The recent presidential election was contentious, blistering in its attacks, and deeply personal in its tone. When the results were finally announced, the sense of division in the country only seemed to be heightened. Protests soon occurred on our streets and on our campuses. And if the election were not a topic in our classes previously, the aftershocks seemed to be a fact most teachers felt a need to discuss. We needed, I believe, to demonstrate the possibility of creating a space where open and honest dialogue could enable the finding of some common ground.
The question we faced as teachers, however, was “How?”
In taking on such work, I believe, we must resist the pull to imagine our classes as mirroring the coarse divisions of the past election season. In each of us resides an inner complexity that too rarely has a venue to be expressed. Each of us carries a sense of what a just world, enriched by such complexity, might allow, and the desire to build such a world exists as a collaborative vision for all of us. My role as a teacher is to create a space where that complexity is not only expressed, but woven into a common narrative which can allow my class to have difficult, but necessary, conversations.
One of the tools I use to create this space is the “Story of Us” workshop. I learned this workshop through being involved in community organizing – undertaking the difficult work of trying to get individuals to sign on to a common project. By the time the “Story of Us” occurs in the workshop, the participants have shared a story about who they are and what brought them to the workshop. They have practiced forming a common agenda, developing decision making procedures, and soon will move to forming a plan of action. The “Story of Us” is designed to occur just before the “plan of action” and encapsulate what they have learned about each other, confirm the common values they have discovered, and point to work that still needs done.
My class is at a similar moment. My students have shared personal experiences. They have developed a common intellectual agenda and developed a way of talking which helps them decide where the conversation should go. They are about to move to building projects for the end of the term. Yet I believe the aftermath of the election has hurt this hard won sense of trust and collaboration. I am using the “Story of Us” as a starting point to rebuild this sense of community and, as importantly, to help students understand the complexity of their classmates. It is a reminder of the intersecting beliefs that allow action to occur. In fact, in almost all classes I have taught, I have found deploying this workshop to be a powerful way to have students recognize what they have accomplished and what they can achieve together as the term concludes.
The “Story of Us” process is pretty simple - see the linked worksheets based on the work of Marshall Ganz - and results in a set of common values being expressed and endorsed by the class:
- Team Breakout Session: Story of Us
- Worksheet: Developing Your Story of Us
- Coaching Tips: Story of Us
- Worksheet: Coaching Your Teammates' Stories of Us
Since the worksheets go into minute by minute detail, I will focus on our role as teachers during the workshop.
First, our role is to make sure that the schedule is followed. This ensures it will fit into the class period. (Here it is structured for a 50-minute class.)
Second, our role is to enact the strong listening required by each student in class. We might do this by telling our own “Story of Us,” what values we have heard the class expect, what work we can now undertake. We might also visit each group, asking questions which help students form their narrative.
Third, our role is to highlight the need for a strong narrative structure. What choice did this classroom (or larger student) community face? What choice did it make? What was the outcome? In my class, which was about politics and race, the challenge was that students often spoke ineloquently about their beliefs. My class had to decide whether to listen literally or to attempt to hear the point trying to be made. They chose the latter and, because of that choice, we built a trusting community that was able to gain a greater understanding of the complexity of race in the U.S.A.
Fourth, when students are selected to share their stories to the whole class, our role is to ask students what values they hear in each speech, writing them on the board. Our role is to then conclude the class with a statement on how these common values can help us continue our work. (We should also make sure that after each speech the students applaud for the speaker.)
Depending on your class, how they best operate, you might decide to pass these worksheets out the day before. This will let them prepare a bit. You might also ask them to look online for “Story of Us Marshall Ganz” which will let them see how individuals in the full workshop have structured their speeches. Those search terms will also provide them videos of the full “Story of Us” workshops to watch, like this one:
Although such background isn’t necessary, I have found this usually helps folks visualize the work. And if you are intrigued by how narrative can help create community, you might find it interesting. Here I should also add, I talk about Ganz, his workshops, and their role in a writing class in my textbook, Writing Communities.
Finally, if you send me videos of your students’ “Story of Self,” I’ll try to link them to his blog post. (Though we will need student permission.) Also please feel free to comment below or write with any questions.
Let’s begin, that is, to build our own community of “us.”