(Con)textualizing Disability: Building Empathy through Children’s Literature

Creators: Erica Boulay-Ali, Melissa Johnson, Aleisha Smith and Ali Zimmerman

Project Context:

As a special education teacher, I am always looking for ways to help students with special needs improve their self-esteem, and to create a safe learning environment for them within the school as a whole. This means helping mainstream students recognize and include students of all backgrounds into school culture. In our society, significant stigma surrounds disability designation, and people with disabilities often feel the need to “prove” themselves or “overcome” their disability. As a reading teacher, I am in the unique position of using texts to help students of all backgrounds explore multiple ways of being and knowing. In so doing, I work towards normalizing difference and replacing assumptions and stereotypes with facts and dialogues. Multicultural literature is all about providing authentic windows into minority experiences, and also about giving minority group members mirrors, or meaningful representation in mainstream media. However, I struggle to find books that reflect my students’ with special needs unique lived experiences. For these and other reasons, my graduate student friends and I sat down to create an online resource of instructional tools teaching literacy skills using books that prominently and positively feature individuals with special needs.

Project Goals:

We will focus on books that celebrate the strengths of disabled individuals and uphold the ideals of multiculturalism by promoting difference and respectfully representing individuals who have been historically excluded from literary depictions. We hope to create a resource for teachers to create instructional plans that foster discussions among students that promote empathy and understanding of disability in a classroom setting.

  • Elementary: El Deafo
  • Middle Grade: Wonder
  • High School: Magonia
  • Additional Text and Media Suggested for Reflective Study
  • Additional Resources Suggested for Building Empathy

Elementary (K-5)

El Deafo by Cece Bell (Grades 3+)eldeafo

Due to her hearing disability, Cece often feels isolated and alone, especially when she has to wear the Phonic Ear – an oversized hearing aid – to school. But then Cece realizes that the Phonic Ear allows her to hear everything, even things she shouldn’t. With its help, she becomes El Deafo, a superhero!

Discussion Questions

  • Does Cece always use her superpower for good? Do you think it’s okay for her to eavesdrop on her teachers if it allows her to make friends?
  • Deafo is an unkind word to use about a deaf or hard of hearing person. Why do you think Cece chose to call herself El Deafo?
  • Imagine you are Cece’s friend, Martha. How would you have behaved differently after Cece hurt her eye?
  • How does El Deafo tell us we should speak to people who have difficulties hearing? Does speaking loudly help?
  • Cece often has trouble talking to people about her difficulties hearing. Pick a part of the book where this happens and brainstorm how you would have acted differently.
  • How does Cece’s secret identity as El Deafo help her cope with her difficulties hearing and her feelings of loneliness? If you were a superhero, what would you call yourself? What powers would you have?

Activities/Projects/Assignments for using El Deafo in the Classroom

Middle Grades (5-8)

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (Grades 5+)wonder

August (Auggie) Pullman just wants to blend in and be normal. The problem is that most people see him as the exact opposite of normal. Auggie was born with facial differences and health concerns that kept him home-schooled until now, when he’s about to start fifth grade. Can he and his new school learn to see beyond appearances and start to appreciate who they all are inside?

This sweet, funny, and heart-tugging story pushes readers to think about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we look at, react to, and interact with those around us. Through the use of a shifting narrative style—beginning with Auggie’snarration and moving outward to other kids in the story—Wonder offers us a story rich in perspective, challenges, and strength.

Other reviews/descriptions:



Discussion Questions

  • What is Auggie’s relationship with each of his family members? How do his father, mother, and sister each respond to his facial difference, and how has this impacted each of their lives?
  • Do you agree with Auggie’s family that it’s time for him to start growing up and go to school? Why or why not?
  • What characteristics make a good friend? Which characters in the book demonstrate these qualities? Is Auggie a good friend?
  • What are Auggie’s strengths and powers? How does he change those around him and what do other people learn from Auggie?

Short Writing/Reflection

  • Auggie has interests, skills, dreams, and jokes that many people miss because they don’t take the time to see past his face. What is a skill, strength, or something about you that most people don’t know?
  • Is there a character that you empathize with most?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you felt or acted like one of the characters? Describe what happened and how you felt.

Activities/Projects/Assignments for using Wonder in the Classroom

High School (9-12)

Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headleymagonia

  • Aza Ray suffers from an extremely rare lung disease. So rare, in fact, that she is the only known person in the world who has it. Aza’s world is a series of hospitals and medications…untilsheglimpses sight of a ship in the sky and a very different kind of life begins. But where does Aza really belong? Here on Earth or in the mysterious sky-world of Magonia?

Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Headley chose the genre of speculative fiction rather than writing a more realistic story about a teenager with a rare condition? What does the fantasy element contribute to Aza’s story? Does it detract from the story in any way?
  • It is mentioned multiple times in Magonia that Aza’s mother, Greta, administered a non-approved drug to Aza that helped prolong her life on Earth, even though doing so was illegal. (See page 81) What do you think of Greta’s decision? What would you have done in her position? Are the risks associated with such drugs worth the possible outcomes? (This question could also serve as the basis for an in-class debate on the ethics of medicine and drug testing.)
  • On page 305, Aza says “Being home is better than breathing, I tell myself.” Do you agree? What does “home” mean to you? What is it worth?

Additional Texts

  • Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
  • Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen
  • Blind by Rachel Dewoskin
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Activities/Projects/Assignments for using Magonia in the Classroom

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