"Mean, callous, cruel..." she replied, utilizing some of the latest vocabulary she had learned in our story.
"Okay, but I think that's really what we feel about the character. Usually people don't describe themselves as mean. So, looking at the character's actions, can we think about what might make the character do those mean things? I'm not a mean person, but sometimes I might do or say something that comes out mean if I'm feeling a certain way. Why do you think that is?"
As we worked on designing for "misunderstood characters" in Cinderella stories this week, it was fascinating to hear how students struggled to put themselves in someone else's shoes, especially when that person is the villain in the story. For 7-year olds, who are developmentally still growing out of their more egocentric mindsets, asking them to understand other people's mindsets and needs can already be challenging, so asking them to empathize with an enemy has been an even bigger stretch.
After reading several versions of Cinderella, I asked my students to choose a character to design for from one of two versions that they had access to in their reading curriculum-- Rough Face Girl or Yeh Shen. Their only constraint was that they were not allowed to choose the Cinderella character. Using templates adapted by my colleague, Kami Thordarson, each student recorded their "observations" of and "inferences" about the character before being asked to write a "needs statement" for that character.
For some, the needs statements even became a way of communicating aspects of themselves that they don't often understand or share. One of my students, who often struggles with anxiety, wrote that her character needed to "let things go" more often in order to be happier, while another of my students, who has a sibling of his own, focused mainly on sibling rivalry between step-sister and the Cinderella character and how helping step-sister find a place where she might be able to feel noticed and important could solve her problem.
The experience of designing for a villain has also led to some powerful conversations related to the social-emotional learning that we've been focusing on in class. As we think about why our peers might act in mean or teasing or bullying ways sometimes, how can we think a little more deeply about why they acted that way? If a friend gets angry and lashes out as us, do we assume them to be a bad person or try to figure out what really made them act that way and perhaps even try to help? Instead of getting even or feuding with a friend or sibling, how can we assume best intentions and give second chances?
Moreover, developing empathy for others is also helping our 2nd graders learn to understand their own emotions, and how to take time to think about those emotions before they act. How will our actions effect others, and is that the influence that we want to have?