City Lit Blog

Empathy and its museum in the ESOL classroom

Story added 21st Jul 2020

Empathy Museum - A Mile in My Shoes

City Lit recently won a grant from the GLA ESOL Plus Arts programme to develop an ESOL project in collaboration with the Empathy Museum and a professional storyteller.

Over the next year, two groups of ESOL students will work on their storytelling skills to create digital stories about themselves. As with the Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes exhibitions, learners will each donate a pair of shoes to create an installation shoe shop. Visitors will choose a pair of shoes and listen to their owner’s story while ‘walking a mile’ in their footwear. They will then be invited to feedback on how they feel about the stories, and the storytellers will in turn create a final exhibition of their reflections on the listeners’ comments. Due to the COVID-19 situation, the learners are devising new digital ways to recreate this empathetic experience. 

In this blog post, City Lit ESOL tutor Louisa Piccirillo-Kadri explains how she first discovered the Empathy Museum and how she is bringing the museum into the ESOL classroom…

On 30th April 2017 my mum died and I found myself in deepest grief but I kept this inside me. Our relationship was incredibly close and so when it came to an end, I found myself at a loss for how to get my grief ‘out’.  I looked it up and found that walking could do me good. I’m not a good walker. I can’t just ‘enjoy a jolly good walk’. Sundays were the worst. Ever since I can remember Sunday was grandparents’ day or when my mum and I would do something together. Just randomly on my tube journey to work, I was flicking through TimeOut London and that’s how I discovered an exhibition called A Mile in My Shoes at the Empathy Museum. One Sunday, I decided to set off to visit the museum and so the story begins…

I went inside the small shoebox style museum – just one room and was asked my shoe size. I put on a pair of black lace ups and earphones and listened to the story of a Syrian doctor in London. As I listen to the Syrian doctor, I listen to his accent – I listen to his intonation and through this I hear his story. I sit down and find myself surrounded by a modern block of flats to one side and a row of ancient tombstones on the other. This is London. The story is moving and I walk back to listen to another one.  I listen to a Brazilian lady talking about her life in London. She loathes it but loves it too and just can’t quite leave. The story tellers have carried me away and for a few minutes I have sat opposite them and listened and… empathised. 

I never really thought about ‘empathise’ or ‘empathy’ or even being ‘empathetic’.  Never really – until now.  I feel vulnerable in my grieving state and I am able to feel the vulnerability of my two storytellers.  I teach these people. They are from my world. I rethink the concept of empathy. I tell friends about my experiences. One by one, they too visit and listen and take pleasure in listening to the different stories. 

Back at work, I start thinking how I can use this experience in the classroom. I choose the story of Ryan Parry, the Australian paramedic. I feel an immediate tie with the story not only, because of the stresses and strains of his job but also because for a part of his story there is a reference to two sleeping young boys in a bedroom. The paramedic instantly does his very best to bring their father back to consciousness, but he is unsuccessful. Since this time, I’ve listened to this same story many times and each time, it strikes me. I choose to use the story in a grammar class. The focus on my lesson is on the use of the article. I take out all the articles in the transcript and have the students work together to insert an appropriate article. They then listen to the story again and check their answers. It is essentially grammar in context. Their homework is to visit the Empathy Museum. The students go. Then they go again with their flatmates, their aunties, their cousins’ etc.  My teaching job is done. My students have slipped out of the classroom and into the real world. They are inspired to hear and understand more – and it’s all in English – not their first language. 

Empathy Museum

Sometime later, I’m asked to give a presentation to my peers at City Lit. I include my experience of the Empathy Museum. I ask my peers what they think. There is a lot of excitement in the room.

Suddenly, there was a chance to bid for the GLA’s ESOL Plus Art funding and turn these ideas into a collaboratory project. Frantic bid writing ensues. It’s nearly Christmas. Contact Empathy Museum. Please reply to our emails! Contact Storyteller. Great. She’s on board. Empathy Museum contact us. Bid submitted. Shortlisted. Interviewed. Success! Now we can now move forward.

Working with the Empathy Museum, meeting the director and the professionals who make the whole thing work its magic is a dream to me.

A pre-course assessment is drawn up.  There is a lot of interest from learners. I think long and hard about the ten week scheme of learning. My aim to have ESOL learners tell it how it was’.  I have a lot to learn. 

In my first week of our course, I decide to present a context wherein a native speaker starts storytelling. My resource is BBC Sounds Where to Mate? A mix of dialogues between cab drivers and their fares. The students are paired into taxi drivers and their fares. They role play their encounter and some manage to develop a story through their short exchange of two minutes. They are brilliant in their spontaneity. The homework task is to write up their ‘taxi’ story from class or in real life.

Week 2 arrives and I hear the first batch of stories. We also look at types of shoe, from Wellington Boots to Brogues and flip flops and say how they look ‘well worn – not worn in yet – comfortable – stylish and so on.  We look at personalities that shoes can reflect: arrogant, classy, straightforward, down to earth and more.  We then have a brief look at shoes idioms ‘down at heel’, ‘well-heeled’.  The story listened to is one of overcoming prejudice and bigotry and visiting a foreign land, a mother by herself losing her youngest son and him eventually being found. The students have to bear this theme in mind to replicate their own stories – The Road Untravelled. 

In Week 3 we listen to my Ryan Parry story. The students are asked about the background sounds to the story and how this impacts on the story telling.  They all seem to understand the elements of empathy in the story.  They understand the tragedy of the story – but I wonder if they sympathise or empathise.  I pose the questions such as ‘What kind of person is the speaker?’ and ‘How does he relate to his subject?’ The students can answer the questions truthfully but I wonder if they can transfer this understanding when telling their own stories.  Their Week 3 story is ‘A Day in the Life…’

I have received many stories and the students are doing their utmost. But I have very few ‘real stories’.  Stories that evoke a true sense of empathy. I have a story from a child psychologist who has helped a young boy gain enough confidence to wave and say ‘Hi’ and then as he leaves with his mother through a peel of gunshots, is wounded…I have a story of a volunteer in a call centre giving AIDS counselling – a man calls and comes to terms with the fact that he has tested positive. I have two ‘nearly there’ stories and as I give my feedback I realise my student is upset.  She has done her very best…In times of stress and worry in the classroom – I try and turn to humour. 

Week 4 has arrived. The lessons have now formed a structure to meet the needs of this group of students. Pronunciation focus, describing shoes and personalities and developing a different story with a different context. This week is Lockdown. I use BBC Four Storyville the BARD prison documentaries.  The inmate begins with an English that is so rich to listen to – it just has to be recycled in the classroom!  He speaks of prison warehousing people and declares ‘it is not about rehabilitating and it is not about creating productive beings’.  I play four minutes of the documentary and ask the students to transfer the word ‘prison’ to ‘Lockdown’. 

Let’s see what next week brings…

Louisa Piccirillo-Kadri


City Lit ESOL Courses

City Lit has a range of ESOL, English, Maths and Digital Skills courses for Hearing and Deaf learners from pre-entry to advanced. 

For more information contact: or call: 020 7492 2511.

Browse our ESOL courses here >

Upcoming courses > 

ESOL pronunciation: stage 1 (level 1-2)

ESOL and reading stories: vocabulary, discussion, critique (level 2)

ESOL entry 1

Grammar in practice: intermediate (entry 3 -level 1)

Communicating at work: ESOL skills for the office (level 1)


Step inside the Empathy Museum