15 May 2018

GUEST POST: Empathy in the Language Classroom

If you spend your days reading teaching blogs and connecting with other teachers on Twitter, I’m sure you can relate to my total and utter Spanish student nerdiness. I would spend hours on my bed practicing conjugations and memorizing vocabulary, but when I think back to school, I’m sad to say that I can’t really remember a single lesson. Sort of a depressing realization for someone who spends hours upon hours lesson planning, amiiiright?

What I do remember, however, are the experiences that were either absurd, creative, emotionally-charged, or built around community. I remember the time my very first Spanish teacher in the sixth grade taught us reflexive verbs using a toothbrush the size of a yardstick, the time my AP Spanish teacher let us work together to make piñatas from scratch, and I will never forget the first day of college Spanish when my professor sauntered in singing Bésame Mucho at the top of her lungs. (P.S. she and I are presenting together on empowering student voice at the AATSP centennial in Salamanca this June - someone pinch me!)



You won’t forget these images when contemplating whether an action is done onto oneself!

But guess what?


Let’s start with the big question: 

Why empathy and how do we build it? 

Check out the EdPuzzle I made for ACTFL below:

(If you haven’t tried EdPuzzle yet, I highly recommend it. You can even upload videos of your own students and have them reflect! Look back at the beginning of the year and notice how much you’ve developed. Talk about fostering growth mindset!)

Instilling empathy, or asking students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, is one of the most valuable skills we can give our students. The foreign language classroom provides the perfect outlet to do so. We’ve spent a lot of time this year building habits around empathy.

1. Daily Gratitude Journals throughout November


2. Using activities to understand different perspectives


3. Inviting students to reflect on their own behaviors or thought reel in their heads 

4. Empowering students to STAND UP and be agents of change

Our final unit is focused on differently-abled people. The reason I created it several years ago is because it was perfect for the subjunctive. Although we did not get to the subjunctive with this particular cohort, we decided it is still a beautiful way to end the year.

To begin, I asked my boys (yes, I teach all boys and they LOVE our empathy lessons) to come up with their personal 10 commandments, using tú commands, for being a good person.

Next, we watched this newsclip about a class of 5th graders who gave up their recess to learn sign language so they could communicate with their classmate. I know what you’re thinking - this isn’t in the target language but I made the choice to use this resource in English and then MovieTalk it en español.


Students went into groups and filled out a simple 5 W’s organizer due to time restraints, but ideally I would have used my current events organizer.

For homework, they were asked to reply honestly if they’d give up their free time to learn sign language.

The boys responded with honesty:

Some with vulnerability, expressing their probable discomfort:

And some demonstrated empathy, the ability to feel with others:

This was a great jumping off point for the unit which we will continue with the cortometraje El Regalo, a PSA showing what children with autism experience in 90 seconds, and lastly, with the beautiful Movie Short called Cuerdas.

So even though it’s the end of the year and I really wish I had covered everything I wanted to, (irrational teacher thoughts- how will my students ever survive Ninth Grade without the subjunctive? ¡Qué horror!), I feel the closure all teachers want knowing that I helped my students to feel proud of who they are, what they’ve done, and knowing they leave with an understanding of what they can do to make the world better. Afterall, at the end of the day we just want our students to be good human beings.


Special thanks to Laura Sexton for asking me to write a guest blog. Big time shout out to my incredible Spanish department that energizes me every day! I must acknowledge Camilla Iturralde who has co-developed a four-part unit that scaffolds the building blocks to empathy and continues to create beautiful, SEL inspired units with me. You may have caught our session about it ACTFL, but if not, feel free to reach out for resources! For now, follow my work on Twitter @sspielb and please feel free to email me (samara.spielberg@gmail.com) for further information.


  1. I would love to use you worksheet for Cuerdas, but I couldn't find it in TPT.

  2. Never mind, I should have read that this is a guess post. I wish Señorita Spielberg had a blog. Me encanta esta unidad.

    1. RIGHT?? I'm working on her ;) I'm adding updates with some slides she used!