Global Storytelling: How it can impact students

Image by UK Department for International Development. July 8, 2014. Alia and Basma* (right), both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. “It’s good to have the classes here”, says Basma. “I hadn’t been able to go to school for a year before because of the conflict. “I feel much better now that I’m learning again.”

When I was in grade 6, we had a social justice activist visit our classroom from South Africa. He shared his story of being part of the movement against the apartheid, how he was imprisoned, and the massive impact the apartheid had on his family, his country, his people. I remember listening very intently to his story, with my limited English at the time, and feeling a sense of connection.

I connected with him, because his story was heartbreaking, and communicated a sense of loss and tragedy. I also connected with him, because he was not home. He was telling his story to kids (and adults) who did not share his struggle and hardship.

I looked around the room and noticed the impact it had on my peers. I saw right then and there that he was making a difference, by educating my peers on an issue they did not know about.

In my new role as Executive Director of The Writing Project, I started working directly with teachers recently to help them introduce and discuss the refugee crisis in their classrooms. For several of the teachers I worked with so far, they wanted their students to learn about the crisis, but aside from knowing statistics and facts, the teachers wanted the students to hear a story from someone who’s experienced being a refugee.

Of course, it’s never easy to share my story with others, whether they’re adults of kids. It’s always difficult and brings back a lot of sad memories. But I also struggle with sharing my story, because I don’t want it to claim who I am as a person. I continue to share my story though, because it has shaped me to become the person I am now. But I share my story, because I want to raise awareness about this issue. I hope that when the kids hear my story, they’ll learn to be more empathetic to others who look different than they do. I hope that by sharing my story, kids will understand the importance of learning about other cultures. I hope that by sharing my story, I dismantle stereotypes and assumptions that society has created about refugee, Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle East.

Global storytelling can have such a powerful impact on students, and I am lucky to be able to connect to these students, their teachers, and more importantly their reflections and takeaways from the experience of hearing my story, and learning about the refugee crisis.

Global storytelling doesn’t end with just telling a story. It’s so important to me that I connect with the teacher to figure out her goal of wanting to have the call with her class. What learning outcome is she aiming to achieve? What have the students been learning in class thus far about the refugee crisis? What were their thoughts so far about the issue?

It’s also important that students reflect on the topic and the experience. Some of the students whom I connected with were so excited to start writing about their takeaways. In fact, during our Skype call, they were so curious and had so many questions, that they guided the discussion with their questions. I was so surprised and happy to see how respectful the students were in listening and asking the questions. And most of them were very mindful that this is a topic that’s difficult for me to share.

Pernille Ripp already wrote about her classroom process and their takeaways from studying the refugee crisis. I really looking forward to reading all their responses and the teacher’s reflections from the whole experience. It’s so important that students write reflections about the topic, and if they can and are able to, to share these reflections. I believe that it is by sharing our ideas that we can connect with others and make a difference, and they can do that by writing and sharing their work with their peers and even digitally.

Working with Fabiana Casella, an EFL teacher and an ICT Specialist from Argentina, and her students on their cross-curricular world project on the refugee crisis was so rewarding. Seeing her students’ writing and ideas about the topic meant the world to me. It meant that students are listening, and are aware of this issue, and they’ll be working hard in their own worlds to make a difference. With Fabiana’s class, I recorded myself reading my story that was published on PBSNewshour. They then had many questions for me, which Fabiana recorded and sent, to which I replied to them in writing. You can check out Fabiana’s classroom project here.

When I saw that speaker, and was able to connect with him, that moment stuck with me forever. Global storytelling with students is such a great way to connect students to the issues and topics that are being discussed in class. Global storytelling is also such an incredible way to help other students feel a sense of belonging, assurance, and affirmation of who they are, and what they believe in.

Rusul Alrubail is the executive director of The Writing Project, a platform that helps to empower the voice of young learners with critical thinking and digital literacy skills to be their own advocates. 


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