Building Bridges Through Storytelling: What Are Your Students' Stories?

Student reading writing assignment to class

Laura Grisso is currently serving as the Executive Director of Language and Cultural Services for Tulsa Public Schools.  In her current position, she works with the local schools and community leaders to support the growing population of English Learners, immigrant students, and bilingual students around the city. In this essay written for Colorín Colorado, she shares two experiences that she had back-to-back that made her reflect on the power of personal storytelling and her students' experiences in the midst of polarizing conversations about topics such as immigration.

As an educator serving English learner and immigrant students in our current political environment, I often find myself in conversations with people who may or may not share viewpoints similar to mine. I know the wonderful assets that my students bring to the classroom. I know how their families contribute to our community. But sometimes I find myself at a loss when I'm in a conversation with someone who does not know the amazing gifts of my students and families or who holds a different political view on the value of my students and families.

Challenging conversations during challenging times

Recently, a friend at church asked me "so what's really up with this immigration situation? Is it really as bad as they say?" My husband and I facilitate a table group at church and this question was brought up by a friend as we cleaned the table up after a study session. The question caught me off guard. The friend knew that my husband and I work in education serving English learner and immigrant students and their families. But still it surprised me that he would ask.

Video: Writing student autobiographies

Veteran ELL teacher Christine Rowland describes an in-depth project she does with her secondary ELLs in which they write their own autobiographies.

I looked at our friend and I said "It's scary." Before I knew it, I had begun telling stories of the students and the families that have come here. I told him of students and the villages or rural areas from which they came. I told him about the limited resources, like clean, running water and electricity. I recalled the experience with a student who had just seen a stapler for the first time in his classroom here. I spoke of the stories that students and families had shared regarding the violence they were escaping and the fears they had for their children if they stayed. "As a parent, I have no doubt what I would do to protect my children," I said.

What truly seemed to surprise my friend was when I shared with him the fears that our students have when they come to school if their parents are picked up by ICE before they return home. I explained that local community organizations were offering free power of attorney clinics and that families were really having to make emergency plans which is a burden children shouldn't have to bear. He said, "But don't the children get to go to the holding facility to say goodbye?" I told him that wasn't an option or a possibility. In most cases, if a parent was picked up they would be moved quickly towards deportation and even more so with recent federal guidance. It was at that point that I saw a sad and bewildered realization in the eyes of my friend. He truly did not know of the reality in which so many students and families now find themselves.

The power of student's stories

A week later I was observing in the classroom of one of our first year English language development teachers at a junior high. The teacher was very concerned for his newcomer students and situations they might find themselves in over the upcoming break. He worked with his school administration team and local resources to craft an informational lesson for seventh grade newcomer students on what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be undocumented, and what their legal rights are if they found themselves in a situation with ICE outside of school. The classroom was full of diverse students, speaking French, Hmong, and Spanish. The teacher started the lesson with a free write exercise. Students were free to write in whatever language they chose but the class discussion was in English. As students began to share their responses, I found myself surprised at the number of seventh grade newcomer students who thought that "immigrant" and "undocumented" meant the same thing.

As the teacher proceeded through the lesson, you could see every student following him and engaging in this topic so current and relevant to their lives. Four students then stood up to share their stories with their peers. Each one told a personal story, sharing details of a sick mother who needed to come across to get necessary medical care; riding in freight train cars for days; walking in the dessert under the moon; and not seeing his mother for eight months since she had been picked up as they crossed. It was incredible to see the respect, understanding, and maturity demonstrated by the 23 seventh graders as they listened and shared. Seventh graders aren't always known for their maturity and respect but these students shared a powerful knowing and understanding of their lives and their stories.

In reflecting on both of these situations, the one in which my friend at church asked me about the reality of the immigration situation and the one in which these newcomer students so freely and safely shared with and listened to their peers, I recognized the power of storytelling. These weren't fictional stories. These were real-life stories. These stories weren't told to argue "for or against." These were just real stories. These were lived experiences. These stories put a face and a reality on the immigration situation and conversations happening across classrooms, churches, offices, and the grocery store on a daily basis. Storytelling can be a powerful tool to engage in conversations with others who may not share your view point on difficult issues.  Although I entered the conversation with my friend with some trepidation as to how it might have been received, my stories wouldn't have had that impact if I hadn't told them.

As educators we know our students and we know their stories. It can be challenging and uncomfortable to enter conversations with those whom we disagree.  Yet it is more important now than ever that we listen to our students' stories and that we empower them to tell their stories – and that we tell them on their behalf when we can. Storytelling provides a way into those difficult conversations and an opportunity to remind us of the common ground that we do share. And, when we find ourselves being asked about our students' reality, we must be prepared to share their stories so that our greater community understands what a critical reality this is for all of us together.

Tips for helping ELLs tell their stories

Consider using a variety of kinds of activities for student storytelling: drawing, poetry, digital storytelling, student essays, or in-depth activities tied to a larger unit. Here are some related resources and suggestions.

Recommended Resources

Tips for the Classroom

  • Keep in mind that remembering or sharing personal stories may be a difficult experience for students who have lived through traumatic events. It may also not be appropriate culturally for students to share those memories with their classmates.  When you prepare for a unit or activity on personal writing, take a close look at topic ideas. Are the topics appropriate for your students?  Are there any red flags?  Even a topic that has been successful in the past may not work with a new group of students – especially if you are teaching a group that includes ELLs as well as native English speakers. (This is another reason that getting to know your students and their experiences throughout the year can help you plan the most effective lessons for your students and avoid potential pitfalls.) Note: To learn more about the dangerous conditions that children may experience on their journy from Latin America to the U.S., see this report from Buzzfeed.
  • Present a range of topics when asking students to do personal writing, including some topics related to their lives today. For example,
    • Option A: Who is someone that you admired when you were a small child?
    • Option B: Who is someone you admire today?

(This is comparable to thinking about creative approaches to units on family trees; kids who are adopted or who live in diverse family structures may not be able to complete a family genealogy assignment.)

  • Explain that students do not have to share their stories with anyone in the class – including you – and that you will respect their privacy.  If this activity is part of a graded assignment, suggest a different topic for a student who wishes not to share the writing with you. Encourage students to write for themselves, however, and explain that writing about a difficult event can sometimes help a person understand it better over time.
  • On the other hand, some students may be willing to share their experiences with you as part of a private presentation or with classmates in small, informal settings like a class discussion or a history or current events class.  Some students may even be willing to present in even larger, more formal settings like school assemblies or public events.
  • For students who are open to it, personal stories can also be published in school newspapers or self-published books. In the "Saving Stories" project below, bilingual books written by refugee families are added to local libraries. ELL veteran teacher Susan Lafond writes, "I would do a yearbook project at the end of the school year, which was a form of a personal essay. It was a mandatory assignment with specific prompts, and students were graded using a rubric. We published that with each person's photo as well as a group photo and an autograph page. Kids really treasured these 'books' and found them more relevant than the school yearbook."
  • Technology can also be an exciting tool. See more tips in the digital storytelling articles above as you think about ways to produce, present, illustrate, record, or share a version of the story that can be shared with classmates and family members - Susan notes that this can be a great showcase event for the end of the year.
  • Approach the topic of personal storytelling with creativity so as not to wear out the theme. Larry Ferlazzo details ideas of engaging students as civic participants by studying the history of different immigrant groups in the U.S. and then connecting them to their own stories.  Teacher Betsy Hansel suggests a variation on the theme with topics such as "something you played with when you were younger" or "the worst food you ever tasted" in this comment on a blog post on Education Week about the possibility of overdoing the personal story idea.
  • Personal narrative writing can be an accessible way to introduce students to writing while still aligning assignments to college- and career-ready standards. In fact, many of the topics of the Common Application college essay focus on personal experiences.
  • Personal writing can also be taught through poetry or other formats; Susan writes, "I had a book with poems/short stories  written by ELLs from many different countries. I would try to pick ones that I thought my students could identify with so they felt safe and not alone. Having them write their own personal stories as a poem of shorts (haiku, blank verse, etc.) allowed me to weave ELA content into the lesson. We published this collection too and also did a cookbook, which was a great way to make classrooms more culturally responsive. The hard part was translating words for ingredients that we don't use in the U.S.!"
  • Getting to know your students and their families is an important step to helping to meet their needs – both academic as well as social/emotional. Learn more from these tips on getting to know ELLs from Colorín Colorado.
  • Think big! Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, took the opportunity to share a stack of her immigrant/refugee students' stories with the White House when she received her award.

Student Stories: Examples and Projects to Share


Laura Grisso is currently serving as the Director of English Language Development for Tulsa Public Schools.  In her current position, she works with the local schools and community leaders to support the growing population of English Learners, immigrant students, and bilingual students around the city. In Tulsa Public Schools, Grisso led the implementation of the first one-way dual language classes in the state of Oklahoma. In November 2013, Grisso was inducted into the Oklahoma Bilingual Education Hall of Fame.  Grisso has also served as the National Liaison and Vice-President of the Oklahoma Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages association.  She earned a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from Northeastern State University, a master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Oklahoma State University, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Educational Leadership through Liberty University.



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