Why Empathy Matters in Classroom Storytelling

by Aakanksha Gupta

In the weeks following the 2016 elections, I couldn’t tell my professors that my lack of participation in class was due to my constant worry about two things: one, the different kinds of immigrants whose lives were going to be in increased danger, and two, the uncertainty of my own future in a country that I thought could be home. I could never share that the reason I missed a few classes was that I was overwhelmed by the cultural differences between myself and my peers, and felt too homesick to get to my early morning class.

Although I have been an international student in the US for five years, I didn’t feel fully connected to an educator until I was in the last stretch of my academic career. I wondered: why was there minimal in-depth communication between me and teachers? The answer: they didn’t empathize with me. Empathy is built through shared experiences, and in the absence of those, dialogue is imperative to establishing community. Accepting and talking about differences creates meaningful relationships, especially to bridge gaps in educational settings.

How can you foster an environment of open and inclusive storytelling in a classroom? I adapted my Community Storytelling Guide to create the Classroom Storytelling Manifesto, four key points that you can use as a tool in a school setting (downloadable version here).

Words Matter:

  • Work with your students to challenge common stereotypes and the problematic language they are presented through.
  • We internalize the information that we consume. Especially in our current climate, this can negatively impact identity formation in immigrant-origin youth and lead to misinformation in native-born youth. In our research, we discovered that students are strongly affected by stereotypical perceptions toward their nationalities and the ways those are expressed.

I Don’t Know What I Don’t Know:

  • To engage students, get to know them. To understand them, listen to their stories while being aware of your biases. Our views and identities influence how we approach each other and issues. Hence, when we listen, we must remember to show compassion and remain open-minded while not shifting the focus away from others’ stories.
  • Strengthen students’ curiosity by reaffirming that there are experiences they may not relate to, but can learn about through transparent conversations.

Build Cultural Understanding:

  • Remember that no community is monolithic — there is a multitude of migrants, hence many narratives and cultures.
  • Students face many cultural challenges, especially when they are either new to a receiving community or have foreign-born parents who often rely on them to navigate the struggles of integration.
    This sentiment is echoed in our Inclusive Curriculum, which highlights ways to build a strong support system for immigrant-origin students.
  • Here are some other cultural factors to consider during interactions: sense of time and physical space, speech patterns, silences, discussing personal issues, gender dynamics and managing conflict.

Empower, Don’t Exploit:

  • Create opportunities in the classroom for students to share their stories in the framing that they understand.
  • Make the effort to be informed about developments in policy, so as to be aware of how those might affect students and their families. That said, people and their experiences always come first.
  • Be mindful with students who are known to be undocumented or part of mixed-status families — don’t make assumptions about what they will want to or not want to share.

We must share our experiences of migration as it is a fundamental part of human existence. This effort needs to start in classroom environments, where lessons and interactions shape students’ perspectives and self-worth. Amidst an era of division and often misinformed discourse, both youth and educators need to remember that migration is a shared and nuanced experience. It is crucial that educators not only acknowledge this nation’s sociopolitical climate, but teach their students how to place their own stories within it.

Below are a few more resources that will help:

  1. Moving Stories Educators Guide by Re-Imagining Migration

  2. Lesson Series on Identity & Equality in the US by Teaching Tolerance

  3. Stand Together Toolkit by Welcoming America

  4. For Educators: Supporting Undocumented Students & Their Families by Informed Immigrant

Aakanksha is a Program Coordinator at Re-Imagining Migration.