214. Transformative Storytelling

From the earliest days of human society, storytelling has played an important role in transmitting and sharing knowledge. In this episode, Laura Colket and Tracy Penny Light joins us to discuss how storytelling can be used in higher ed to help us reflect on and understand the rich diversity and the commonalities that exist within our educational communities.

Laura and Tracy work together in the Department of Educational Services at St. George’s University in Grenada. Laura is an Associate Professor, the Director of the Master of Education Program, and the Associate Director of the Leadership and Excellence in Academic Development Division in the Department of Educational Services. Tracy is a professor in the Master of Education Program and the Director of the Leadership in Excellence in Academic Development Division. Laura and Tracy are co-editors of Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future, and together they founded the Center for Research on Storytelling in Education.



John: From the earliest days of human society, storytelling has played an important role in transmitting and sharing knowledge. In this episode, we examine how storytelling can be used in higher ed to help us reflect on and understand the rich diversity and the commonalities that exist within our educational communities.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Laura Colket and Tracy Penny Light who work together in the Department of Educational Services at St. George’s University in Grenada. Laura is an Associate Professor, the Director of the Master of Education Program, and the Associate Director of the Leadership and Excellence in Academic Development Division in the Department of Educational Services. Tracy is a professor in the Master of Education Program and the Director of the Leadership in Excellence in Academic Development Division. Laura and Tracy are co-editors of Becoming: Transformative Storytelling for Education’s Future, and together they founded the Center for Research on Storytelling in Education. Welcome, Laura and Tracy.

Tracy: Thanks so much.

Laura: Thank you for having us. We’re happy to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Laura, are you drinking tea?

Laura: I am. I am drinking bush tea and if any of your listeners are from the Caribbean, they will know what that is. But it’s essentially like an herbal tea, lots of good stuff in here.

Rebecca: Awesome. How about you, Tracy?

Tracy: I am, Laura made me go get my tea just for this. So I’m drinking a tumeric and ginger tea.

Rebecca: Nice.

John: And I am drinking a Tea Forté black currant tea.

Rebecca: A good favorite. I’m back to my East Frisian today.

John: Very good. We’ve invited you here to discuss your new book. Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of Becoming?

Laura: So for me, this came from some assignments that I had given over the years for my students who were either wanting to become educators, were currently educators, had been educators for a long time, or were educational leaders. And I had just really seen the power of these different assignments. One of them was an educational autobiography statement, and another one was a teaching philosophy statement. And I started to see not just how powerful those were individually, but when those were written and reflected on in relation to each other, it became even more powerful. And so I knew that I wanted to somehow make this process more accessible to other educators more broadly. And then Tracy and I met and sparks flew, and we both had this shared passion for storytelling, for professional growth, and it really was just a perfect partnership. I’ll also mention that we also collaborated with our colleague Adam Carswell, who’s not here today because he’s running a school in the midst of all of this COVID craziness. And so he’s not here, but he was also involved in the book as well.

Tracy: Yeah. And similarly for me, I have been working with eportfolios for about the last few decades… and so reflection and storytelling…really just an innate part of portfolio pedagogy. And I remember one day, we were sitting in the office and thinking about the power of storytelling and sharing the different experiences that we’ve had with our different assignments. And we had this crazy idea that we should create a center and then I said, “And why don’t we just really aim high and write a book?” [LAUGHTER] So it sort of evolved from there.

Laura: The other thing that I’ll say, too, is that the origin of the title, Becoming, comes from a Paulo Freire quote. He says that, “Human beings are always in the process of becoming.” And I actually have that quote tattooed on my arm for over 10 years now. So when we were writing this, it seemed like that was a natural fit for the title. And speaking of Freire, we really were standing on the shoulders of giants as we created this book, because in addition to his significant influence, we also were influenced by people like Maxine Greene, who says “It’s simply not enough to reproduce the way that things are.” And bell hooks who reminds us that, and this is a quote of hers, “Professors who embrace the challenge of self-actualization will be better able to create pedagogical practices that engage students, providing them with ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply.” And bell hooks’s book Teaching to Transgress actually had a big influence on me as I was imagining the assignments for my students that I mentioned earlier that became the foundation for this book, because in her first chapter she talks about her experiences as a student in relation to her approach to teaching which she calls “engaged pedagogy.” And so these scholars, and many more, really had a significant influence on the origins of this book. And ultimately, we see critical storytelling in terms of both uncovering our own stories, and also listening to and really hearing the stories of others. How that can help us to interrupt harmful patterns and practices in education and how this process can really be a spark for much-needed transformation in the field.

Tracy: It’s so interesting, I think that often we forget that our students have their own stories. And just encouraging them to know thyself. I remember one of my students created a portfolio and she had a page that was about “know thyself,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s so nice that that’s one of the things that she was taking away from the class.” But really encouraging our learners, and we work with faculty as well, to really dive deeply into who they are, what their experiences have been, and how that shaped who they are as either learners and/or educators or educational leaders is just really something to watch. And I certainly have had the experience working with faculty members who have these aha moments, they’ve never thought about their own stories or where their practices come from. And when they start to uncover those, they realize that they had a really powerful mentor or that they had maybe a terrible learning experience that caused them to shift their pedagogical approach. And it’s just such a nice thing to do in community… to reflect on stories as well as just to do for ourselves. And that’s really, I think, underpinning a lot of the work that we did with the authors in the book, and as we thought through the structure of the book itself.

Laura: I also want to mention our publisher DIO Press, and we chose them because we felt so connected with their mission as a progressive, socially-just publishing house, and it really aligned with what we were trying to accomplish with the book.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the intended audience of your book, and also how your contributors were selected?

Laura: Sure, I will take the audience question. And it’s really intended for educators and educational leaders at all levels, all contexts, subject areas, engaging in this work individually, or even in a group as well. I can give a couple examples of how we’ve been using the book already. One is in the Master of Education Program. Our students this term, in one of the courses I teach, Education in a Multicultural Society, I created a project around this book. And so the students began by choosing groups based on the different sections in the book. So one is “Claiming Identity,” one is “Border Crossing,” one is “Anti-Colonial Ways of Being,” one is “Social Class, Politics and Education,” and then the last one is “Changing Pedagogical Practices.” So they went into groups based on the sections and did a bit of a jigsaw activity around it. Everybody read the introduction and conclusion chapter, but then, in their groups, they read the chapters in their section, and then designed a workshop for the rest of their colleagues in the program around what they learned from the chapters in the book and the implications for being an educator in a multicultural society. So that was a really powerful learning experience for them. And we are also now using the book in a new faculty-learning community that we have started at our university, where the faculty in the community are using eportfolios to reflect on their past and present and imagined futures in relation to teaching and learning. And so we’re using this book in that inquiry community to go through this process with all the faculty who are involved, and so we’re excited to see how that turns out as well.

Tracy: And in terms of how we chose the authors. We really knew that we wanted to have educators and educational leaders from across social locations and from different cultural identities. And, of course—I don’t know if you’ve done this before—when you put out a call for book chapters, you know, you get what you get. And we were just really fortunate that we knew people who we forwarded the call to, they forwarded it to their networks. Similarly, people that I knew from the eportfolio community sort of shared. So, the people that ended up contributing just turned out to be from all different countries, with all different backgrounds, K-12 educators, folks in higher education, educational leaders. So it was just a really fortuitous kind of a thing, and the people who answered the call are the people who participated in the book process itself. So we didn’t set out to target any one group of people, we really wanted a broad set of perspectives for contributing to the book. And then in terms of how the sections of the book unfolded, as people wrote their stories they just sort of logically fell into these really lovely buckets. And we were able to group them, even though there are a lot of similarities across the chapters and a lot of shared experiences, which I think was really something that came out of the whole collaborative process that we engaged in.

Laura: Yeah, and I did want to say something about that collaborative process, because it was really powerful. When we first put out the call, this was before COVID, so their first round, their first draft of their chapters, were all written before COVID and then we gave feedback. And as they were working on revising their chapters, that’s when the pandemic hit us. And so, their revisions included reflections on what was happening to them at the time, which was really powerful. But we also, once everybody had a somewhat final version of their chapter, we shared them with everybody, and we asked them to read across the different chapters. And people were commenting on them and asking questions, and it led several of the authors to cite each other, to shift and change their chapter based on questions that were asked. One of the authors even included all the comments from the Google Doc in her final published documents so that the readers could see that collaborative process and see the ways in which the other authors in the book were contributing to the conversation. And so, again, this is during COVID, so we had Zoom calls with all the authors as they were reflecting on this process, both in terms of their experience writing and reflecting on their own stories, and also reading the stories of others and what a profound impact that had on them professionally. So even just that collaborative process of creating this book already was really profound.

Tracy: It’s so interesting, because I’ve edited a few different volumes. And normally, I have to work really hard to get colleagues to integrate thinking from other chapters into their own. It seems in other contexts to have been much more difficult. In this context, it was such an organic process, and people were so inspired and moved by one another’s stories, that it made it really easy for them to pick up on the threads that occurred in the different chapters. And so it felt like a real gift to us, especially in the midst of the pandemic, to be part of this community of incredible educators who really were working together in a very deep way to put this book together. So it was just really wonderful. I got goosebumps just thinking about that process itself.

John: You’ve talked a little bit about how this has been used in a Master’s class, and you’ve talked a little bit about the benefits to the participants. What are you hoping this book will achieve in the broader audience?

Laura: Sure. So when we started out with this project, it was really guided by three main goals. One was to compile a broad range of personal narratives about learning and teaching in order to better understand both the diversity in experiences but also commonalities. Another was to better understand the connections between peoples’ experiences as learners and their experiences as teachers and educational leaders. And then a third goal was to be able to offer a collection of narratives around teaching and learning to support the professional growth of educators and educational leaders. So now that we’ve completed this book, we can already see the ways in which we’ve accomplished these goals, but even gone beyond them. And we really see three layers of potential impacts. So first would be, for anyone just reading the stories, we hope that it will inspire some change based on seeing how powerful connection and belonging and relationships are in the learning process. So even if someone just simply reads the book, we know it will have an impact for them. But also, the book provides a structure and guidance and motivation for readers to be able to engage in the reflective process themselves. So if people do want to engage at a deeper level, they can follow up the reading by reflecting on and potentially even writing their own educational autobiography, along with their teaching philosophy statement, and consider the implications for their future practice in teaching and leadership. And so, lastly, and I think ideally, people could do this work collectively. And so, as we mentioned, we saw in writing the book, how powerful it was for people to be reading each other’s stories and to be collectively reflecting on this impact on their learning and reflection that was happening through the process… so both in terms of writing our own stories, but also reading the stories of others. And so we really encourage others to read this book as part of a group if that is possible. For us, writing and editing the book really underscored how pervasive trauma and shame are in people’s learning experiences, sadly. But also how powerful connections and a sense of belonging and caring relationships can be in reigniting people’s motivation to learn. And so it became really clear that the need to be seen is really an essential human psychological need. And yet so many of the authors in the chapters of this book shared examples, some of which were prolonged, in which they were not only not seen, but they felt, and this is a quote, “erased.” They saw their culture erased in history books, they felt their identities were being erased in discussions, they felt compelled to erase their home language in order to survive. And as Browning, one of the contributors to the book said, “I walked in a world that challenged my being.” And that is just such a powerful statement to me. And we know that this is also grounded in literature, too. It’s not just these participants’ stories but, for example, Brené Brown describes shame, this is a quote from her, “as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we’re flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” And so while we as educators can’t control everything in our students lives, we do have the power to be able to help our students to understand that, even if they do experience shame, it does not mean that they’re flawed or not worthy of love and belonging and connection. And if we start to foreground empathy for our students and our colleagues, we can start to combat that shame. And so I think this is one of the big takeaways from the book that we hope people will be able to get from it by reading it.

Tracy: And I would say as leaders in our division, it’s really become part of the fabric of the work that we do with our colleagues as well. We want them to be able to articulate their professional missions. And we want them to have their work aligned with what is really important for them. We want that for our faculty colleagues, as well as our students. And so, I think weaving in this idea of reflection and storytelling and being true to ourselves and knowing that our past experiences can shape our future, but they don’t need to, especially if they have been negative or traumatizing in a way. And I think that’s really profound in this moment because we are in the midst of a pandemic, and I think we’re all collectively traumatized by that experience. And so, it’s going to have to play a role in the work that we do both with our faculty colleagues, and with our students moving forward. I don’t think we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend that we haven’t had these experiences. But I think to, again, have some empathy and understanding for how everyone is managing those experiences, how that impacts what we do in education, and how we can make things better as we move forward, I think that’s maybe one of the things that this kind of work can help to facilitate.

Rebecca: I think one thing that might be worth noting, as Laura pointed out about the idea of following along with reflection, is that there are built-in reflection questions into the book itself. So it’s not like it’s an unguided reflection, right? There’s plenty of guidance there that people might value.

Laura: Yeah, we really wanted to write this in a way that it could be a useful tool for the people who are reading it. You can just passively read it, but you can be much more actively involved as well.

Tracy: And I think that your point, Rebecca, about guidance and prompts is so apropos. I think oftentimes we say, “Have your students reflect on their learning.” Well, where do I start? What does that mean, do I just tell you what I did? How do I…? And we know in the literature that there is a real difference between surface-level reflection and deeper and meaningful reflection, and that that requires some scaffolds. Most people will start at the surface level, and then as we get practice, we become more thoughtful, more intentional about what it is we’re trying to do in the process of reflecting on our learning. And so one of the things that has been an outcome of this book project, and in the Center for Research on Storytelling in Education, is the recognition that we need to have activities and prompts available that academics can adapt, or leaders can adapt for use in their own context, and make it really simple. So we want to make sure that we have a repository of open educational resources that enables people to take up the practice of storytelling, but in a way that leverages the work that others have done already.

John: Do you think by having these stories from faculty, it might help reach faculty who don’t understand the importance of connections in a way that other types of narratives may not affect faculty as well. When they hear from colleagues out there about their own experiences, might that perhaps make a somewhat stronger connection with faculty to help them become more aware of the importance of connections and belonging in their classes?

Tracy: I think the academy can be a pretty isolating place for a lot of people. And we talk a lot about, you know, “What happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom.” It’s not uncommon for people to go in, shut the door, do what they’re doing, and then go back to their office, shut the door, work on their research. And I think what this highlights is that need for community and also the need to hear the stories that you’re not alone. And that was something we heard very often from our authors that they recognized in others’ stories, experiences that they had themselves had, maybe not even in the writing piece that they finished for the book. It surfaced those past experiences. And so, I think there’s a lot of value in hearing that you’re not alone, other people are experiencing similar things and we can work together to make the academy—we’re talking about higher education, but I would say this is true at all levels of education—a more welcoming place, a more inclusive and equitable place, so that we can all feel like we’re visible and that we can be heard and that our perspectives matter.

Laura: Yeah. We heard so many times in our conversations with the authors, something along the lines of “Wow, I didn’t realize that other people had had the same experience or had had a similar experience. I thought I was alone.” And again, these are people who have been in the field for years and years and years, and they’ve been keeping these stories to themselves. So the act of just opening up and starting to share ourselves and to really humanize this work is really, really powerful. So it helps to create connections, it helps to create more meaning in what we’re doing, and it just brings back life to what we’re doing.

Tracy: And it makes me think also, John, of the different stories we tell in education about what it is that we do. So I think what we’re seeing now is the use of storytelling in a lot of different contexts in education. I think about accreditation stories. So how do we make visible the learning that’s happening on our campuses if we’re speaking to accreditors? What do the stories look like if we’re talking to different stakeholders on the campus? And how can we create those spaces so we can actually have those shared conversations? So I think it has a lot of potential for a lot of different spaces when we’re thinking about education.

Rebecca: I’m glad that you brought that up, Tracy. I think one of the things that may not be obvious is perhaps what you actually mean by storytelling. So can I invite you to take a couple minutes and actually describe what you mean by storytelling in this particular book, what you’re trying to promote? I think we’ve kind of hinted at it here, but haven’t directly said it.

Laura: Sure, I can get started, and Tracy, I’m sure you can add, but we really think about storytelling in a broad sense. So in the book, specifically, we asked people to tell their stories of learning in relation to their stories of teaching. And so, we prompt them with questions around critical incidents that they might have had, or people or moments or experiences that had a particular impact on them. But also, in our practice, we engage in storytelling in all sorts of different ways. So one of the things we do, for example, is a three word story—and I got this from Tracy, who I believe got this from some of her former colleagues. But storytelling can be as simple as, “What three words describe yourself as an educator?” And you can stop there, but it ends up being a prompt for further discussion. And if whatever three words you choose, there’s a story behind each one of those words. And so there’s different ways to get people to engage with this. We’ve also gotten into digital storytelling, and people drawing pictures to represent it. So I think there’s a lot of different ways that you can represent your story. It doesn’t have to be a traditional story in the way we think of it. I think people can represent their story through art, through movement, lots of different ways. And so we definitely want to encourage that as well, and hear from readers of the book, different ways that they have told or are telling their stories.

Tracy: Yeah, I often used to encourage my students to tell their story. And I had an activity that I used with them that I adapted from my friend, Susan Kahn at IUPUI, that really comes from the work of Mary Catherine Bateson, where we want to develop these life stories and be able to tell the tales of the lives that we’ve lived. And I always created that opportunity for the students to represent their story in a way that made sense to them. So I did get collages, and I got traditional written stories. I’ve had students who’ve written songs and created videos. So we can tell the story in lots of different ways, and I think it’s the process. Then, of course, you have to think about the context in which you’re embedding the storytelling in and make sure that it fits and aligns with your outcomes, and all of the good things that we know we do with effective backward design. But really thinking about what would be powerful for the learners in our context in terms of storytelling, and then choose strategies that really suit that particular set of outcomes, and then the context in which we’re working. So I’m imagining that in a science class, telling the story will be different than the way my students do in my history classes, for instance.

John: Storytelling has been really important for most of human existence as a primary way of passing on information to future generations. But it hasn’t been used as extensively in recent years. Why have we moved away from that? And why, perhaps, should we do more of it?

Tracy: Yeah, when I saw that question, I kind of giggled to myself because in the eportfolio community, it hasn’t really gone away. In fact, it’s gotten more and more popular. Having worked with portfolios for about 20 years now, it’s always fun for me when I encounter folks on campuses who are like, “We’ve just discovered eportfolios, and we want to create digital portfolios.” So I think in some contexts, it has been around. And I’m Canadian, and certainly more recently, the power of storytelling is coming to the fore, particularly as we deal with reconciliation and indigenous cultures. And, of course, those cultures have a long tradition of storytelling. But going back to the earlier point, often we erased or intentionally didn’t acknowledge that those approaches were valuable. And certainly as a historian, the whole process of oral history is really becoming much more popular again. So I think the context really matters. It did go away in some contexts, and in others it was always there. But I think when I reflect on what happens in education, and I’m sure you’ve both experienced this, you know, you can be on a campus for a long time, and maybe worked on a set of projects, and then the context shifts, and now it’s a new flavor of the month, and we’re going to do this project. And then the context shifts again and it’s like, “Oh, we’re going to try this new thing.” It’s like, “Really? We did that 15 years ago.” But again, I think context matters. And so, going back to this moment of being in a pandemic, and all of the focus that we’ve finally been shining on social justice issues, equity, the way that students just don’t always experience inclusivity in the classroom, they don’t necessarily always feel like they belong. And I would say that’s true of faculty and educators at different levels as well. That this moment is giving us a real opportunity to leverage storytelling practices that, you’re right, have been around for a long time in service of more socially just educational experiences for everyone.

Laura: Another thing I’ll add, too, is that there’s a lot of power dynamics tied up into this, and the more that things become standardized and overly standardized, the less room there is for stories. Stories are still existing, but there’s sort of a grand narrative that the people who are in power, it’s in their best interest to keep that story alive. And so there’s a story about what it means to be a good student, or what it means to be a good school, or what it means to be a good teacher. And I think it’s really important for us to be able to push back against that and fracture that story and add more texture and bring those counter-stories in to question and critique that grand narrative.

Tracy: Yeah, I love that you said that Laura. One of my colleagues, Peter McLellan, has been doing some work on this in particular, and, “How do we train everyone to hear the story that is actually being told?” As opposed to, “How does it fit on the rubric that I’ve already predetermined I’m going to assess that story with?” And that does happen in eportfolios, especially. “Have the students achieved the outcomes in telling their stories in the portfolio?” And what he recognized is that with some of his international students, the rubric didn’t fit very well for the stories that they were telling and didn’t recognize or privilege the fact that they were coming from different places and had different experiences. So he really noticed a misalignment between the rubric and the stories that was really a detriment to the student. Like, you’re not going to get a good mark, because you haven’t basically fit into this box we have ascribed to students in our context. And so I think that there’s such opportunity to recognize where we are using those grand narratives, maybe unintentionally, to frame how we understand student learning. And let’s just jailbreak that altogether and try some new things where we really enable people to grow and learn in a context that really makes sense for them as unique individuals.

Rebecca: You’ve done this a little bit, but can you talk a little bit more specifically about ways that you can use storytelling in classes to advance student learning? So you’ve given an example, like in an education context, can we have a different kind of context to help our listeners see how it might fit for them?

Laura: I can give an example that could be used in any course, really, at the beginning of a course in terms of building community. So, like I said, I have students write their educational autobiographies, but it doesn’t have to be that document. It could be any kind of introductory letter, or who you are as a student, or what you’re bringing into the class, what you’re wanting to get out of the class. It could be any kind of introductory document that a student might create in order to build community in your class. But the thing that I do is I structure sort of a speed dating activity, where the students then have to share through the line. One, they can pick a word, a sentence from what they wrote, or just read directly from it, they can paraphrase, but they share something that they feel comfortable sharing from what they wrote. And they go down the line and listen to each other’s stories and listen to what each other have to say. It’s a really powerful way of building community in your class, regardless of the subject that you’re teaching.

Tracy: We’ve been using, as Laura mentioned, the three-word, or six-word, or professional mission-statement versions of storytelling with faculty. Particularly in terms of helping them to frame their experiences for their portfolios. And that’s been really powerful, because it helps faculty to really figure out how the evidence that they’re presenting does reflect the narrative or story that they want to tell about themselves as professionals. And so that’s been really helpful for students. So, I’m a history professor by training, and I used to just have my students attach a process document to their various pieces of work to tell me the story of, “What did you do to complete this assignment?” So it’s not about their story of learning, necessarily—although it is, because they’re telling me about the steps that they took—but it really helped me to then have a more personal connection to them, and places where they were really being very successful in their strategies, or places where perhaps they had a misconception or misunderstanding about what the process should be. And I always had them thinking about, “What does it mean to do history as an historian?” And so that just created these opportunities to have really interesting conversations with them about how they were finding literature in the library and research, how they thought they should be writing it up. And so, not a story of learning in the sense that we’ve been talking about previously, but a process where you can start to have that conversation and identify, “Oh, gee, a whole bunch of my students in my class don’t really understand how to use the library.” That’s an opportunity for learning in the context of that particular class. Imagine in physics, you could do the same kind of thing like, “Oh, you didn’t understand that the vector was going one way or another…” so you can tell I’m not a physicist. But we often talk about science in the context of medical education here, because we are at a medical school, and it’s really interesting that this applies in so many ways. Students can tell the story or document it on a video of how they’re learning to suture. And they don’t need to have a live patient, they can do it with a beanbag, or other kinds of things. And we’ve had great conversations with faculty here about, “Oh, that would be really helpful for me to know why they think they’re supposed to do it a particular way, and how I can sort of steer them in the right direction if they are doing something that really isn’t in alignment with the process that we’re trying to teach.”

John: The stories you selected for this volume are very inspirational. Could you give our readers just a couple of examples drawn from the narratives in the volume?

Laura: Sure. So this was really hard to just use a couple examples, because each and every chapter was really powerful. So we somewhat randomly chose a few to mention. The first chapter in the book was written by Browning Neddeau, and he is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He’s also a gay Jewish man, and his chapter really illustrates the way in which our various intersecting identities can shape our learning experiences. So I have a quote from his chapter just to give you a couple examples of the stories he shared. So he says:

In kindergarten, I came home with a vest made out of a brown paper grocery bag and some poster paint prints. School taught me that this is how Native Americans dressed (past tense) and how Native Americans looked (also past tense). It was puzzling because many generations of my Potawatomi family were alive at the time, and none of us wore brown paper grocery bags with poster paint prints for clothing.

And he continues on to say:

In grade three, a paraprofessional/classroom aide in the school asked me to demonstrate Native American dancing to my peers. As I did, she encouraged me to look for bear tracks. This confused me because I was not taught that my people looked for bear tracks while dancing. I was taught that we stand tall to dance and are strong and pride-filled. I dance for my ancestors.

So his stories are incredibly powerful, but another reason I like his chapter is that there are really clear connections to his current teaching practice. So he’s now a faculty member at California State University, Chico. He is involved in teacher education, he has developed a curriculum that really honors Native American perspectives. And he’s also started a research project called the I See Me project where he works with undergraduate students who are considering a career in teaching. And he asks them to critically analyze their school curriculum to identify the places where they see themselves in the curriculum, the places where they don’t, and then supports them in developing a lesson that is more inclusive of their various identities. So he had a powerful chapter that’s definitely worth reading. Another one I would mention is Talar Kaloustian and hers is really interesting because she attended nine different schools across primary and secondary school in five different countries. And she’s not from the US, but a few of her schools were in the US. And so she offers a really important reflection on her experience as an immigrant trying to adjust to US schools. So I’ll share a quick quote from her too. She says:

Mine is a complicated educational autobiography: I attended nine schools, five different countries (six different cities) by the time I was 18. I lived through war, experienced constant interrupted schooling, faced multiple new languages that were not my native one, all while dealing with a family situation that would seem odd to many.

And then later on in her chapter, she talks about one of her experiences as she transitioned to the US. She said:

In LA, I enrolled in a local high school where the counselor at the public school saw that my transcripts were from countries like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and India, she claimed that she was unable to confirm the integrity of these documents and promptly changed my status to ninth grade. I was almost 18 at this point.

And so again, she makes really clear connections to her current practice. She’s now a faculty member at the Community College of Philadelphia. She teaches English as a second language. And not only does she teach the language, but she really focuses on supporting immigrant students with adjusting to life in the US by forefronting kindness, because she noted, in reflecting on her past experiences and all the transition, that as challenging as it was, there was always somebody who stepped up and showed her an act of kindness that changed her trajectory. And she says in her chapter:

The opportunity to reflect on the key incidents of my own growth as a student, and the impact of this growth on myself as a researcher and a teacher, has led me to discover and learn about the critical role that kindness has played in my life.

Tracy: Yeah, and maybe one more. Our colleague, Antonia MacDonald, who is a literature professor here at St. George’s University, reflects on her experience growing up in a colonial education system in St. Lucia and then her desire for social justice and change-making in the Caribbean. But what I really love about her chapter is that, first of all, it’s incredibly insightful to read about her experience. I think everyone should know a little bit about that. And it’s something that we often have our students recognize that they aren’t really wholly aware that they’re part of a colonial system, or a post-colonial system. And so just surfacing that is really powerful. But she also reflects on her own desire to transform the Caribbean and to make it a more socially just place. That she recognizes her classroom isn’t a democracy, and that she does have power over her students. And so as much as she wants her students to become game changers, she’s really trying to surface that ability in them for themselves, as opposed to imposing her own views on them. And what I took away from her story was that notion that she’s really sensitive to the ethics of the work that she does, and how she doesn’t want to replicate that kind of a system whereby we just train students to think like us. And so really thinking throughout her chapter about the ways that she can engage her students to think for themselves and to themselves desire to make change, rather than her teaching them how to do it, so I really appreciate that in her story.

Rebecca: The collection together is so powerful, and so I hope people will engage and read through and it was interesting to think through our own stories, as you’re reading through other people’s stories to find connections, and to just maybe see your own story a bit differently than you did before. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the Center for Research on Storytelling in Education before we close out today?

Laura: Sure. It’s a research organization that is dedicated to building a community of educational scholars who are focused on investigating and understanding how reading, sharing, listening to, analyzing our stories of learning and teaching, can help educators and educational leaders to create more equitable and more engaging spaces and practices for teaching, learning, and leadership. So this book project, we’re engaged in broader research around this, but this book project was a piece of it.

Tracy: Yeah. I’ll say for me, if I have one hope for the Center, it’s that we can bring the practice of storytelling to everyone and to make it easy for them to engage in storytelling with either their learners or with their colleagues, depending on where they’re situated. And we’re continually collecting stories so that we can share those stories with others. Because, as you said, there’s something really empowering about thinking about your own story in connection to other people’s stories and feeling like you are part of a larger community and that we do have shared experiences and lots of differences. And so how can we learn from both as we move through creating practices for students and for colleagues?

Laura: I’ll also share that we got a grant last year from Spencer to host a conference on storytelling and education, and the pandemic got in our way, but we actually reimagined it in a way that I think was even more powerful than what it would have been otherwise. So because we weren’t able to host an in-person conference, we shifted it to be an ongoing virtual conference series. And so every month we hosted a different workshop or session on different aspects of storytelling in education. One of my favorites is actually the last one we did on the science of storytelling, and I really liked it because that’s not my area. I know that storytelling is powerful because of my experiences and the experiences of others, but to get to collaborate with a neuroscientist around this to better understand what’s actually happening in our brains when we’re hearing stories and telling stories and why it is that storytelling is so powerful for learning. So it’s been a really exciting conference series that we have been engaged in over the past year.

Rebecca: Are any of the materials from that series available online?

Laura: Great question. We have created a website, so there is currently a website that exists. But the last chunk of our money from that conference grant we are using to create a much more engaging and dynamic website where we’re going to turn all of those conference sessions into asynchronous workshops that people can go and complete on their own time, on their own or with other people. So all of those sessions that we did will be available to everybody more broadly, along with additional resources. We’ve created a guide for storytelling and bringing storytelling into the classroom, so that’s available as well. And we’re looking forward to the launch of that new website. We should be launching it in December or January, coming up.

Rebecca: Great, that sounds exciting. We always wrap up by asking, “What’s next?”

Laura: That was a teaser, so definitely we’re excited about the website that’s going to be coming out. We are planning to continue collecting data on people’s stories of learning and data about the experiences of educators who go through this kind of inquiry work. We are continuing to search for more funding to expand this research and play around with it a little bit more, to do some fun things with the data that are a little bit more creative and artistic rather than presenting it through regular writing and publications. But, like I said, we created a digital story, we want to do some other things around sharing this work through art. So we have lots of exciting ideas coming up, we just keep looking for funding, and we have more book ideas as well. So, yeah, I think there’s definitely some fun things that will be coming in the next few years in relation to this. Tracy, anything you would add?

Tracy: Well, and I think at the heart of all of that work, it’s about building community of educators and educational leaders who are interested in this area and learning from them. It’s not about us disseminating, like, “Here’s what you should do.” But rather, we’ve been really keen to collect not only stories, but activities that others are using in their context so that we can really build community. There’s no question that teachers who are doing this work in K-12, we can adapt those activities for higher education. And I already mentioned that we’ve been adapting some of the activities for higher-education leadership. So I think that the sky’s really the limit. We hope people will join our community and come on an adventure with us and we want to learn from them as much as they might learn from the work that we’ve done so far.

Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. This was really interesting, and I think gives people a lot of things to think about and perhaps encourages them to tell some stories.

Tracy: Thanks for having us.

Laura: Thank you so much for having us.

John: Thank you, I really enjoyed reading your book.

Laura: That’s wonderful to hear.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.