What It Was Like: Building Empathy with Historical Fiction

This post is written by Jessica Tyson. 

jessicatysonJulie Otsuka’s beautiful novel When the Emperor Was Divine begins with a quiet moment. A woman stops on the street in Berkeley, California. She reads a sign posted to a telephone pole. She writes a note to herself on a scrap of paper and heads home.

This quotidian scene doesn’t promise much for some restless ninth graders in my English classes. Reading aloud, as I always do when we begin a novel together, I move around my classroom to ensure that everyone stays with me. But a few more pages in, my vigilance is no longer needed. The story turns, students sit up in their chairs, and by the time the bell rings, the class is arguing heatedly about what they’ve just read: back at her house, the woman beckons an obedient family pet. The dog does what it’s told—and she kills it with one determined stroke of a shovel.

The dominant reaction to this scene in the classroom every year is one of vehement recrimination. Even for those who aren’t animal lovers, the idea of killing one’s family dog is anathema. However, before long a student or two will usually raise a different perspective: what if the woman has no choice but to kill her dog? What if this terrible thing is actually a good thing?

The reasoning behind this seemingly topsy-turvy logic is sound. The students who bring it up are the ones who are first to make the connection between this strange scene and the larger historical context we’ve been studying. Otsuka’s novel is a work of historical fiction set during World War Two. It is about Japanese internment, when the United States government removed more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, from their homes and sent them to camps and detention centers scattered across the country. By the time I begin reading the novel with my students every year, I have introduced the basic outlines of this history. When we finish reading the first chapter of the book, I pass out a reproduction of a sign much like the one the woman in the book reads on the telephone pole. Students confront the same sign the woman sees, and formulate a new question: Is the woman, in committing this cruel act, being kind?

Civilian exclusion order #5, posted at First and Front streets, directing removal by April 7 of persons of Japanese ancestry, from the first San Francisco section to be affected by evacuation

Yes, some students begin to argue. Perhaps, they say, the woman kills the family dog because she wants to spare her children some small uncertainty in the face of looming unknowns. The sign on the telephone pole tells her that no pets will be allowed where they’re going. She knows that her children will be upset if they have to consider what to do with the dog. So she gets rid of the dog.

Not all students are convinced. (Couldn’t she just give the dog to a neighbor?) But they are all wrestling with a question whose answer had seemed straightforward but now appears much more complex than they realized. Otsuka’s novel is one of my favorites to teach because it engages my students in precisely this way. It asks the reader to contemplate a moment in history which so distorted people’s lives that killing a dog might have been a kind act. This adjustment of assumptions, and the attendant discomfort of changing one’s mind, is the very mechanism of building empathy. In considering the woman’s action kind and not cruel once we understand its larger context, we put ourselves in the woman’s place, at least for a moment, moving from judgment to empathy.

Last year, I asked my students to reflect on what they had learned from reading When the Emperor Was Divine as part of their study of Japanese internment. Many of their responses used the phrase “what it was like.” “I learned what it was like to be in the internment camps,” one student wrote. Another said, “I learned what it was like for people who experienced incarceration.” Students didn’t just learn what happened; they learned what it was like to live through it.

There are good reasons to teach Julie Otsuka’s novel today. In addition to helping students build historical empathy, I believe there is a chance that reading about distant lives can help us learn empathy for those around us today. When the Emperor Was Divine is a difficult story about difficult history. It can be deeply unsettling to teach and to learn about a moment in our country’s past that was identified at the time and has been rightly described ever since as a source of national shame. It can be hard to reconcile the historical reality of Japanese internment with American ideals, past and present. However, the difficulty of this story does not excuse us from teaching it. Indeed, in our present moment, filled with xenophobic rhetoric, building empathy is more important than ever.

Oakland, Calif., Mar. 1942. A large sign reading “I am an American” placed in the window of a store, at 13th and Franklin streets, on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, will be housed with hundreds of evacuees in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration of the war. Photographer: Dorothea Lange

Jessica Tyson is a public high school English and history teacher from Oakland, California. This year she is on sabbatical in Philadelphia, working on projects ranging from assisting student researchers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to helping Philly teachers implement curriculum from Poetry Inside Out

Text Options for the African American Read-In

Quote from Jerri Cobb Scott: It is important for all of us to see ourselves in books.When selecting texts to have as part of African American Read-Ins, many people first think of books or poems. What about using plays or dramas?

The works of playwright August Wilson are a good place to start. His play, Fences, won him critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. It is currently a Major Motion Picture directed by Denzel Washington, and starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Students can read Fences, then watch the film and compare the two.

Sticking with August Wilson and looking at his play, The Piano Lesson, readily invites students to ask a number of questions—big and small—about the characters, setting, conflict, and symbols in the work. After reading the first act, students learn how to create effective discussion questions and then put them to use in student-led seminar discussions after Act 1 and again at the end of the play. Read more in the ReadWriteThink.org lesson plan, “Facilitating Student-Led Seminar Discussions with The Piano Lesson.”

This lesson from ReadWriteThink.org invites students to explore the things relevant to a character from Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, such as Mama’s plant, to unlock the drama’s underlying symbolism and themes. Students explore character traits and participate in active learning as they work with the play. Students use an interactive drama map to explore character and conflict, and then write and share character-item poems.

If the genre of plays or dramas is too much of a challenge, what if students use both their analytical and creative skills to adapt passages from a novel into a ten-minute play? This lesson plan invites students to read Beloved or another suitable novel. Students then review some of the critical elements of drama, focusing on differences between narrative and dramatic texts, including point of view. They discuss the role of conflict in the novel, and work in small groups to search the novel for a passage they can adapt into a ten-minute play. Students write their play adaptation in writer’s workshop sessions, focusing on character, setting, conflict, and resolution. When the play draft is complete, students review and revise it, then rehearse and present their play to the class. As the plays are performed, students use a rubric to peer-review each group’s work. Because students are responding to a novel with significant internal dialogue and conflict, they are called on to use both analytical and creative skills as they create the adaptation, rather than simply cutting and pasting dialogue.

What dramas or plays written by African Americans have you used?

#NCTEchat: Teaching Controversial Works of Literature

Hosted by: Jim Brooks, @TeachGoodThings


#nctechat: Teaching Controversial Works of Literature Feb. 19 8pm ET

Join us for a lively conversation about the challenging texts we choose to use in the classroom. Here are the questions we’ll discuss:

Q1 How do you select the texts you teach your students?

Q2 When is a text “controversial”?

Q3 What strategies have you found useful for exploring these texts in class?

Q4 How have you seen students benefit from grappling with controversial texts?

Q5 What supports do you find you need to teach such texts well?

Q6 How do you talk with parents / guardians / admin about the texts you use in class?

Q7 What’s one text that you’d like to learn how to teach and why?

Jim Brooks, host of #NCTEchat "Teaching Controversial Works of Literature" Jim Brooks is the language arts department chair at West Wilkes High School in Millers Creek, NC.  Among his many teaching accolades, he was the 2008 recipient of the NCTE Media Literacy Award.

Collaboration, Innovation, and Contextualization: Enduring Themes in an Era of Digital Literacy

This post, written by members Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, is a reprint of “From the Editors” from the January 2017 English Journal.

ejjan17coverOne of the benefits of editing English Journal is that we are entrusted with bound copies of every issue ever printed. These journals, displayed in shelves in the journal office, remind us of the constancy and the relentless change that marks our field. Times have changed; that is certain. In some ways, contemporary classrooms would be unrecognizable to educators teaching English in 1911, when the journal was established. And yet many of the debates and challenges prevalent in classrooms 100 years ago remain relevant today. Our work still centers on learners, teacher, and texts.

This remarkable collection of articles, curated by Suzanne Miller and David Bruce, attests to the complexity of this work as well as our need to adapt and evolve even as we sustain our principles and vision. Throughout this issue, the guest editors and authors remind us that we consume and produce various kinds of media on a daily basis.
Acts of consumption and production are mutually influential; what we consume affects what (and how) we produce, and what we produce affects what (and how) we consume. Moreover, contributors inspire us to extend our own learning in order to model for students the importance of stretching past comfortable practices and materials.

As we read and thought about the articles, with a century’s worth of EJ infusing the air that we breathed, three themes emerged. These themes reflect the intersections of innovation and tradition, and are as present in the bound journals as they are in the 21st century literacies emphasized in this issue. The first theme is collaboration. Teachers and students thrive in environments when collaborative opportunities abound. Multimodal literacies are particularly well-suited for students and teachers to become partnered in the learning process, and for teachers to experience the joys and frustrations of exploring new media and technologies. The second theme, innovation, is generally associated with bold new initiatives. While such initiatives are seductive, it is instructive to note that the word “innovation” is not defined strictly as a product; it is also a process – a process that builds upon what already exists. The third theme we noted is contextualization. Now, as always, the contexts in which teaching and learning occurs are critical. As our lives, inside and outside of the classroom, become increasingly digital, we must maintain our focus on learners and teachers as embodied human and social creatures.

We deeply appreciate the generosity of Suzanne Miller and David Bruce in developing this special issue. We trust that readers will be inspired, exhilarated, and revitalized by the ideas shared throughout. Educators who embrace the principles of collaboration, innovation, and contextualization flourished in 1911 and, with luck, will be flourishing still in 3011.

JulieGorlewskiJulie Gorlewski is chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University.



DavidGorlewskiDavid Gorlewski works with preservice and practicing teachers and conducts research on professional dispositions. Both are former secondary English teachers and members of NCTE.

Ah, a New Year: Iowa Report

This post is written by NCTE’s Iowa P12 policy analyst James Davis. 

JimDavis200607 Holding Journal - chestIn November and December, education organizations prepared for a daunting 2017; while not prescient, their work was warranted. Iowa’s November elections had substantial implications for pre-K through higher education, especially for teacher retention and recruitment. Legislative targets include dismantling a collective bargaining law in effect since 1975 (health care, contract arbitration, and job-performance grievance procedures are at risk); limiting fiscal responsibility to the public employee retirement system; teacher licensure and credentialing.

Many educators, including those in teacher preparation, see the last-mentioned–an attack on teacher licensure and credentialing–as something that could lead to lower quality staffing (including the possibility of long-term substitutes), and ultimately, to privatization of schools. Budget shortfalls, even with the existence of a robust “rainy day fund,” are the handy rationale. As Iowa and surrounding states face teacher shortages, making the profession less desirable hardly seems a logical strategy.

The same budget rationale affects other matters, including “initiatives once touted as ways to better Iowa schools” (DMR 1/17/17). A controversial third-grade retention law is to take effect in 2018, but the Iowa Department of Education has not requested funding for the intensive summer-reading program alternative specified in the statute. Educators have questioned the efficacy of the approach, which could be pushed back (likely), seriously reconsidered, and perhaps repealed. A second initiative was to replace the Iowa Assessment Program with Smarter Balanced Assessments in the 2017-18 school year. Legislators question availability of funding for the computer-based exams, even as some lawmakers and educators question the way the Smarter Balanced program was selected. Despite alleged commitment to alignment between Iowa Core standards and state assessment, the program seems to be in jeopardy—the Governor has asked the Department to put a hold on implementation, and has requested fewer state budget provisions for a start in fiscal year 2019 than the Department had requested for 2018.

On a less gloomy note, implementation continues for support of teacher leaders and leadership. Social Studies standards are near implementation. Many teachers maintain professional grounding in the presence of an Iowa Core. Good work continues in schools and classrooms, even with the legislature in session!

One change will occur when the current Iowa Governor begins service as the US Ambassador to China. The current Lieutenant Governor will become the first woman Governor in Iowa history. Educators struggle to find reason to believe it will make any difference.

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.