Taking “One Small Step” Toward Connection and Community with StoryCorps

My beat this year is all about teaching in the hybrid classroom, but I’m taking a break this month to share an outside-of-the-classroom project that could easily be adapted for in-person, virtual, or hybrid learning.

Just two months before my city locked down, I attended a public forum about storytelling featuring StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. During that forum, Isay announced that Richmond would be one of four cities in the nation to launch a new project from StoryCorps called One Small Step. The project is an effort to bring people from opposite ends of the political spectrum together to find some common ground and shared humanity. I was moved by Isay’s pitch, so I signed up. Months later, I sat down in my living room for a conversation with a stranger via StoryCorps Connect, the Zoom-style platform StoryCorps created to facilitate (in a socially distanced setting) the deep (and deeply personal) conversations for which the organization is known. 

To begin the conversation, my partner and I read the biographies we’d included in our applications each other. He told me my story; I read him his. Hearing the brief life story I’d written the night of the Richmond Forum (and, after months of pandemic life, had largely forgotten) in the mouth of a stranger felt oddly magical…maybe even spiritual. The two of us didn’t know each other, but we’d just shared some big truths, and beginning our conversation there, with the way we’d like the world to see us rather than the way we might be perceived, established a supportive foundation for a discussion of our values, our political beliefs, and how our lives had changed and challenged both. I felt secure because I felt known, and I think (and hope) my partner felt the same. 

Around the time I recorded the conversation with my partner, I met with a group of faculty and administrators to brainstorm ways to strengthen our school community. One committee member suggested that we conduct StoryCorps-style conversations across campus, between 9th and 12th graders, current students and alumni, or faculty and students. I reached out to local and national One Small Step coordinators, and an exciting partnership was born. 

Recognizing that not everyone on campus is ready for (or open to) a political discussion, an administrator and I expanded the conversation prompts in the One Small Step DIY Guide to include questions about belonging and goals for the future. Then, we matched volunteers (over 40 signed up through a Google survey shared in a campus email) with conversation partners we thought might be unfamiliar to them. To ensure that the conversation proceeded smoothly and students felt safe talking with someone less familiar, we trained faculty ambassadors to be a third set of ears in the room (or online via StoryCorps Connect). Next month, we’ll collaborate with another school in the city to create some cross-campus conversations between students. 

As the number of conversations in our community archive grows, so does my list of ways to expand and improve this program in the future. It has been a gift and a privilege to witness our community practice deep listening; to observe how a senior gently led an eager but nervous freshman away from an interview toward a shared conversation, to marvel at the vulnerability of student partners empathizing with one another’s family struggles, to hear colleagues connect over details of their lives they might never have learned otherwise, to sit with a coworker and devote time to telling our own stories and celebrating them. I wonder how I might be able to create One Small Step conversations in my classroom in the first weeks of school and how I can teach deep, attentive listening in a workshop class. I’m not sure yet how I will do any of that, but I’m posting about it today to hold myself accountable. In the midst of a year where I have felt just out of reach of so much–family, neighbors, joy, lessons that really “click”–I’m holding fast to these new campus connections. 

Have you used StoryCorps in the classroom? Have some great ideas for teaching deep listening? Please join the conversation on Twitter @MsJochman or in the comments below.

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