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Teaching Compassion To 4-Year-Olds Through Reading

Liz Salegumba, Pre-K Teacher

The earthquakes and storms that devastated Mexico and Puerto Rico last year deeply affected members of the Avenues New York community, including teachers with personal connections to those places. In the midst of difficult emotions, teacher Daisy Vivar saw an opportunity for children in pre-K to learn compassion with the help of Alvaro F. Villa’s Flood, a moving and wordless eBook that describes one family’s experience of a catastrophic flood.

The book opens to the wide-open terrain of fields and a farmhouse, where a family live. Ms. Vivar asked the children to spend several seconds simply looking at each page on the classroom screen. She then invited them to comment on what they saw. Each page includes many details. One child described: “There’s a TV and a light and there’s a bed and it’s dark and a mommy and daddy.” On the following pages, there is a weather forecast, a parent barring up windows, a car getting loaded up with boxes, and a home surrounded by sand bags—all clues of the coming storm. “There’s a pink cloud! It’s going to be a big wind! There’s a lot of wind-things, it’s blowing!” Children drew on their previous experience and knowledge to make predictions regarding the storm: “If the clouds go on the house, it’s going to rain on the house!” Some children knew about storms that had hit Houston, San Antonio and parts of Florida in fall 2017. One student mentioned Hurricane Irma, which made history in September last year as the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade.

The book’s depiction of the storm’s arrival does not shrink back from showing the truth. Huge waves rush into the home and tear pictures off the walls, upending chairs and tables. The children understood clearly that the family was not hurt but that they were forced to spend the night in a motel. One student described the scene: “They are driving away from the house cause they have to go somewhere in the car. The daddy is driving and the kids are in the back and there’s a storm and the trees and the flowers are dead.” Another child observed, “The kids are crying cause they miss the house.”

The author, Alvaro F. Villa, uses restraint in his illustration of the height of the storm. The water flows back out of the home and the family drives back to see it. They stand stupefied and silent in front of the damaged house. At this moment, Teacher Vivar asked her students an important question, linking the scene in the book to real-life events: “How do you think the families in Puerto Rico feel when they see their homes broken?” In unison, almost all of the children responded: “Sad.” One child suggested that even after the home was fixed, the family could still be sad about the flood. By exposing the children to age-appropriate depictions of human suffering, Ms. Vivar provoked their sympathy—an important manifestation of emotional intelligence or “E.Q.”

With each page of the book, Ms. Vivar encouraged thoughtful observation from the children. One student summed up the repair efforts: “They were making a house and painting it, and someone’s standing on the ladder painting and the girl is mixing up the paint and the mommy is planting the flowers and the daddy and the big kid is making a big tree.”

Sympathy leads naturally to compassion. Next, the teacher asked: “What do our friends in Puerto Rico need?” One child said: “They need to fix their houses, they need to paint the houses.” Another suggested that they need “chairs and food and water to drink.” The children were invited to participate with their parents in the Avenues Parent Association-sponsored event “Tables for Relief”—an opportunity to donate money, bottled water and other essential items to victims of natural disasters in North America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Ms. Vivar’s lesson is reminds us of the power of storytelling to create sympathy and compassion for our fellow human beings—no matter your age.