Teach Empathy Through Storytelling

Meghan Rosenberg
Public Education Institute


We often hear that divisions can be bridged by listening to each other. Educators are in a unique position to empower young adults to listen and learn from each other by sharing stories. Read on for some of the best strategies and tools for fostering empathy through storytelling, particularly around the topic of migration.

Narrative Encounters

“Empathy is not sympathy but an equalizing human value,” says Dr. Dawn Duncan, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Her organization, Narrative 4, uses intense one-on-one story-sharing sessions to help classrooms, community organizations and businesses learn to build empathy. “It’s a soft skill, but it is not soft as in easy,” she says about the skill development that activates and even grows parts of the brain during what Narrative 4 calls a “narrative encounter.” These skills include listening deeply and intentionally, speaking vulnerably with an extended gaze toward the speaker, and stepping into another person’s shoes by retelling their story in the first person.

How can you use empathetic narrative encounter in the classroom? The Tale of Two Schools describes one such encounter. Students from very different school settings were paired off to exchange stories by listening carefully and then retelling the other person’s story while taking on the persona of their partner. This opportunity to “shatter stereotypes by walking in each other’s shoes” is a low-tech technique that can be deeply impactful.

Stories of Migration

Sharing stories can be an important learning and healing tool for immigrant students and their classmates. Dr. Laura Grisso writes for Colorín Colorado, a website serving educators and families of English language learners (ELLs). In Building Bridges Through Storytelling: What Are Your Students’ Stories? she shares resources for helping ELLs tell their stories and describes the power of storytelling both inside and outside the classroom. She writes, “Storytelling provides a way into those difficult conversations and an opportunity to remind us of the common ground that we do share.”

Tap into students’ tech literacy with digital storytelling. Teach Immigration offers lesson plans for launching a digital storytelling project using students’ own family immigration stories and creating podcasts from interviews with immigrants to cultivate empathy among students.

Family History

Adam Strom, director of Re-Imagining Migration, sees the opportunity to capitalize on peoples’ feelings about their own family history to build connections among migration stories, between individuals and across history. “Migration is really our shared experience as humans,” he says. Moving Stories, an app developed by Re-Imagining Migration, comes with an educator guide and allows students to record their own and others’ family migration stories to “explore and reflect on our shared histories and experiences.”

Sharing and making connections across immigration stories can foster understanding of others’ humanity beyond the rhetoric students hear daily. For more from these experts and many other resources curated by The ILC Public Education Institute, visit our Immigrant Student Success educator resource library.


“We All Want to Belong”

Fears about immigration are based in our psychological fear of “the other.” Yet when we examine the core values that we live by every day, we may find that we all have more that brings us together than sets us apart.

Sara McElmurry, author of Proactive and Patient: Managing Immigration and Demographic Changes in 2 Rural Nebraska Communities, spent time in two small Nebraska towns that have experienced major demographic changes due to immigration. She found that all the residents were able to adjust to the new diversity by realizing that they have values and interests in common: family, hard work, faith and “an affinity for small-town living.” She says, “They build a mutual respect for each other’s work ethic that has helped to transcend language or cultural differences.”

“We all deeply want to belong,” says Rachel Peric, executive director of Welcoming America. She highlights the need for welcoming not only arriving immigrants but also neighbors who may initially feel uncomfortable with the changes they are seeing. “How can we do this work of lifting up immigrants in a way that actually lifts up our whole community and makes everyone feel like they belong?”

Immigration is not just about immigrants; it’s about all of us. We share a common humanity. We desire to work hard, to feel safe and to belong, and we all deserve the chance to realize this dream.

For more on finding common ground, click here to view recordings and slides from The ILC Public Education Institute’s webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants.

How the Holiday Spirit Can Open Up Conversations About Immigrants

The holidays are a time when many people reconnect with their core values through giving, sharing and uniting with friends and family. When the topic of immigration comes up, however, we are often tempted to debate the subject using facts and policy details. What values can we activate in ourselves and others to help us talk productively, rather than contentiously, about immigration in the holiday season?

Dr. Marisa Gerstein Pineau, a researcher from the FrameWorks Institute, which uses social science research to drive social change, gives us a few value-based approaches (or “frames”) to give context to discussions of immigration. “Values…help establish why a social issue is important, not just for that particular group, but for all of us,” she says.

Human Dignity/Moral Obligation: Everyone deserves basic compassion and respect, no matter who they are or where they were born.

Shared Prosperity: We all collectively benefit from the talents, skills and cultures immigrants bring into our country.

Pragmatism: A practical, working immigration system is a common-sense goal.

Prof. Westy Egmont, director of the Immigrant Integration Lab at Boston College, expands on these values as they relate to religion. “Welcoming a stranger is about as basic to the faith community as any single message. Treat others as we want to be treated: The Golden Rule.”

This holiday season, as we take the time to reconnect with our own stories and core beliefs, try having a values-based conversation about immigrants with a friend or family member: connecting to our most basic shared humanity and American practicality when it comes to welcoming newcomers can lead to greater prosperity for all of us.

Dr. Egmont goes further to say, “Make it part of your Thanksgiving celebration… Let’s find a way where someone’s story becomes a story that we can all identify with and want to do something about.”

For more from these and other experts, click here to view recordings and slides from The ILC Public Education Institute’s webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants.

Sharing a Meal, Sharing Our Values

This holiday season, friends and family will have a lot to catch up on. When topics related to immigration come up, how will you respond?

To start, resist the temptation of simply sharing facts and figures in the hope of persuading others. According to Dr. Marisa Gerstein Pineau from the FrameWorks Institute, a not-for-profit organization that studies framing of public discourse on social issues, “Starting off with a moral argument is the most effective way of shaping people’s thinking.” In fact, sharing a holiday meal may be the best time to remind your loved ones that families of all cultures, backgrounds and origins share love, gratitude and a desire for success and stability.

To help with your conversations about immigrants this holiday season and beyond, The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute will convene Dr. Gerstein Pineau and a panel of social media, communications and immigrant integration experts for the free, interactive webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants, on Thursday, November 13 from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. EST. This free webinar will offer the most up-to-date tips to have respectful, productive conversations about immigration in today’s climate in person, online, in your campaigns and in your programs. Click here to register.

Making a Connection with One Conversation

The election is over, and Congress is split, with immigration as a key battleground. Many people are entrenched in their party of choice, but when it comes to the issues, there are proven ways to successfully open conversations.

One of the ballot questions voted on in Massachusetts was a proposed measure to repeal anti-discrimination protections for transgender people. In 2016, two social scientists showed the effectiveness of a specific method of reducing transphobia: having a conversation, letting people talk and “encouraging actively taking the perspective of others.” The ballot measure was defeated, securing protections for transgender residents, due in part to conversations that happened around the state.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric, like transphobia, preys on our most base psychological tendencies of fearing outsiders. Can a simple conversation counteract this?

The experts say yes. When we encourage people to put themselves in an immigrant or refugee’s shoes, they may discover that their core values and motivations are the same. We all want to live in a safe, welcoming community. We all want the best for our children. We all want to work hard to create a better life for ourselves and our families.

Join The Immigrant Learning Center and a panel of communications, social media and immigrant integration experts for the free, interactive webinar What We Have in Common: How to Talk About Immigrants, on Thursday, November 13 from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. EST. This free webinar will offer the most up-to-date tips to have engaging, effective conversations about immigrants in today’s climate. Click here to register.