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Teaching Empathy Through Art at Crystal Bridges

Empathy is a lesson that we should all refresh ourselves on from time to time. Now, with the help of teachers Julie Griggs (left) and Heather Hooks (right), we can! Griggs and Hooks were fellows of the 2019 William Reese Company Teaching Fellowship, a program that provides resources for teachers to work on projects that will enrich school curriculum through an interdisciplinary connection between American art and another subject. The program is offered by Crystal Bridges and is open for all high school educators.

During their fellowship, Griggs and Hooks explored how empathy for different groups of people could be taught by using artworks found at Crystal Bridges. Their research resulted in a resource-rich website called, which offers teacher’s guides, lesson plans, and additional reading to strengthen empathy and literacy in secondary schools. Topics include African American Perspectives, Economic Inequality, Environmental Issues, Gender Perspectives, Indigenous Peoples’ Perspectives, LGBTQ+ Perspectives, and more.

We recently caught up with Griggs and Hooks to learn more about what they found in their empathy research and how empathy can be taught through art. Read the interview below.


How many years have you been a teacher?

Heather is in her twelfth year of teaching, and Julie is in her ninth year of teaching.


When did you conduct your Reese Fellowship? 

Our first day on site was May 30, and we presented our work to the leadership team on Friday, August 16, 2019.


Can you talk about your time during your fellowship? What resources did you have access to?

We had full access to the Crystal Bridges Library and the archives, including the rare book collection. As local teachers and ARTeacher fellows, we work with Crystal Bridges resources often, but we still spent about a week exploring the galleries, taking photos and notes, and searching through the archives for works of interest. Our survey of the collection and archives led us to focus on ten topics, and then we returned to the library catalog to find research on our specific topics, artists, and artworks.

We also went on tours and joined PRIDE Night to develop our ideas. We had incredible support from the museum staff. Jeanne Besaw, Stace Treat, Sally Ball, Raven Cook, and Jay Benham were always willing to listen to ideas and answer questions for us.


Why did you choose to focus on empathy in your work?

Julie Griggs: I first started working with empathy because I had one particular class in 2014-15 that questioned the traditional academic approach to grading policies, homework expectations, relevancy, everything. I looked for new approaches to engage them, and we read the Time article “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” They quickly connected with the idea of understanding other people’s experiences through reading, so we began looking for texts that would specifically help us understand diverse perspectives. I started the ARTeacher fellowship the next year, and the research on art and empathy, as well as my own experiences with arts integration, strengthened my desire to focus on empathy.

Heather Hooks: My work with empathy came from working with Julie. After the 2014-2015 school year, we created an event hosted at Crystal Bridges called “A Closer Look” in which we planned a unit with multiple empathy-inspired activities. Students created quilt squares to explore and express guiding values or principles in their lives; they created self-portraits to highlight who they are; they created empathy portraits specifically designed to evoke empathetic responses from the audience. However, our work with empathy for the Reese Fellowship came about from years of incorporating it into our classes and seeing how transformative it could be. I am so connected with and inspired by empathy that I have made it the focus of my doctoral dissertation.



What did you find surprising in your research? Did you learn anything new about the connection between art and empathy that you didn’t know before you started your research?

JG: A new concept I encountered was empathy for the future. I attended the seminar  “Slavery in George Washington’s World” at Mount Vernon this summer. Richard Josey of Collective Journeys, a museum consulting service to create inclusive narratives and sustainable community relationships, was one of our leaders, and his motto is “What kind of ancestor will you be?” The concept challenges us to consider how our actions affect future generations. So now when I view Titus Kaphar’s The Cost of Removal or Kara Walker’s A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, where the artists’ incorporate historical works in their art to reveal bias and injustice, I consider the critique of the past, but I also consider my own blind spots and ask “What kind of ancestor will I be?” What will future generations and artists critique about my lifetime, and how can I leave a better world?

We often cite Dr. Jamil Zaki’s work on empathy, and he also explored the idea of empathy for the future in  “Caring about tomorrow” from The Washington Post. He writes how our lack of empathic imaginations leads to inaction on climate change because we struggle to connect with events happening in other countries and to find empathy for future generations, even our future selves. Roman Krznaric, another favorite of ours, is writing The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, so we keep encountering the idea of empathy for future generations.

HH: One surprising thing from our research is evidence that indicates society has demonstrated a decline in empathetic responses over the last 30 years, especially the last 10-12. Nonetheless, I am encouraged by research showcasing our ability to change and increase our empathetic responses. The malleability of our brains is reason for hope.



In your own words, how can art help us to understand and engage with empathy?

JG: I love Dr. Jamil Zaki’s statement that art is empathy boot camp. As an English teacher, I certainly believe reading and writing promote understanding and compassion, but connecting with art is powerful and almost immediate. Heather and I were together when we saw Kara Walker’s A Warm Summer Evening in 1863 for the first time this summer, and I remember completely stopping and even wanting to take a step back from the art. Looking at the lynched silhouette is overwhelming, but it also drew my interest. What’s in the background? What’s the history? Who is this artist? Roman Krznaric identifies curiosity as one of the elements of empathy, and art quickly sparks the curiosity and emotion that lead to empathy.

HH: Art provides a dynamic visual full of shape and color that expresses people, places, and events. Art is meant to evoke an emotional response, and what is empathy if not our ability to feel.


Have you received any feedback from teachers who have used Engaging Empathy in their classrooms?

HH: We have shared our empathy work with our teacher colleagues. We asked some to take a hard look at our work and provide frank feedback. We have been encouraged by the positive and supportive responses from all of the reviewers.  The peer reviewer for our “Celebrating Diversity” lesson shared, “I especially related to the mention of coming from a mixed marriage. Seeing my Asian mother and white father together is so normal for me, but I was reminded that one set of my grandparents didn’t attend the wedding in 1981. Many students in 2019 will be able to relate to that, just as I did and will form a personal connection to the activities.” One teacher recently contacted us to say she had used a lesson from and that “it was amazing.”



Do you have a personal favorite artwork at Crystal Bridges, and if so, why?

JG: For teaching, my current favorites are Our Town by Kerry James Marshall. and What We Want, What We Need by Jeffrey Gibson. I love teaching about civil rights, and my classes read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Our Town inspires us to consider the complex and ongoing nature of civil rights; we still have work to do. What We Want, What We Need challenges us to engage with one another in an authentic way. Gibson is Choctaw and Cherokee, and he speaks to the historical romanticization of Indigenous people compared to his reality and experiences. His work encourages us to look beyond the surface, stereotypes, and romanticized depictions to truly understand one another.


What’s next?

We are presenting our work this spring. With support from Bentonville Schools and a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council, we are presenting on social-emotional learning at the Arkansas ACT Summit, inclusive historical narratives at the National Conference for History Education, and museum-school collaboration at the National Arts Education Association.

On April 18, we’re leading a Crystal Bridges session for teachers titled “The Art of Social and Emotional Learning with G.U.I.D.E. for Life” (register at the link provided). We will explore using art to address Arkansas’s new social and emotional learning standards while supporting academic skills and content knowledge. All of the presentations are centered on work from Engaging Empathy.


Visit Engaging Empathy and learn more about how empathy is taught through art found at Crystal Bridges!