Using Story Circles to Build Empathy

Sorting through a box of old school papers, I found a story one of my children wrote in 2nd grade. Her teacher had provided pages with an empty box for art on the top half and lines for writing below. My daughter had drawn several pictures of her and a friend together. According to the accompanying text, they had made a pact to take care of each other no matter what. Neither big waves, nor barking dogs, nor scary dark nights could harm them as long as they had each other.

Stories are powerful. They can shape a child’s sense of self and also how they see other people. They can confirm a child’s biases or encourage their curiosity. If we want children to have strong self-esteem and respect for others, helping them learn to tell their story and listen to others’ stories is crucial.

Religious educator Mary Hess has developed an approach called Story Circles that any organization can use with elementary age children. The process goes like this: One child tells a short story in response to a prompt, such as “Tell a story about a time when you were scared” or “I feel most centered when….” Other children listen to the story in specific ways:

  • Some children are asked to be Factual Listeners, who listen for the facts or actions in the story.
  • Other children are asked to be Feelings Listeners, who pay attention to the feelings communicated in or by the story.
  • A third group of children are asked to be Values Listeners, who listen for embedded values in the story.

Once the storyteller has finished, the listeners share what they heard from their specific perspective.

Paying attention to different aspects of the story helps children learn to distinguish among facts, feelings, and values. It also gives them a focus for listening, which increases concentration and recall. And it reminds them that stories are complex forms of communication as they realize how many different things their peers have heard.

If time is short or your group is made up of preschool and kindergarten children, try an abbreviated version of a story circle where one child tells a story and the rest listen carefully for what they think are the most important parts of the narrative. Then invite the listeners to suggest titles for the story, based on the important things they heard. For example, a story about struggling to sit still while meditating might prompt titles like “Meditating is hard!”, “Wiggly meditation”, or “You gotta sit on your hands”. Give each listener a chance to contribute a title idea, either aloud or on sticky notes that you post for all to see..

While this simpler version doesn’t emphasize the complexity of stories as much as the original approach, it still provides a focus for listening (“the most important parts”) and encourages creative engagement. You can also add the titling aspect to the end of the original version as another way to get children thinking creatively about one another’s stories.

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