In the Bronx, Students and police join forces for empathy

Above, UHHS students, N4 staff, and University of Chicago researchers participate in a N4 story exchange, May, 2017. Photo: Lisa Greenbaum

Located in the poorest congressional district in the United States, University Heights High School (UHHS) has attracted a good deal of attention in the past few years. The reason is because their students are rising leaders in empathy. And this month, they’ve taken an even greater leap into using story-exchanges to build community and mutual understanding.

In 2016, the school’s 9th graders participated in a Narrative 4 story exchange, in which all 120 of them paired up with one another to share their stories.

“They loved it so much, they said they wanted to do it again in 10th grade,” explained 11th grade English Teacher and Narrative 4 ambassador Lisa Greenbaum. “So the smartest thing that we did was develop a leadership program where the 10th graders would become all of the facilitators for the 9th graders this year.”

Director of Collaborative Programs and the College and Career Access Center at UHHS, Lilliana de Jesus recalls after the first exchange, “we all thought, this cannot be a one and done thing. We asked ourselves, this 2016 group, who will they be when they are seniors? And how can we help that group of students be the next round of facilitators and leaders?”

The program trained 20 interested and dedicated 10th graders who first facilitated the story exchanges of 100 of their peers, other 10th graders on Wednesday, May 17. Then on Friday, May 19th, the group of 10th grade facilitators worked with 120 of the 9th graders to help them through their story exchanges.

“Although the students truly understood the power of the story exchange, they were still scared to do this, because they were leading the other 9th graders and their peers,” admits de Jesus. “But they overcame their fears, and took it all very seriously. They really cared about their group, they really cared about each other, and now they are passing on their teachings to others. It’s a circular process of learning, and when they come back as Juniors, they will continue on.”

As part of the event, six police officers from the nearby 40th precinct also attended the exchange as active participants.

“They were amazing,” remarks Greenbaum. “They shared all of these incredible stories, and the kids were able to look at them as human beings. Even after the exchanges, they were able to enjoy each other’s company and eat lunch together. One of the officers commented that part of doing her job is getting up every day and trying to overcome the stigma that is placed on all police officers. An event like this lets her spend time with young people and get to know more about them than what she experiences on the street.”

Narrative 4 is only beginning to understand the full impact of these kinds of experiences on students, participants, and communities. Rebecca Frausel, a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago observed the program for her research on better understanding the impact of the story exchange. Her previous data collected from 2016 suggested that the exchange had the biggest impact on kids who felt the least connected prior to the exchange.

Greenbaum also shared some of her observations following the program’s close, giving an idea of the power an exchange like this can have:

“Typically, when students have downtime in a regular day, they take out their cell phones, they become distracted, and they are isolated from each other. But at the end of the program, even after the story exchanges had finished, I walked into a classroom to find all of the students circled around each other and they weren’t on their cellphones, or doing their own thing. They were telling each other stories. First, it was a 10th grader, and when that student finished, they encouraged another, ‘now you tell a story.’ That was a real testament to me about the actual work that we’re doing here.’”

Into the next week, long after the story exchanges were finished, students  continued to wear their branded Narrative 4 shirts with pride, and further their understanding of one another through listening to each other’s personal narratives.

More from Narrative 4 around the globe:

5/19/17 – All the World’s a Stage

5/12/17 – Opening Doors in Africa with Harvard Business School

5/5/17 – Forging Connections in the Heartland (a BBC report)

5/5/17 – Feeling Empathy “on a Molecular Level”

4/28/17 – Bridging the Middle School Divide

4/21/17 –A Culture of Caring in South Africa

4/14/17 – “A Tool for Culturally Responsive Learning”

4/7/17 – Creating a Narrative for Loss in Limerick

3/28/17 – Cross-cultural Classroom Magic in Mexico and Chicago

3/21/17 – Building Resilience in North Philadelphia

3/14/17 – Empathy in Israel

3/10/17 – When in Rome, Share Your Story

3/7/17 – Student Leaders SCHout for Diversity

2/26/17 – Creating One Military and Civilian Family at West Point

2/19/17 – Middle School Scientists Embrace the Story Exchange

2/10/17 – An Intergenerational Story Exchange in Ireland, a National Magazine Award in New York

2/3/17 – Connecting at UConn

1/27/17 – Students in Mexico Open Up About Living with Violence

1/20/17 – Narrative 4 Gun Awareness Documentary Nominated for National Magazine Award

1/13/17 – Narrative 4 Limerick Rings in the New Year with Readings

1/6/17 – Young Journalists Exchange Stories with Locals in Costa Rica