Telling Stories, Building Bridges

Most who know me, know that I love stories of all kinds. As an oversized, outspoken, homeschooled thirteen-year-old, I would go to my town’s library every week, walk out with 13 books (all fiction), and come back the next having voraciously read every last word. As an involved-in-everything high school student, I found ways to keep my story habit through quiet study halls, bus rides home from basketball games, and half-hour breaks in the lunchroom at the grocery store where I worked on Saturdays. Now, in my 30s, I attend a handful of Story Slams each year, sometimes by myself, just to have the opportunity to immerse myself in an hour focused solely on celebrating and sharing stories.

When I became a high school English teacher, I delighted in the challenge of helping others access stories. I remember working for hours on lesson plans for British Literature–trying to build a bridge from Chaucer’s Middle English to the world of a millennial teen because I refused to allow a centuries-old story to be words on a page: endured and dreaded. I tried to create access points for all kinds of stories for my students, staunchly believing that every story has some magic to share if we only know how to find it. I’m sure I was successful sometimes and a marvelous failure others. But I did love the challenge.  

I pushed my students to share their own stories through writing and presentations and projects. I cajoled them to share a personal anecdote to engage their audience in a speech. I pleaded with them to let their authentic voice permeate a persuasive essay. I challenged them to throw away the rules and write the scariest of all stories: a poem.

Ironically, when my students asked me to tell my own stories, I usually refused. At first I claimed it was because they were only trying to distract from the lesson (not a wholly untrue claim), and that I needed to create a professional distance. Being a 23-year-old teacher who sometimes was mistaken for a student caused me to have all kinds of insecurities about “proving” myself as the adult in the room. Plus, I always felt more comfortable writing my stories, not telling them on the fly when my brain was working through the intricacies of English syntax or Shakespeare’s use of motif.

But now I realize that more than anything, I was scared. Not of the stories themselves, but of how vulnerable they would make me. Sharing an authentic story can feel like a glaring exposure, and vulnerability was the last thing I wanted for myself in a classroom full of teens or in a staff room of peers. At school, even as I toiled to elevate stories and connect others to them every day, I often rejected my own. I wore invulnerability like a cloak, thinking it was a source of strength. What I know now is that it is more like a crutch. Vulnerability, not its counterpart, is the core of human connection, and through our connection to other humans we find solidarity, courage, support, and inspiration.

2016 was a year where the world became more fractured. People became divided across ever-widening gulfs. Chasms of anger, hurt, disillusionment, and fear opened up in communities, among co-workers, between old friends, and through families. Politics became the spotlight for these divides, a way to label ourselves and others, an excuse for retreating to safe camps and throwing rocks at those outside of them. More than in recent memory, this election cycle seemed to surface the very worst in us and among us.

How many chose the cloak of invulnerability when faced with these conditions? How many of us swallowed our stories for fear of attacks or derision? How many of us backed away from the stories of others because they required our empathy? I know I did. The cloak was easier to choose and felt comforting to wear. It had a familiar heaviness around my shoulders.

We are past the election now and more divided than before it. But the truth remains that we are families who spend holidays together, colleagues who solve problems together, and communities who live together. We don’t have to ignore the divides, but could we start building bridges across them? Could we put down our memes, our graphs, and our articles… and our cloaks?

I’m not proposing a “forgive and forget” mentality. I’m also not proposing that we don’t spend significant time advocating for our values, ethical government, and the rights of the marginalized. I’m not proposing that we pretend that free hugs are going to make us all feel like we are on the same team. None of those are a lasting and powerful solution to the very real chasms running through our Main Streets and Wall Streets, our kitchens and yards.

Instead, I’m proposing that we start sharing stories and asking for the stories of others. I proposing that we intentionally focus on building human connections through the exchanges stories offer: vulnerability for empathy, empathy for vulnerability. And I don’t claim that this will be easy. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it myself. Here are some questions that I have: How can I focus on sharing stories around a card table filled with plates full of ham at Easter dinner? How can I listen deeply to the stories of people who think differently from me and whose life experiences look so different from my own? How can I share a story about that issue in addition to (or instead of) that well-reasoned argument? How can stories cut through the noise to reach hearts and minds? How do I face my own stories and accept the truth I find within them? How can I share stories that make me feel vulnerable in moments when the only thing I want to grab is that cloak?

I believe stories are a start. They are the means by which we often can make an exchange with others: vulnerability for empathy. They build bridges which offer us new access, new journeys, and new perspectives. They don’t force us to cross chasms, but they offer us that possibility. Our world needs less chasms and more bridges, and I hope you will join me in finding ways to use stories to build them. Here are a few places stories are being celebrated and used to bridge divides:

What is the story you need to share and how will you do it? Whose story do you need to hear and how will you ask for it? What resources can you add to those I’ve given above? Add your thoughts (and stories!) in the comments.


screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-7-45-58-amBrianna Crowley is a National Board Certified teacher who taught high school English in Hershey, PA for nine years. She currently works at the Center for Teaching Quality to further innovative and systemic change through elevating teacher leadership and teacher’s stories. Brianna has also contributed two books: How to Bring Technology Into Your Classroom and The Best Lesson Series: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works.  She embraces innovative approaches to learning and leading, and deeply believes in the promise of technology, the power of the written word, and the deep capacity of students and teachers to solve complex problems.



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