at stake here.

How ordinary people made choices and who had the freedom to choose were social themes frequently considered in Ruth’s classes. And, while she did not back away from difficult social issues, she often used individual written responses and called on volunteers only in classroom discussions, as a way to help students express their feelings about events. She believed this could be safer for middle school students.

I came in, shut off all the lights, and had them get out their notebooks and write “slavery” at the top of the page, followed by “whatever comes to your mind, write it down.” I didn’t make any comments about what they wrote as I called on various people. It was very emotional for some people. In my first class, I have one black girl who is an absolute doll, and one of her words was “nigger.” Nobody said anything, I didn’t say anything, but you could see people welling up with tears and they got the point; there is a lot of racism and they are sensitive to it. It was good, that emotional response. Then I read some primary source readings from To Be A Slave. Some of the kids were in tears; they had a hard time with it. Then, because slavery has different meanings to different people, and because their ways of coming to terms with it differ, I had them each do a collage.

This activity seemed to create a powerful experience for Ruth’s eighth graders. Using both the words of slaves and the students’ own thoughts, Ruth enabled her classes to empathetically reflect on the social themes of oppression and discrimination. Ruth stated that, with an emotionally charged issue, it was better to allow students to hear each other’s ideas but to process them on their own.

Mary’s consistent focus on social concerns created an atmosphere within her tenth grade classes that was questioning and critical. A favorite activity for both teacher and students was a four-day simulation of a company town from the early industrial age. The teacher owned the factory, all the housing, and the store. The students were her workers. They labored for less than a living wage and tried to survive within the very limited parameters of the teacher-owned town. According to Mary, most of her classes formed unions and attempted to bargain collectively with the teacher. As she pointed out,

The goal is that they eventually start to unionize. My second period class walked out by the end. I don’t think any of them ever forget being workers in that company town, they refer back to it often.

Mary allowed students to discover collective action on their own using this simulation. And, although she recreated the frustrations inherent in the situation, she did not let unions become either the panacea or the unproblematic answer to these problems. Throughout the activity, she broke the student attempts to form unions, employed child labor, and raised living costs in response to unionization. Students considered the effects of industrialization on both 1920s prosperity and the Great Depression. And they discussed the exclusionary nature of unionism as well as capitalism.

In a different activity, Mary assigned students to read the short story “Blue Winds Dancing” by Thomas Whitecloud, a Native American who decided to leave the Carlisle Indian School and return to his reservation. The students spent the first half of the class period discussing various issues the story raised about cultural assimilation. Mary then referred to three questions she had asked them to think about individually:

1. What shapes your identity?

2. What is the problem of identity faced by White Cloud in this story? What creates this problem? How is it resolved?

3. If you were in White Cloud’s position, what things would make you want to stay on the reservation? Why would you want to go to a white school? Which do you think you would do and why?

Mary’s questions asked students to consider first the broad concept of identity, then to empathize with a boy’s struggle between two cultural worlds, and finally, to decide what this meant to them personally. With these questions, she helped students connect the experience of a person of another place, time, and culture with their own lives as a preface to considering the social issues of assimilation, tolerance, and personal freedom. One student described the value of Mary’s approach as “teaching us how to learn from other people’s lives.”



For both teachers described here, the lessons of history are many and varied. A common goal of their teaching was to connect students to ongoing social concerns through the development of empathy for people in the past, and tolerance for—or at least understanding of—diverse human perspectives. Both used a variety of activities and resources. Yet their teaching seemed less about finding better methods to transmit historical information, and more about inviting students into the mixture of voices that have talked about important social concerns over time. They made students part of an ongoing conversation about our nation’s history.

Through my interactions with Ruth and Mary, I have come to regard empathy as a powerful teaching tool for social studies instruction. Offering opportunities for students to see themselves in the lives of others has impact. It fosters better understanding of the contexts and events of history, encourages personal reflection about social issues, and above all, values the voices of the people. I am left wondering if teaching through empathy is really, at its essence, a most democratic undertaking. Ultimately, the students in these classrooms found United States history meaningful because they saw themselves and people like them as being at the heart of it. The message was not that you need to learn history because someday you may be the president. Rather, it was that whatever you do, you still have a role and a responsibility in the unending social dialogue that constitutes democracy.




1. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: Harper Perennial, 1980), 9.

2. Gary Nash, “History for a Democratic Society,” in Paul Gagnon, ed., Historical Literacy (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 246.

3. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1983), 407.

4. Jonathan Kozol, On Being a Teacher (New York: Oxford One World Press, 1981), 19ff.

5. Maxine Greene, The Dialectic of Freedom (New York: Teachers’ College Press, 1988), 19.

6. Nona Lyons, “Dilemmas of Knowing: Ethical and Epistemological Dimensions of Teacher Work and Development,” in Lynda Stone, ed., The Education Feminist Reader (New York: Routledge, 1990), 197.

7. Nash.

8. Zinn.

9. Ibid.


Elaine Metherall Brenneman is an adjunct faculty member at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, and at the University of Delaware, Newark.