Building a Chemistry Community With Storytelling

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Last summer, I attended a workshop from my college offered through the Center for Career Connections for faculty, staff, and administrators. The workshop was about storytelling. I have always been fascinated with stories and using stories as a teaching tool, thinking back to the Native Americans and their oral tradition of explaining natural phenomena and recording their history. I'd like to report on a class assignment where I actually felt "love" in the classroom. I don't know how else to describe it. Keywords for this blog are storytelling, diversity, community, trust, and biography.

This particular workshop was focused on how to tell a story using the SAR (or STAR) approach– "Situation, (Task), Action, Resolution", which is a technique used by people who are interviewing for a job. We were each tasked to tell a story about ourselves to an audience of our choice: each other, students, or potential employers. We met for two days and at the end of it, we were each told to create and present our story. The amazing thing was that process of sharing something about ourselves with each other developed a sense of caring. Yes, we were mostly complete strangers (= first week of class for students), and yet we heard the coolest things about each other, and gained a sense of trust. At the end of it, we felt completely re-energized and a sense of peace. We felt blanketed in a feeling of warmth and support for each other. It was then I realized I needed to do this in my classes!

Modeling the Storytelling: The first day of class I showed my students a presentation about myself. It included a picture of me and my family from when I was 8 years old on vacation in South Korea, and we were all wearing the traditional hanboks. Then I showed pictures of me with a mass spectrometer from graduate school, and told them how I used to be premed but fell in love with chemistry.

I showed photos of me with my students to show them I really love my job as a teacher and love to get to know each of my students. I also pointed out the diversity in the photo and said that was one of the best things about teaching at a community college. I also showed pictures of my band and shared my hope and dream to become an amazing jazz guitarist.

The assignment replaced a usual "Post a Biography About Yourself" assignment that I normally use. In this assignment students write a few things about themselves and reply to each others posts. Instead, I was going to ask them to come up with their story and present it to the class sometime in the first three weeks of the quarter. The assignment verbiage will be shared at the end of this article. The results were amazing!

Students spent a lot of time thinking about who they are, what they wanted to show about themselves, their families and friends, how they got to college, and why they chose to study science. They shared experiences that were funny, sad, triumphant, and frustrating; it was completely moving. I learned so many things about my students that I don't normally learn about during an academic quarter. And the diversity of the students was awesome. Students shared their experiences growing up in other countries, about "coming out" to their family with regards to their sexual orientation, about what it's like to raise a family and work full-time while going to school. It was very humbling and humanizing. In a time when we need to celebrate diversity, this assignment truly brought out varied human experiences we could all learn from and appreciate.

Building Community: The assignment ended up creating an atmosphere where people shared intimate things about each other with strangers. This brought us all closer together. I noticed the class asked a lot of questions during lectures. Students didn't always turn on their webcams, but used their microphones and talked to each other as if we were meeting in person. Students trusted each other and me. We truly cared about each other. When the academic quarter was over, I received a booklet that the students made me, with many messages about how much they learned and how grateful they were to have such a warm and supportive environment for their success.

I have since tried this assignment again but changed one thing: I didn't make it required. After talking to a colleague who said he grew up with trauma and didn't want to share personal things with others, I rethought whether it was something I should require or not. Unfortunately, with a choice of a presentation or a discussion post, most students chose the discussion post. And just as expected…it was a class that didn't quite have the same community feel as the other. Sure, it could have just been the group of students but I am now tempted to go back to what I did before and try it again in the future as a required assignment.

NOTE: In case students do have trauma in their pasts or do not want to share their background, I think there are plenty of other topics they can still share that reveal who they are.

Below is a brief description of "My Story" assignment (as posted in the LMS course shell). 

  1. Please introduce yourself to the class during class presentation time in the first 2-3 weeks.
  2. The goal is for us as a class to get to know each other, and for each of us to reflect on who we each are individually, and practice how to communicate it to others. 
  3. I will post some resources on the SAR approach (Situation, Action, Results). Remember, think about this tool for your career and for networking. Consider using this communication tool in your future!
  4. Use any format you want. You can pre-record it in advance if you prefer, or deliver it live during class. You can use PowerPoint slides, a poem, a song, or anything you want to use as a prop. 
  5. Things that you could talk about:
  • your background (where are you from, what are some reasons you are here, your goals?)
  • a strength that you have
  • a hope or dream for your future

6. Presentation length: 2-3 minutes would be great! If you prefer to pre-record that's OK- we will use the time in class to listen to it.

7. Check the sign-up sheet to sign up for a presentation slot.