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High school teacher in Kentucky writes powerful essay about the story exchange

September 23, 2016

Our hearts fill with joy when students tell us about their story exchange experiences, like when we heard from Robin Kronsinsky at Sarah Lawrence two weeks ago. We also love learning how teachers incorporate the Narrative 4 story exchange in innovative ways. This week, we introduce you to Mary Slone and Floyd County High School in Hi Hat, Kentucky. Mary recently paired the story exchange alongside the young adult novel, Ghost Boy, for some of her pre-Advanced Placement English students. We are honored to share Mary’s beautiful short essay on her experience. It’s no wonder she has been teaching writing for twenty years!

Silence. It was what I feared at the beginning of my Narrative 4 experience and what I heard after the first story was told. Twenty-six freshmen and two teachers sat in a circle in the library of South Floyd School in Hi Hat, Kentucky. Each student had taken a theme from our recent study of the YA novel, Ghost Boy, by Ian Lawrence and chosen a similar story from his or her own life and was then paired with someone who, in spite of going to school together for as few as one year but as many as ten, had not become a member of each other’s “inner circle.” What followed was magic.

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Sahara, waif-like and shy, and Chad, confident and athletic, began.  After hearing her own story of moving schools her sixth grade year, Sahara began her partner’s tale of self-loathing and insecurity over his body, explaining, “I wore a coat every day, even when it was hot.” Everyone, including myself, was startled at the weight of these words and those that followed. The power of what was about to happen was tangible in the room and momentarily rendered all of us mute. Then, one by one, stories of loss and love, joy and pain, embarrassment and pride began to fill the room and each other.

When all the stories were concluded, I asked that each student reflect on the experience in three distinct ways:  what was it like to give your story to someone else, what was it like to receive someone’s story and what was it like to hear the stories of their classmates. Hannah, a girl whose story of insecurity and peer taunts led her to transfer schools (told by a multi-sport athlete and middle school homecoming queen), rushed over to me and said, “Ms. Slone.  Do you know what this experience has meant to me? I felt like people really saw me for the first time. Like I’m not alone.”

Now that is radical empathy.

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Many thanks to Mary and the teachers and students at South Floyd High School for sharing their stories.