I Hear You: Poetry as a Tool for Emotional Literacy and Empathy Education

As I hid under the table, clutching the chrome legs of my second-grade desk, I could hear my teacher reading to my parents a poem I had written a few days before. She kindly praised my use of imagery, descriptive language, and the ways I established a sense of voice—high praise, indeed, for an eight-year-old.

You see, even as young as the tender age of eight, I had discovered something in writing poetry that resonated with me in a deeply personal way. And when my teacher read it out (to my parents of all people), it felt to me like something authentic, creative, and new had just been unearthed, something I didn’t know how to make sense of at the time, hence me hiding under the desk.

Over twenty-five years later, I’m still writing poetry, still putting words together in new ways in order to express something deeply personal and, hopefully, say something meaningful to others. Since then I’ve also had the privilege of teaching poetry to students in various schools from K to 12. 

Writing over the years has only deepened my love of the craft and set me on a journey to find new ways to excite my students about poetry and to understand themselves better in the process. Poetry is a powerful tool not only for helping us see the world in a new way, but also as a means of growing in our own “emotional literacy”—or the way we understand and are able to articulate our own feelings, hopes, and desires. The more poems we read—the more we engage with the tightly woven narrative fabrics of good poetry—the more we are able to understand ourselves, others, and the world around us. 

Something interesting I have found and have begun to explore in my role as a poet and teacher is that in addition to helping us understand our own emotions, poetry can also lead us to a place of greater understanding of the emotions of others; that is, it moves us toward a greater, more fully developed sense of empathy. The specific kind of empathy I speak of is known as “emotional empathy” and has been defined as the moments when “you physically feel what other people feel, as though their emotions were contagious” (Goleman 2008). 

The importance of learning about and growing in empathy can’t be understated, and teaching these skills may be some of the most relevant and applicable life lessons we leave our students with, because in today’s society it is easier than ever for young people to become isolated, self-absorbed, and lost in the endless social media messages of “it’s all about me” and “I am the most important person”; in other words, we live in a society that has become—when left unchecked—very good at fostering narcissism (Vater et al. 2018). 

The good news, however, is that empathy has been cited as an effective cure to this extreme self-centeredness (Riggio 2017), and the connection between poetry and an increased sense of empathy has been studied and well documented (see Gabrieli et al. 2018).

I’ve also seen poetry’s ability to help grow empathy in my own life, as someone who has had to work at learning how to empathize and come to terms with my own emotions over the years. From a young age onward, I had a difficult time understanding why I feel what I do, and I have found it overwhelming, difficult, and at times even distressing to put myself in other’s shoes. 

Why this has been the case, I’m not entirely sure. One researcher cites “emotional overwhelm” as a cause for those who aren’t natural empathizers (Cummins 2014). This happens when the neural pathways associated with observing pain and suffering in others are activated too often, and the individual tends to shut down as a way of self-protection. This may be the case in my situation, or perhaps it came from the way my mother raised me, with an immense amount of love, care, and attention that told me in some way that I was the center of the universe, and my needs mattered more than the needs of others. 

Regardless of the reason, I’m someone who has had to learn how to empathize and make sense of my emotions. And now, in my mid-thirties, I can reflect back and say that reading and writing poetry has been instrumental in my own personal journey. It is from this place of a deep and lasting personal love of the craft that I approach teaching the subject, with the hopes of instilling in my students some measure of appreciation for what poetry is capable of achieving and the ways it can be used to help them function with greater levels of genuine care and empathy toward others.

However, I know that poetry is a tough sell at the best of times, and that for the average student, poetry will never be something they deeply “love.” For many it will be something they tolerate in the brief units we teach, then discard as another trifling memento of their time in grade school. 

Knowing this now (I did not know it in my first year of teaching—when I taught, if you could call it that, the work of T. S. Eliot to a group of glassy eyed high school students), I can appreciate the fact that poetry is often difficult, obscure, and useless beyond the walls of the classroom. It has, however, become a personal passion of mine to change as many minds—and perhaps hearts—toward poetry as I am able to with the time I have left as a teacher. 

So that is why I teach poetry, and why I specifically teach it as a tool for empathy education. Now let’s get to the how. I’d like to outline some of the activities we do in my grade-level classes, as well as how we go about planning activities and finding inspiration.

The very first piece of advice I’d give to anyone serious about teaching poetry would be this: immerse yourself in it and learn to love it, or at least appreciate it, for yourself. This may be difficult, especially if teaching English is not your passion or first choice, or if you’re simply filling in for another teacher for a time. However, students can smell sincerity or the lack thereof a mile away, and in order to teach poetry well, it has to be done from a place of genuine passion, or at the very least, appreciation.  [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Works Cited

Cummins, Denise. “Why Some People Seem to Lack Empathy.” Psychology Today, 23 June 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/good-thinking/201406/why-some-people-seem-lack-empathy. 

Gabrieli, Guilio, et al. “Promoting Empathy with Rhymes: Effects of Poetry Exposure on Physiological Arousal and Empathic Trait.” Research Gate, July  2018, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326624639_Promoting_empathy_with_rhymes_effects_of_poetry_exposure_on_physiological_arousal_and_empathic_trait.

Goleman, Daniel. “Hot to Help: When Can Empathy Move Us to Action?” Greater Good Magazine, 1 March 2018, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hot_to_help.

Riggio, Ronald E. “Why Are There So Many Narcissists?” Psychology Today, 15 June 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201706/why-are-there-so-many-narcissists.

Vater, Aline, et al. “Does a Narcissism Epidemic Exist in Modern Western Societies? Comparing Narcissism and Self-Esteem in East and West Germany.” PLOS ONE, 24 Jan. 2018, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0188287.

Hayden MacKinnon has taught across British Columbia for the last eleven years and has been writing poetry ever since he was young. He currently lives in Langley with his wife, Jennie, and daughter, Sophia-Belle. If you have any questions about something he mentioned in this article or would like a copy of lesson plans for your own class, please feel free to contact him. He’d love to hear from you and be a part of your journey.