My fifth grade students were being taken through their first lesson in the new social studies textbook, and we came across a difficult vocabulary word and concept, historical empathy.
"Class, the textbook has brought up the subject of historical empathy. It's probably a new concept to you. Who understood what historical empathy is when we read about it?" (No hands go up.) "Who knows what empathy means?" (A hand goes up.) "Yes, Lauren."
"I think it means something like when you........like..........well............ if a person is like, going..........I don't know."
"Is there anyone else who may know what empathy means?" (No hands go up.) "Well then I will tell you what the book tried to tell you. Historical empathy means the historian, the person living today who studies history, tries to understand why people in history did things, what they were thinking, and maybe even how they felt. The historian, and that means all of us because we will be studying U.S. history, must try not to put our own values and thinking into what people in the past should have done. We should have historical empathy for the people who lived in the past. It is like we are there and understand what they must have been going through. We studied some U.S. history last year. Is there anyone in history that we have studied that you have empathy for? It's almost like you understand them?"
Joe immediately raised his hand. I called on him right away because he seemed so sure. I anticipated Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Patrick Henry, or someone that we studied in class, but then I knew that Joe read outside of class about World War II and so it might be Dwight Eisenhower. I was curious as to who it could be. "Yes, Joe. Who do you have historical empathy for? Who do you think you understand, who do you know what they might have been thinking, what motivated them, or how they must have felt?"
Joe proudly yells out, "Barry Sanders!"
Fifth grade boys!