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To Build Trust in the Classroom, Encourage Students to Share Their Stories (Opinion)

This post continues a series exploring how educators can support student identities.

‘Writing Is a Vulnerable Undertaking’

Jacquelyn Fabian, NBCT, is currently the director of candidate experience at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where she works directly to support educators who are seeking board certification. Prior to joining the national board, she served as a high school English and social studies teacher and administrator:

My favorite 9th grade English unit to teach was House on Mango Street. Every year, the end-of-unit assessment would look different, but the crux of it remained the same—students would utilize Cisneros’ writing style to craft their own vignettes. The most important aspect of this project was that it was months in the making; this unit came later in the school year to ensure I could build the right environment for students to trust me with their stories.

Writing, especially about one’s self, is a vulnerable undertaking. Much like the way Cisneros confides in us as readers, I wanted my students to be unapologetic in their sharing. From the very beginning of the year, I crafted activities that would allow them to share bits of their lives, goals and dreams, and interests, both with myself and with their peers. Here are a few examples of how I was able to set up proper supports for the students’ exploration of their stories:

1. Partner share: At the beginning of the year, I would pair students up to share a bit more about themselves. These activities always required the partners to then share what they learned. This taught students how to respectfully listen to their peers and would encourage those sharing that their stories mattered.

Some activities that worked well with partners: sharing two images on their vision boards for the year; interviewing a peer and writing a Humans of New Yorkstyle piece; and creating a mixtape and sharing the meaning behind two songs. These activities can be used in any subject area, and they get the ball rolling on respectful group and pair dynamics.

2. Journaling: From the very first day of the school year, I would have students journal for five minutes at the beginning of the class period. The routine of this activity helps students feel more comfortable sharing their stories with me. Recently, I used the book Burn After Writing by Sharon Jones. Prompts in this book include: “If I could spend 48 hours with anyone, dead or alive, it would be …” and “If I could clean up one mess it would be. …” I would typically add a parameter around how long each response would have to be (five or so lines minimum), but I would also let students write it however they wanted. They could also include drawings.

I always had a tweaked prompt in case students were stuck (and I always said that students were never obligated to write about the prompt and could talk to me about an alternative), and if something significant happened that day in the building or in the news, I would let students choose to write about what happened. I collected these at the end of every month and would comment on a few responses; students knew I read them, and they knew I cared about what they were writing.

3. Connecting subject matter to an essential question: While I didn’t always have the choice of what text I was able to read or the sequence of my curriculum, I always looked for ways to incorporate a more universal essential question to bridge our units together. We would hold Socratic seminars, sometimes weekly, where students would connect the text to their thoughts on current events, events in their own lives, or make parallels with other works of art.

One year, our overarching question was: “What does it mean to be American?” At first, the answers were textbook; however, as the students became more comfortable with me and with their peers, they shared stories from their own experience to answer this question. One Black male student shared about the fear his parents had for him now that he had his driving permit, especially in a mostly white community. This opened up the floodgates for several other students to share similar experiences. Utilizing that one question built the foundation for respectful sharing and learning in my classroom.

All in all, creating an environment where students’ identities are valued is grounded in relationship building. It takes time, patience, and grace. But when you get there, the outcome is incredibly fulfilling for both you and your students.

‘Write What Matters Most’

Michele Myers, Ph.D., is co-author of Revolutionary Love: Creating a Culturally Inclusive Literacy Classroom (Scholastic) and a clinical associate professor at the University of South Carolina:

Stories that transport us into the world of others and hold our attention change how our brains work. These changes are often for the better (Zak, 2013).

Our lives are filled with stories. Our stories have a way of connecting us to ourselves and helping us take pride in who we are and where we are from. As we tell and retell our stories, we process our lives. Our stories are steeped in our culture, our families, and our social ways of being in the world. Across time and with each retelling, we are able to take on new perspectives and gain a greater sense of clarity about why things are the way they are. When we tell our stories, we reveal our hearts to each other; stories then serve as bridges that connect us as humans and help us forge deeper, lasting relationships with others.

Our students immerse themselves in stories, too. They share stories with their friends while playing during recess, staying up late at sleepovers, discussing a book that they have read during readers’ workshop, or any opportunity where they can converse with one another. They retell the wonderful moments in their lives such as when their perseverance resulted in a position on the honor roll, or when consistent practice earned them first place on field day, or the camping trip when they were brave enough to face the spider that crawled into the tent, or the family vacation they will never forget.

Our students also have stories of challenges and even stories filled with anguish. Their stories also include tales of friends who have leukemia; armed gunmen entering schools, grocery stores, and places of worship murdering children and elders for no good reason; and a pandemic that required them to shelter in place and later maintain a distance of at least six feet from their friends and classmates.

As educators, we can learn about our students through their stories and we can reach them through their stories as well. When we hear joyful stories that we can relate to, we can reflect back to our students how their stories bring joy and allow us to bathe in the fond memories that those stories elicit. We find that those stories promote warm feelings and communal bonds between the listeners and storytellers.

When we hear stories about people who made a triumphant comeback in the face of adversity, we can help our students see how stories offer inspiration and an opportunity to learn from them. When our students share difficult and tragic stories, we can show how listening to stories can make us feel less alone.

We support our students’ well-being and connectedness when we create classroom spaces that honor their stories and the ways that they want to tell those stories—not to mention, of course, their academic growth in areas such as boosting oral language fluency and comprehension. I offer a few suggestions that you might try for weaving storytelling into your schedule.

Read aloud responsively: To fully engage students in the joy of storytelling and delve deeply into the power of stories you can …

· Carve out daily read-aloud time with a specific purpose for learning (for example, evaluating character actions).

· Use different voices for the characters to keep children engaged.

· Plan a few points in the story to pause and invite students to reflect on events or actions related to your purpose for learning.

Incorporate digital storytelling: Encourage students to bring their stories to life using accessible digital tools. Consider using digital story platforms that allow children to plot stories, animate, narrate, and add soundtracks to create digital stories.

Write what matters most: Give children regular opportunities to write about what matters to them. Set aside time for them to share their stories with their classmates, either whole group, small group, or one-on-one. Children can offer each other feedback to support one another as they grow as writers. Here are a few prompts for them to use when providing feedback.

· One thing that you did well was …

· Your writing shows …

· I want to know more details about …

· The part that I find fascinating is …

· What do you think you can do to make this even better …?


Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., is an anti-racist educator with over 25 years of experience in education. She is a professional learning connoisseur focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces. Follow her @2WardEquity on Instagram & X and visit to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

Writing, writing, writing! Use writing to:

· teach content

· check for understanding

· build rapport by sharing about yourself

· help students resolve conflict, and

· build student communication skills

To encourage students to tell their own stories, explore, write about and share about who they are and what is important to them, I read, write, talk, reflect, and repeat! Adults, don’t be afraid to share your stories!

Create time and space in the school day for students to write and reflect on their own stories. As a teacher, I would model conversation strategies using prompts to spur dialogue about a book, science experiment, history lesson, use of math in our world. We wrote about everything. Each student had a literacy journal, and in that journal, they unpacked all they were learning and struggling with, and each was able to catalog their growth over the year.

It is nothing new to teachers to use interest inventories at the beginning of the year. I used those inventories to infuse lessons with meaningful connections to the lives and interests of my students. A simple 3-4 question survey can invite students to share what excites them about learning, their favorite hobby, likes, dislikes, and what they are most interested in learning for the school year.

When parents and families know you care about the growth of their child, they are eager to partner in whatever way they can. To further understand the interests of my students and possible learning goals, I would ask parents and families to share one thing about their child I need to know to 1) help them feel safe, welcomed, and included or 2) learn with me and their peers. At the outset, I modeled open dialogue, sought out new knowledge, and used that new knowledge to encourage my students. All of the knowledge gained was used over the course of the first months of school to build rapport, trust, and set up a collaborative learning space. All are key to develop a classroom environment to ensure that student identities are supported.

Thanks to Jacquelyn, Michelle, and Angela for contributing to today’s post.

Guests answered this question:

What are ways to encourage students to tell their own stories; to explore, write about, share about who they are and what is important to them? And how do you develop a classroom environment to ensure that student identities are supported?

In Part One, Crystal Watson, Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, Courtney Rose, and Erica Silva contributed their responses.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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