How Visual Literacy Teaches Empathy

As this school year draws to a close, I know a lot of teachers that are looking at their jobs with new eyes. Headlines regularly tell us about young people losing their way, resorting to senseless acts of violence. Social media apps sweep through school communities, allowing kids to anonymously post comments about each other. Many schools are losing recess time and art programs. All the while, teachers are scrambling to adjust to the new Common Core mandates and preparing for the state tests that will follow. And in many cases, kids are having a harder time paying attention to what we are teaching.


As always, teachers go into their summers carrying big questions: Who are we teaching today? And what exactly should we be teaching them? What should we do differently next year?


I’ve described Visual Literacy lessons many times in this blog. We already know that art helps us to increase vocabulary, inspire writing topics, and discover our literate voices. But the bigger picture is that art teaches us how to be empathetic. It requires us to step into each others’ shoes. When we describe what someone else painted, and listen to each others’ varied points of view, and connect to our peers by drawing our stories for them, we are doing what kids have less and less opportunity to do these days: making real contact with each other.


One of my favorite lessons is when I ask students to draw a painting from a different perspective, and then write about the experience. This requires spacial skills, critical skills, and invention. But if you read Audrey’s writing closely, you can also see that it develops the ability to imagine oneself as someone else. As Maxine Greene says, “Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible.”


In the drawing below, Audrey, a second grader, finds a new way to look at a picture of a school of fish.

In her writing, she describes how her picture shows “what a fish in that school might see.” She goes on to say that “Through looking at art you can get inspired and have ideas you never thought of. Like trying looking at things through someone else’s eye or just looking closer at something.”


John Dewey defined teachers as the key to community. Learning to see the world through each others’ eyes is key to developing a sense of community, as sense of belonging, and a conscience.

3 thoughts on “How Visual Literacy Teaches Empathy

  1. Darcy, I adore Audrey’s message almost as much as your keen insight. The lessons taught and learned through the study of art seem boundless. Thank you for sharing~

  2. I also experienced building a community in my classroom that consisted of children taking chances, stepping outside their comfort zones and pouring their hearts and souls into their reflections. They have so much to say…we have to listen.

  3. I couldn’t agree with your post more. After a recent incident of school violence in the district I interned in, a lot of parents (and some teachers) took to various forums to decry the internet, video games, violent TV shows, what have you. While I agree that children see more these days than they may have in the past, my conscience cannot settle on the “blame the media/TV/internet” explanation– after all, before the internet TV was rotting children’s brains, and before that rock and roll, and before that the radio, and so on…

    One of my concerns as an educator is less about what my students are seeing and more about what’s being SAID or DONE about what they’re seeing. It frightens me to think of the things kids see and the conclusions they may be drawing on their own because adults are afraid of, or don’t know how to, discuss or share information on difficult and scary topics.

    Visual literacy is proof of how frequently and deeply children connect their thoughts with things they experience. This connection between the written and visual languages is, I think, the heart of the matter. Fostering that connection between subjects, between my students, between students and myself, is not just a way to have them engage with Common Core content; it’s a method of teaching empathy, teaching resilience, and flexibility; it’s a mode of expression and potentially a window into my students’ lives. I see it as an absolutely essential part of schools and I hope it becomes a tool that schools rely on in the future!

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