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The Story That’s Everywhere, Yet Overlooked

A team of educators from Prospect Sierra School adapt the format of This American Life to bring transformative storytelling to their school.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

October 1, 2012

This post is the first in a series that highlights best practices from Ashoka's network of Changemaker Schools.

What if NPR’s darling host Ira Glass came to your school and told the stories of the people at the heart of it?  What if there were a This American Life that illuminated your school identity in the way that that beloved radio program illuminates our national one? That’s what Britt Anderson and her colleagues at Prospect Sierra (PS) set out to do when they created This PS Life a storytelling project for students, teachers, and staff at the San Francisco Bay Area school.

Britt, Prospect Sierra's Director of Diversity and Inclusion, first tried out her concept with teachers. At a faculty meeting, she and her close collaborator Suzette Duncan grouped teachers by birth order, creating one group of oldest children, one group of middle children, one group of youngest children, one group of twins, and one group of only children. Each group discussed what they liked and didn’t like about their role in their family, as well as what they’d like others to know about their experiences being in that position. Britt and Suzette captured the conversations with a digital recorder, edited them to form a narrative, added photos, and shared the resulting podcast with the student body. The project was a huge success.  While learning more about their teachers, students also identified characteristics they had in common with the adults in their lives.

To launch This PS Life, the Prospect Sierra team asked the students to create a list of stories they wanted to tell. Every few weeks, Britt, Suzette, and other colleagues hosted dialogues with students who were united by a common experience, whether wearing glasses, or speaking another language at home, or being a vegetarian (see the video below.) They turned each of these conversations into a podcast, which they shared with the school community at large. As the project caught on, middle school students in Britt’s elective class started facilitating conversation groups on topics of their choice, which often touched on weightier issues like the experiences of being multi- or bi-racial, of having parents going through a divorce or separated, or of having LGBT parents.

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These conversations were fun, of course, but were also much more than that.  Students who previously felt isolated finally felt that they were able to connect with their classmates. Students who didn’t normally express their emotions were noticeably moved by their classmates’ stories. Students learned to question their actions and assumptions to make sure school was a safe place for everyone. And it's not "just" talk: a whole-school This PS Life conversation spurred the creation of a new program, a buddy system that pairs up new students with veteran students.

Says Britt, "It's wonderful to have found a replicable story telling structure that encourages everyone in our community to practice the skills necessary…to build a more inclusive community."

Try it in Your Community

You too can create a This PS Life project for your class, your school, or your family. First,  identify a characteristic or experience around which you can create separate groups. Have each group talk about what it is like to have that characteristic, including what they appreciate about that characteristic, what is difficult about having that characteristic, and what they would like other people to know about their experience having that characteristic. If you have a recording device, capture the conversations and play the voice recording over pictures to create your own podcast.  No Ira Glass needed.

Photo is courtesy of mikes rite