Honing Critical Social Imagination Through a Curriculum of Social Empathy

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Honing Critical Social Imagination Through a Curriculum of Social Empathy

Bill Templer, Bulgaria and Phuangphet Tonawanik, Malaysia

Bill Templer is a Chicago-born educator with research interests in English as a lingua franca, literature in the ESL classroom, and critical applied linguistics. He has taught in the U.S., Ireland, Germany, Israel/Palestine, Austria, Bulgaria, Iran, Nepal, Thailand, Laos and, most recently, at the U of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. He is currently again on the staff of Preslavsky University in Shumen, Bulgaria, and also active in the Roma community there. Bill is also staff translator/editor at the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History, University of Leipzig, and is a widely published translator from German. E-mail: bill_templer@yahoo.com

Asst. Prof. Dr. Phuangphet Tonawanik is a highly experienced Thai ESL teacher trainer, with many years of service at Chandrakasem Rajabhat University in Bangkok, and is a Visiting Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She has carried out numerous research projects in central and northern Thailand, and has authored several textbooks on ESP, including English for public relations (Bangkok, 2006). She has a strong interest in teaching critical thinking in the ESL classroom. E-mail: ptonawan@hotmail.com




Paper overview

Imagining the thoughts and feelings of others

Crafting interior monologues

Children as labourers

Draft lesson plan

Monologuing hands-on: overcoming obstacles




The ‘interior monologue’ is a powerful tool for sharpening students’ social imagination, as they attempt in imagination to enter the minds and hearts of others, either from fiction or reality, and to deepen their sense of empathy with those imagined individuals in their situation. The monologue can take many forms: a poem by or about the person, a personal letter by her or him, a song text, a diary entry, and other types of text, both spoken and written, individual and in group work. The paper presents the concept of interior monologuing as developed by Linda Christensen (2000, 2001, 2009), and suggests its application in the EFL classroom where learners are encouraged to explore issues of social justice. In its second half, we provide a sample lesson plan centering on child labour as an important social issue. Numerous links to online video and text are given. Four ‘extensions’ from the draft lesson plan explore related topics, culminating in Extension 4 with a look at the social imagining of people with disabilities. This exercise in ‘imaginative stepping into the heart and mind of Others’ is viewed as part of a pedagogy of TESOL for transformative social justice, solidarity and equity. It is conceived as a contribution to critical pedagogy in the TEFL classroom and is a joint effort, based on the experience of both authors teaching in Thailand and Malaysia, and Bill in Bulgaria, Laos, Nepal and Israel/Palestine.


Students need opportunities to think deeply about other people---why they do what they do, why they think what they think. They also need chances to care about each other and the world. Interior monologues are a good place to start. Christensen, 2000, p. 131

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. A. Einstein

Boys in Ghana, sold by their parents into slavery in the fishing industry. Their bare feet

susceptible to many water borne diseases.


The paper sketches an approach that seeks to put students ‘inside’ the life worlds of others, exploring avenues to sharpening ‘critical social imagination’ in the EFL classroom. Its core is writing or speaking what are called ‘interior monologues.’ In such a monologue – structured as a poem, reflection, a letter, a journal or blog entry, a kind of autobiographical narrative or other form -- a student tries to imagine the thoughts of a character in literature, a movie, or a person in history or life at a specific point in time, assuming their persona. Often, the focus is just on an ordinary person. Interior monologuing asks the student: “How would you feel in that person’s place? Try to visualize and articulate that” (Christensen, 2000, pp. 134-136; Bigelow & Christensen, 2001; Christensen, 2001, 2009). This tool generates much original work, and the authors’ experience indicates plagiarism (from Internet or other students) is very rare.

In our view, such an approach is a classroom-based catalyst for transformative critical pedagogy in five areas:

  • To help build a transactional, more ‘constructivist’ ESL classroom, where students’ voices are heard in many modes and octaves, as contrasted with traditional ‘transmissional’ pedagogies (Karolides, 1992b, Reyes & Vallone, 2008;). In a recent critique of American schools, Gatto (2009) deplores the mechanisms of compulsory schooling which cripple imagination and discourage critical thinking. We suggest that interior monologues are one mode of exploration of Self and social reality that can counter this trend. A curriculum of social empathy is a catalyst to student creativity, a powerful stimulus to social imagination (Christensen, 2009).

  • To help provide a platform for experimentation in forms of cooperative learning (Jacobs, 2003), within a more democratic, student-centered matrix of discovery. This generates a space where students speak with one another about topics that matter, and listen and read each others’ interior monologues. That can encourage new forms of oral presentation and ‘ensemble work’ (Maley, 2008). These are especially needed in EFL in countries like China, where “Mute English” is recognized as an entrenched norm (Qiang, N., & Wolff, M., 2010), and students have little practice either in speaking or listening, nor is their speaking ability seriously tested. In India, students in rural environments likewise face formidable obstacles learning English, especially listening & speaking skills, as reflected in Andhra Pradesh (Yellapu, 2010; Chimirala, 2010). We need but recall that nearly three quarters of India’s population urban and rural lives on less than $2 a day, and their knowledge of English is often scanty. In Thailand, a tenacious reluctance to speak is often linked with the need not to ‘lose face’ by making mistakes in front of one’s peers, the culture of kreng jai, interpersonal deference. Holmes & Tangtongtavy (1995, pp. 52, 56; Adamson. 2005, passim) look at this core cultural value, whereby Thais may be reluctant to express direct feedback to their seniors on the job or to teachers in the classroom, a powerful “affective filter” in Krashen’s classic sense (1982, pp. 30-32). Related to this is sam ru am, a Thai Buddhist value emphasizing the ability to show restraint and composure in stressful situations; it can create the impression that the Thai learner is passive in discussions or classroom debate, and avoids “critical questioning” or is “culturally shy.” Foley (2005, p. 229) comments on the “the apparent lack of initiative, weakness and subservience that can result from an unhealthy degree of Krengjai.” ‘Imaginative monologuing’ can perhaps help to mitigate this widespread EFL malady of ‘speaker’s block.’ We feel the broader research context should be guided by growing insights from the “social ecology” of second-language acquisition and critical thinking pedagogy (Leather & van Dam, 2002).

  • To help foster new approaches central to Reader Response theory and practice in the teaching of literary and other texts (Rosenblatt, 1983; Ghaith & Madi, 2008; Karolides, 1992a), including developing meta-cognitive awareness (being able to think about one's own thinking and imagining), a crucial component in all learning (Henry, 2009).

  • To sharpen Emotional Intelligence (EI) and its corollary EQ (Churchill, 2007) in students and teachers, competencies for being better aware of emotions in their complexity, better able to tap and manage them, and spurring empathy for others. This human capacity is deemed ever more crucial today by many psychologists and educators (Goleman, 1995; Upadhyaya, 2008; Mayer, 2009), and is essential to the more ‘aesthetic EFL’ that Maley (2008) envisions. Can it be better taught? We believe interior monologues are a creative means for directly shaping EI.

  • To contribute to creating a space where students think, write and speak about aspects of social and economic justice, inequality and the need for equity in their own life worlds and societies, and beyond the borders, using the tool of interior monologue (Christensen, 2000). Christensen (2009) comments: “Students demonstrated both pain and outrage through their poetry and interior monologues, a fitting memorial to the children of Soweto. But […] also an expression of their understanding of the events in a way that quizzes or discussions miss” (p. 214). Classroom experience in North America shows that interior monologues (oral and written) are an inventive and effective instrument for galvanizing empathy and self-awareness, particularly for pupils from more disadvantaged backgrounds. The broader aim is to envision a society of enhanced social empathy, inclusion and concrete solidarity with the Other (Carianopol et al., 2002; Templer, 2008a, 2008b; Fox et al., 2009), a TESOL matrix where students are encouraged to become “a conscious, lucid agent of social transformation […] who seeks emancipation” (Amin, 2010). Monologuing can make this surprisingly concrete, as students are fast to recognize and appreciate.

Paper overview

The paper begins with a section presenting monologues as a pedagogical tool, and its connections with Reader Response and Emotional Intelligence pedagogy. This is followed by a section ‘constructing interior monologues.’ For concrete illustration, we look briefly at war and its horrors as a theme. We then move on to the prime focus area for the present paper: children’s rights and their abuse, centering on child labour, with a core lesson plan.1 That plan also has some extended activities, including a brief focus on people with disability, under the motto “we are all differently abled” (Liat Ben-Moshe). A final section discusses overcoming obstacles on the pathways to constructing interior monologues.

Imagining the thoughts and feelings of others

The critical thinking component developed here is a very concrete way of ‘giving a voice’ to an imagined character in a specific situation who might otherwise never be heard, and energizing social consciousness in the process. That goes to the very heart of what education for a critical thinking citizen anywhere on the planet should be. And it is a springboard to a kind of strategy in life-long learning, as we try to construct a “momentary entrance into another person’s life” (Christensen, 2000, p. 135). “The monologue technique gives structure to the assignment, but the freedom to write from anyone’s point of view allows students to mold the piece to the contours of their lives and interests” (Christensen, 2000, p. 135).

Linda Christensen has largely taught underprivileged pupils from inner-city Latino and African-American backgrounds in Oregon. She stresses: “My students walk out the school door into a social emergency. They are at the center of it. I believe that writing will help them both understand that emergency and work to change it” (2000, back cover). Linda underscores that “[t]eaching for joy and justice also means locating the curriculum in students’ lives. Many of my students experience injustice. […] I want students to examine why things are unfair, to analyze the systemic roots of that injustice, and to use their writing to talk back. Putting students’ lives at the center of the curriculum also tells them they matter—their lives, their ancestors’ lives are important” (2009, p. 4). Elsewhere she notes:

This is no easy accomplishment in a society that pits people against each other, offers greater or lesser amounts of privileges based on accidents of birth, and rewards exploitation with wealth and power. […] A social imagination prompts students to wonder about the social contexts that provoke hurtful behaviors, rather than simply to dismiss individuals as inherently "evil" or "greedy” (Bigelow & Christensen, 2001).

It should be borne in mind that trying to empathize with others we don’t know – which means most of our fellow humans anywhere, including even people you may know casually in your own life world, or even our own family – is a form of emotional and cognitive guess work. It helps to hone the social imagination -- a tool for a form of what Freirian educators call conscientization – learning to perceive sociopolitical and economic contradictions and act to change oppressive realities. But of course, as an exercise in expanding our own bonding with others, it is only an exercise in flexing the mind and heart. Empirical inquiry is needed on how much it actually changes students as readers, writers, learners – and persons. Christensen’s (2000, 2001, 2009) extended hands-on experience is a promising stimulus for action research.

Exercises in self-projection

Using interior monologues as a teaching tool is an exercise in self-projection into another person, or even other creature or inanimate object, written, oral or in groups. It hones critical thinking and raises consciousness, as students engage in “excavating emotional territory” of other imagined consciousness (Christensen, 2000). Students can find someone’s story in a newspaper article, a textbook, their own everyday experience, or elsewhere in the great landscape of culture, history and belles-lettres, present and past. And then, through imaginative empathy, students try to articulate something about that person’s innermost thoughts and emotions from their own point of view. It can be the monologue of a hungry girl arrested for stealing food, an orphan, a child labourer, a person who is sightless, legless, physically impaired, with some ‘exceptionality.’ It can be a girl from a poverty background trafficked into the sex trade, a contemporary form of human bondage. It can be a schoolchild being teased, laughed or bullied by others. It can be a soldier sent into battle, or the interior thoughts of a slave --- or even of the slave’s chain (Christensen, 2009, pp. 194-195). It can be the thoughts of an enemy soldier, a slave owner, someone persecuting or harming an innocent victim, even a shaheed terrorist (see David Rovics, “City of Jenin,” below). The potential spectrum of possible human situations to focus on is as broad as the human canvas in all its diversity and complexity.

Seeing beyond the walls of the Self, changing perceptual screens

Creating interior monologues, students learn to develop understanding about people whose

culture, race, gender or sexual orientation differs from their own. They imagine someone with a totally different social background, a particular job. They break down preconceived ideas about people from other cultures, other social classes, other life worlds as they spin out beyond their own – people “with whom, on the surface, they may appear to have little in common” (Christensen, 2000, p. 134).2 And they can even break down preconceptions about one’s own life world, and what we take for granted, changing their perceptual screens. In a similar vein, Gee (2008, p. 221) stresses that schools “ought to allow students […] to create new Discourses, and to imagine better and more socially just ways of being in the world.”

Beyond monologue, such social empathy pedagogy can also use forms (dramatic mini-genres) such as role play and improvisation, where several students write a sketch and perform it, with a monologue by one character framing the whole, or as a dialogue, a kind of mini-drama, as exemplified throughout Christensen’s more recent work (2009, esp. pp. 162-205).

Activating Emotional Intelligence

Such construction of interior monologues also likely sharpens another key element in critical pedagogy, the schooling of emotional intelligence. EI is comprised of an ensemble of competencies that involve recognizing and managing your own emotions as well as those of others, including self-awareness and empathy. Robinson (2008, pp. xii-xiii) stresses: “Emotional literacy is a way of knowing and being premised on care and empathy in educational contexts. […] Just as knowing academic content and applying pedagogical content knowledge are essential for effective science instruction so is emotional literacy.” Upadhyaya (2008) provides empirical evidence on the effectiveness of training for emotional intelligence in teacher education in northern India. Churchill (2007) has explored applications related to enhancing one’s EQ (emotional quotient), and we are certain that interior monologues are a powerful tool for such pedagogy. Mayer (2009) maintains an informative site online dealing with research on EI and controversies surrounding its investigation. Gustafson (2010) describes the current growing trend in American schools to incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) to encourage students to become more aware of their own feelings toward themselves and others. Yet this now popular approach may, in the subtext in Gustafson’s description, also be geared to making children more ‘manageable,’ controllable, precisely what Gatto (2009) vehemently critiques. So EI can be abused by educators to actually ‘pacify’ children by connecting them with their inner feelings and then training them to ‘control’ themselves, internalizing regimens of obedience to authority. All this needs the prism of a more finely attuned “social ecology” of learning (Leather & van Dam, 2002).

Reader Response

Interior monologuing can be conceived as a variant of core components in Reader Response theory, where readers are encouraged to identify with individuals in the stories, dramas and poems they read, and may “demonstrate an increasing ability to search for the underlying psychological attributes, long-range goals, and the meta-perspectives of the story characters” (Ghaith & Madi, 2008, p. 15). Interior monologues, by their very nature, spur greater meta-cognitive awareness. A number of chapters in Karolides (1992a) explore transactional theory – students interacting very personally with the text -- in its concrete dynamics in a Reader Response classroom. Duff (1992) utilizes Reader Response to develop an interior monologue assignment for Langston Hughes’ short story “On the Road,” a tale about a homeless African-American. His students are asked to imagine the thoughts of Sargeant, the main character, and to speak with his voice in answering the question: “How do you suppose Sargeant feels about what is happening to him?” (p. 209).3 Duff calls this ‘role visualization.’ Such visualizing of a character’s inner self is a proto-form of interior monologue, and we recommend that Reader Response approaches incorporate monologuing more centrally in their tool kit for imaginative transactions between reader and text.

Generating an’ imaginative tool kit’

Interior monologues can tap other people’s pain, their hopes and dreams. As the Root-Bernsteins (2003) see it, such empathizing is part of a critical “imaginative tool kit.” That kit is a set of instruments to “reassert the fundamental role of the private and sensual in creative thinking, so often overlooked” (p. 377). Such ‘tool kits’ for the creative social imagination can be developed and utilized in the EFL classroom. They are indeed central to what Maley (2008) has called for in shifting to a more aesthetic, ‘artistic’ EFL curriculum, grounded on imagination. That tool kit can also include ‘self-questioning taxonomies’ (Buehl, 2009, pp. 157-161) that provides students with strategies for generating their own questions about texts and their own responses.
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