When one thinks of the term “storytelling,” the first thing that comes to mind might be a book or play. But what about storytelling as a tool? Or storytelling in the classroom?
STORY:GNV, presented by Self Narrate, had three practitioners speaking on the education track at University of Florida’s Heavener School of Business on Oct. 21. Self Narrate is an organization that exists “to provide opportunities for at-risk, marginalized individuals to own their stories and experience empowerment through the power of story,” according to its website.
Storytelling enhances a student’s personal and educational growth and personalizes the method of teaching for individual students. It allows educators to captivate the students in a new and innovative way.
Leif Stringer, a social emotional learning educator and communication specialist, held an information session at the STORY:GNV event titled “Collaborative Classrooms through Social and Emotional Learning” to show how the learning environment is altered by social emotional learning through cooperation, trust and mutual respect.
Stringer pointed out that some educators might feel that if their students had certain qualities, such as self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills and self-management, they would get more out of their teaching efforts. Social emotional learning gives students support and friendship and reduces conflict in the classroom.
“As a teacher, ultimately, my role is to raise well-rounded human beings,” Stringer said in a phone interview. “The social emotional capacities of my students is what ultimately has them survive.”
Stringer said it’s important for educators to study cases of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) as well. If you know what is going on in people’s lives, would it change the way you interact? This goes beyond just the students and applies to other people in the environment, such as teachers and principals. Educators tend to become affected by students’ problems as well as having to deal with their own personal problems.
But how does one get to the story?
Stringer introduced “connection circles” in his classroom, where students get in a circle and the educator asks questions about what it’s like to feel a certain way. This activity teaches the students three things: It’s OK to have feelings, it’s OK to express these feelings, and they are not alone in having these feelings. The connection circles create dialogue and builds trust with the teacher and amongst the students.
“There are students out there that want their real lives to be a part of their learning,” Stringer said. “They don’t want to check their lives at the door and come in and pretend to be a robot student.”
The goal of storytelling in the classroom, Stringer said, is to leave young people with an inner compass and to discover what needs are met and unmet. Stringer’s key takeaway from the session is that teachers and adults need empathetic listening skills.
“More unlikely friendships come out of storytelling,” Stringer said. “That’s probably the most beautiful thing. All the ways that we’re divided brings us together when we learn each other’s stories.”
There was also a session titled “Students as Storytellers: A Pedagogy of Human Connectedness” led by Nicole Harris, a teacher at Gainesville High School and director of Canes on Da’ Mic Poetry Club. This session addressed how to make classroom discussions into life-changing experiences for the students through memoir and poetry to establish human connectedness.
It is important to understand the “youth voice,” Harris said. “We cannot expect teenagers to get involved in a macro-level discussion if we cannot connect with them on a micro level.”
The key to keeping this human connectedness is to teach her students to survive through resilience.
By knowing and understanding students’ stories, educators are able to see what is really going on and try to get them help. Harris said that one cannot ask students to be compassionate with each other until they are compassionate with their own issues.
Harris also pointed out that teaching students how to communicate will also help them move up in life, as speaking skills can help lead to careers. It wasn’t until she put together the presentation for the Storytelling Gainesville event that she fully realized she had a storytelling classroom. Harris makes her students look inward through a variety of activities that she implements. These activities are designed to help students realize they are not alone, to focus on both their future and present reality, to feel warmth, and to confront their own stories while also helping their classmates. Harris trains her students to be storytellers and brings them into a collective group of people.
Lisa D’Souza, the director for career and leadership programs at the University of Florida Heavener School of Business, held a session called “Teaching Diversity and Resilience Through Story.” This session was about the Human Library, a worldwide movement for social change, and how it was brought to UF to teach freshmen business students about resilience and diversity through storytelling.
“I really believe that leadership is something everyone can learn,” D’Souza said in a phone interview. “I don’t think people are born leaders, and I think the same for professional development.”
D’Souza believes that it is important for college students to have face-to-face conversations, especially with the increase in social media and the decrease in empathy. With the hard transitions, many students need to learn resilience in college, since this is the first time many students experience real failure, and mental illnesses are more prevalent.
“Storytelling is so powerful because it’s personal and it’s something we’ve been doing since humans have been around,” D’Souza said. “It’s one of the most engaging ways to communicate.”
She introduced the Human Library to the business school at UF and made it a requirement for the freshman business class, Warrington Welcome. The Human Library came from the need to teach diversity in an interactive way in the business school. Heavener is focused on growth and professional development, but there wasn’t a lot about diversity. The Human Library brought in diversity and allowed students to have interactive relationships.
The purpose of the Human Library was to foster understanding, reduce prejudice and celebrate diversity. D’Souza and her colleagues felt the students should recognize that everyone has a story. As D’Souza said, “Stories provide hope.”
“We cannot expect teenagers to get involved in a macro-level discussion if we cannot connect with them on a micro level.” -Nicole Harris Teacher at Gainesville High School