The Power of Storytelling: Extending the Experience to the Classroom

TGTL-1.jpgEvery day at StoryCorps, we’re working to create a more just and empathetic nation. Since we launched in 2003, we’ve found that recording, preserving, and sharing peoples’ stories strengthens our social-emotional muscles and builds powerful connections between people. Over the past four years, independent school students have been some of the most engaged in a national event, The Great Thanksgiving Listen, that helps students across the country connect with an elder, mentor, or friend and record an interview with them using the free StoryCorps app over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I have been inspired by classroom communities and honors English and history classes from Vestavia Hills High School (AL) to Whitehall High School (PA) that have participated in The Great Thanksgiving Listen. A student at St. George’s Independent School (TN) interviewed Grandpa Danny about religion and what spirituality means to him. A student at Morgan Park Academy (IL) asked his dad if he had any regrets. Another story came from a student at Indian Creek School (MD), in which a grandfather reflects on his childhood and moving from Poland. For even more examples of The Great Listen, read this 2016 Independent Ideas blog post where teachers shared how they incorporated it into their curriculum, deepening discussions about personal narratives as well as primary source documents.

The Great Listen’s Origin Story

In 2015, with the TED Prize, we developed the free StoryCorps app, which guides people through the interview experience from start to finish with easy-to-use tools to help prepare interview questions, find a comfortable environment, and record a high-quality conversation.  
With the release of the app, we started to think about how to turn the StoryCorps interview experience into an annual ritual. Of course, the first group of people we thought of to help bring this dream to life was teachers. After consulting with educators across the country, we developed The Great Listen. We piloted the project with Bob Vitalo, then head of The Berkeley Carroll School (NY), and faculty members and students there. 
In our first year, 2015, we delivered materials to teachers, classrooms, school districts, and partner organizations, and we worked with Google to promote the project on its homepage. When Thanksgiving came, we saw a slight uptick in interviews but nothing remarkable. Then, the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, thousands upon thousands of interviews were uploaded to our website. And we learned another lesson—kids wait until the last minute to do their homework. In the first year of The Great Thanksgiving Listen, users recorded 50,000 interviews; more than we had recorded in the first 10 years of StoryCorps combined.

Ideas for the Classroom

Students can watch the The Great Listen YouTube playlist with their families at home for a little inspiration, and then using the app, they can share some of their own stories. After the stories are recorded, we hope that students can expand on this project in their classrooms. To do that, we’ve created the 2019 Teacher Toolkit, which includes ideas such as writing reflection papers, follow-up essays, or poems inspired by interviews; using Adobe Spark Video or free editing software, such as Audacity, to create videos, excerpts, or podcasts for class presentations; and drawing or painting portraits of the interview subjects. Another way to showcase and share student interviews is to host a classroom listening party, inviting students to share short clips from each interview post-Thanksgiving weekend.
We started StoryCorps based on the premise that listening is an act of love. I’ve learned how important it is for people to have the chance to tell their story—especially people who might feel like their lives don’t matter. We’ve provided the platform to help more than half a million people record their personal stories—which collectively make up the largest single collection of voices ever gathered. The Great Listen is a growing national movement; we’re weaving meaningful intergenerational sharing and listening into the Thanksgiving holiday while creating an archive of the wisdom of humanity for generations to come. We hope you’ll join us.  
Learn more about how to create a classroom community and watch this video on How To Use The App
Are you using StoryCorps animations and interviews in creative ways in your classroom? How have you adapted the Teacher Toolkit resources for your own students? Have you listened to student interviews that are especially inspiring? I would love to hear your stories and experiences. Please send them to [email protected], or share them in the StoryCorps in the Classroom Facebook group or in the comments below.

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Dave Isay

Dave Isay is president and founder of StoryCorps.