Building Empathy through Storytelling

Steward Academic Deans share the benefits of teaching storytelling in the curriculum.

By: Becky Groves, Lower School Academic Dean
Louise Robertson, Middle School Academic Dean
Melissa Freed, Upper School Curriculum Dean
Elizabeth Simpson, Upper School Academic Dean

Storytelling is one of the world’s oldest art forms. Its roots are founded in oral tradition, extending thousands of years. In its essence, storytelling has and will always bring people together into a shared experience, and it has a meaningful correlation to literacy development (“The Intersection of Storytelling and Reading Development”). An equally important connection is the effect that knowing someone’s story has on the development of empathy for that individual. We all know the idiom to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. To know someone’s story is one step towards empathizing with that person’s journey. In a world with a myriad of life experiences, hearing someone else’s “story” provides a window into that person’s perspective.

The National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling defines storytelling as “an art form through which a storyteller projects mental and emotional images to an audience using the spoken word, including sign language and gestures, carefully matching the story content with audience needs and environment” (Roney 48).

The Council of Storytelling, while reporting the definition above, explains that this use of oral tradition is a potent tool for delivering content in all areas of the curriculum. This technique holds special value in all disciplines, especially language arts curriculum, as a means of helping young children develop competence with print literature. The potential reason for this connection stems from storytelling’s origin in the oral tradition. Children develop oral language fluency at an early age with a near-perfect success rate (Roney 49). Taking this natural strength and using it to reinforce academics proves to be beneficial for all types of learners of all ages.

Earlier this fall, Steward welcomed internationally renowned storyteller Courtney Campbell. In addition to sharing hilarious stories with our youngest students, Mrs. Campbell emphasized the importance of the story within each of us. Our students were encouraged to share their individual stories, both orally and in writing. Storytelling techniques are powerful and deeply important for development as students emphasize their own unique voices. When we tell our personal stories, we recognize, validate, and celebrate our own identities. This understanding of the intersection of storytelling and identity lays the groundwork for important work within our classrooms.

As academic deans, we are tasked with evaluating our curriculum on an ongoing basis, often looking at it through a different focus or lens. This school year, our faculty is using the concept of “windows and mirrors” as a way of seeing our curriculum from multiple perspectives. Noted book author/illustrator Grace Lin gives a moving argument for the importance of “windows and mirrors” in the books our students read. Relevant and engaging curriculum should allow students to see both others’ experiences (windows) and perspectives that reflect back their own identities (mirrors). What is a window for one student may be a mirror for another. By using this construct we, as curriculum leaders, are helping to fulfill the first line of our diversity and inclusion mission statement: The Steward School is committed to diversity and the development of an educational environment that fosters mutual respect, responsibility, and empathy in our school and in life.

Literature is a powerful medium for opening the world to our students, exposing them to people and places they might not otherwise encounter. This year students in all three divisions (along with our entire faculty and staff) read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, one of the 2017 Global Read Aloud selections. The story also set the groundwork for the November Visiting Innovators from Humanity Helping Sudan. The conversations around the innovators’ visit and the novel study were inspiring. These experiences allow students to build empathy as they make an abstract concept concrete and tangible. In addition, these personal connections act as catalyst and motivation to become involved in the issues of social change.

The common thread is storytelling. How we view ourselves and view others is in large part due to the stories we share. This school year, we are excited to journey into the world of storytelling as we learn about ourselves and those around us.

Works Cited

Roney, R. Craig. “A Case for Storytelling in the K-12 Language Arts Curriculum.” Storytelling, Self, Society, vol. 5, no. 1, 2009, pp. 45–54. JSTOR, JSTOR,




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