Teach Empathy Through Storytelling

Meghan Rosenberg
Public Education Institute

Two women talking

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.


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