Community Engagement Project: my story+your story=our story

Background to Community Engagement Project

The Community Engagement Project seems to have coincided with a pivotal and defining time for me. I am of course referring to the massive disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the social and emotional turmoil that has ensued after the tragic death of George Floyd. To me, it feels as if the project was created for “such a time as this.”

If you know the story of Queen Esther, you will know that when her relative Mordecai learns of Haman’s (the king’s advisor) plot to annihilate all of the Jewish people, he encourages her to go before the Persian King Xerxes and, at her peril, to plead for the lives of her people to be spared. Mordecai sends her this message: For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this? Esther 4:14 Esther recognizes the gravity of the moment and persuades the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire. Her people are saved. She made a difference.

I am still trying to figure out why there seems to be a worldwide explosion of intolerance. It really makes me smad. (Word smash: sad + mad = smad.) On the other hand, this is a good reminder that we as a society have not yet learnt how to live equitably with those who are different from us. A really great article by Karen Murphy and Dylan Wray, South Africans Respond to American Racism July 2020, addresses the ongoing work which needs to be done to bolster the fragility of democratic rights for all citizens. Murphy and Dylan believe that the work of civil society matters deeply, that individuals can make enormous contributions to their societies, that change is hard but that it is possible and that communities can band together across differences to realize something new.

My big questions on returning to school are: How are my students navigating the current turmoil?How can I help them process the divisive and confusing times they are living in? During this weird Summer of lock-down I have spent a lot of time listening to podcasts and three in particular have inspired my idea for a community engagement project: The Moth Radio Hour; Story Corps and This American Life

The answer to my questions is: I can help my students navigate the current social and political turmoil by giving them an opportunity to share their stories with each other.

Conference Proposal

How to use personal stories in Middle School to create a culturally sensitive learning environment that encourages students to practice cultural humility and develop cultural competence.

This ignite session highlights curriculum from The Moth, Story Corps and Facing History and Ourselves and demonstrates various digital tools students could choose to tell their stories, including Anchor, Book Creator, Canva, StoryMap JS, Adobe Spark, Storyboard That!

The presentation will be a snapshot of my students’ journeys as they explore their own culture, create their own story and publish it using the format of their choice: their story could be read, listened to or watched.

Conference Venue and Format

I am submitting my proposal for the NCCE March conference at the Washington State Convention Center, March 17- 19 2021.  The proposal will be for a 10 minute Ignite session at NCCE.  IGNITE sessions are 10-minute fast-paced presentations that are intended to “Ignite” the passion, curiosity, and interest of the audience in a creative and unexpected way. Each presenter will use his/her own device and may have exactly 20 slides.

Then slides will document how my students:

  • work through the process of understanding both cultural humility and cultural competence
  • work on their stories from draft to publication
  • make appropriate and deliberate choice of digital tool to tell their story
  • Reflect on their own journey in understanding cultural humility and cultural competence in this unit

Target Audience

The target audience is K- 8 educators who integrate stories, story-telling and narrative writing into their curriculum, for example teachers of  English Language Arts, ELL, Languages, Humanities or Digital Storytelling. 

The presentation would be of most value to teachers who want to be intentional about building robust, real relationships among all their students by valuing their voice and allowing each student the safe space to make their culture shine.

Connection to ISTE standards

My hope is that this presentation may spark some ideas for teachers who are looking for ways their students can meet the ISTE Student Standards:

(ISTE Student Standard 1)
Students use their own voice to share their story, make their own choice for publication of the final product, and reflect on their learning process. 
Digital Citizen
(ISTE Student Standard 2)
Students practice safe and responsible research and collaboration.
Creative Communication
(ISTE Student Standard 6)
Students choose an appropriate digital tool to complement their story-telling form. 
Global Collaborator (ISTE Student Standard 7) Students share their story within our community using digital platforms.

Rationale for Proposal

Sharing our stories builds understanding & empathy

Stories can be transforming for the storytellers as well as their audience. People often end up by telling a story that they did not expect, and in the process they create and share a spark in the darkness – a kernel of truth that exists inside their own experience.
Transformative Storytelling for Social Change

A.J. Juliani explains the neuroscience correlation between story and empathy like this: The short version of the science is this: Our brains pay special attention to stories, engaging more areas of the mind then when we hear or see facts. And when we learn a good story, our brains synthesize the neurochemical oxytocin. This helps us feel others’ emotions and empathize with them. To hear more listen to his podcast or read the article Stories are Key to Building Empathy

I appreciate A.J. Juliani’s straight forward explanation showing how we can change our prejudicial (judging without knowing) ideas about others simply by hearing their story.

Step 1: You don’t care about someone, something, or you have a pre-conceived notion of how you should feel about someone or something.

Step 2: You hear, read, or watch a story about that someone or something.

Step 3: You have a newfound respect, understanding, and empathy for that someone or something.

Sharing our stories develops cultural humility

While investigating how to create a culturally sensitive learning environment, I discovered a post by Eucharia Borden (2018) which referenced work done by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia in 1998 in which they coined the term cultural humility

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) cultural humility is a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique whereby the individual not only learns about another’s culture, but one starts with an examination of her/his own beliefs and cultural identities. Although the term was first used in the education of physicians, I’ve seen it now with reference to educators, but not with reference to learners.

An article by Julia Sufrin, posted in the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health’s blog, highlights three things to know about cultural humility. Firstly, a person cannot begin to understand the makeup and context of another person’s life without being aware and reflective of their own background and situation first; Secondly, cultural humility is not the same as cultural competence because the goal of cultural competency is to learn about the other person’s culture rather than reflect on one’s own background; thirdly, cultural humility requires historical awareness … By recognizing the failures of the past, [we] can all contribute to building a better future.

Cultural humility.  I love this idea. The term implies that any attempt at cultural understanding or cultural tolerance begins with knowing our own story and then listening and valuing someone’s story. The classroom seems a great place to start this process.

Sharing our stories nurtures a culturally sensitive learning environment

In a previous post I suggested four characteristics of a culturally sensitive learning environment:
1. Students feel equal
2. Students feel they belong
3. Students feel affirmed
4. Students feel free to share their culture

In a culturally sensitive learning environment the teacher practices cultural competence and helps students develop cultural competency. According the National Education Association, cultural competence is defined as having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families. It is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our [world] a tapestry.

Students learn about the values, traditions, and uniqueness of each other by sharing their personal stories. Within the safety of a culturally sensitive classroom, students can feel free to be in a place where, as Neil Gaiman shares in his foreword to The Moth Presents, All These Wonders, “Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.”

After listening to some of the student contributions from The Moth podcast and reading their blog, Dispatches from The Moth, I realize that The Moth approach to story sharing could be powerful for my students to learn each others stories. I have signed up to receive Moth curriculum. If you are a classroom teacher, you can access the form here.

Writing Workshop

In October I will present a 4 week writing workshop to our 6th grade class. I’ve called the workshop my story+your story = our story to help our students understand the power of sharing personal stories. The workshop will be four 40 minute sessions per week. I will add lesson plans and rubrics to this post in October. The lessons will use adapted content from The Moth Education Curriculum, Story Corps, and curated stories just for kids from This American Life

Just to give you a teaser from The Moth, here is a quick summary from Storytelling School with The Moth: Weekly Storytelling Activity #27, from August 18:

The post begins with an introduction: As we all try to find our new normal, we hope we can bring you a bit of joy, intrigue, and empathy. For this week’s blog, we’re taking a look at a story about finding comfort and strength in a tradition, during a scary and unknown time.
Then Students listen to or watch Luna Azcurrain tell her story, Abuelo, Apples and Me. The form of writing being taught is scene, and students are asked some guiding questions about the scene of the story. Then a game of “Have you ever…” with questions to help students brainstorm ideas for their own stories which they are encouraged to write and share.

The technology tools that help us share our stories

There are a plethora of technology tools and websites available for creating and sharing all forms of storytelling. I have perused many lists curated by others, but I will share two that I think are useful. The first from Common Sense Education, Apps and Sites for Storytelling. This is a scrolling list of 42 Apps and sites that according to Common Sense, help students of all ages tell their stories in compelling, well-structured, and thoughtful ways. The second is an open education resource, DS106. This is a community curated source and the sources need careful vetting by classroom teachers. I like this list because digital storytelling tools are categorized by assignment type (visual, audio, coding, mash-up, fanfic, design, etc.)

My plan is to give students a choiceboard from which they can decide on a presentation format for their story. The choice board will include:

Podcast Anchor
Graphic Novel Book Creator
Video Adobe Spark, FlipGrid
Comic Make Beliefs Comix, Book Creator
Story Map StoryMapJS
Narrative/dialogue/Scene Microsoft Word


The Art and Craft of Storytelling. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Borden, E. (2020, February 24). Cultural Humility and the Christian School: ACSI. Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Conference2021. (2020, June 10). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Education Program: Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

ISTE Standards for Students. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Juliani, A. (2018, December 17). Stories Are the Key to Building Empathy. Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Murphy, K., & Wray, D. (2020, July 17). South Africans Respond to American Racism. Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Stories Kids Seem to Like. (2020, March 29). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Sufrin, J. (2019, November 05). 3 Things to Know: Cultural Humility. Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Ways to use Story Corps in your classroom. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

Why are personal and collective stories important for social transformation? (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2020, from

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