Teaching & Learning

Teaching Empathy Using the Refugee Experience


In a world where technology rules everything, and people want things fast and cheap, is it still possible to care about other people? Within the Year 9 New South Wales Geography syllabus, students are asked to look at different types of Australian communities: Indigenous, rural, and multicultural. 

Today, the focus was on multicultural communities. The lesson went like this: we read the real-life story of a man named Marijo Kokic, a refugee to Australia from Yugoslavia after World War II. Once we broke down the story, I asked the students to place themselves in someone else’s shoes. The students had three options for their story: an Italian or Greek after WWII, an Asian after the Vietnam War, or someone from the Middle-East after September 11. They had to create a fictional-factual account of someone coming to live in Australia. I chose these three scenarios because they each provide enough for the students to research the issues that these people may have faced when they first arrive in Australia. The students needed to look at the stereotypes that they may have faced, and who they could turn to for help.

This allowed my students to gain a different type of understanding: the adversity faced by “the other,” and how that adversity is overcome. The people they are pretending to be in their stories, much like millions of real people worldwide, faced hardship because of their race, faith, or language barrier. The students’ eyes were open to how other people are forced to live, through no fault of their own, and to understand that not everyone in the world has a smooth run in life.

Many of my students noted after the activity that they had no idea about the atrocities of World War II, or the Vietnam War, and how people were treated differently for no reason. They enjoyed the fact that they were given choice in how to approach this task, allowing them to pursue the avenue they wanted to focus on more. Some of my students even wrote a personal story, one that their own parents or grandparents may have faced when they first arrived in Australia. This allowed these students to gain a richer understanding of their own heritage.

Overall, my students enjoyed this task, approaching it respectfully and sensitively. Did it manage to teach empathy? I hope that the students can take away a respect and care for “the other”. Did it open the eyes of students who may not otherwise have been exposed to something outside of their work? Definitely.

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