I’ve had the privilege of following a group of educators and students through a very unique process to create empathy through storytelling. I’ve been incredibly impressed with how committed they have been to getting this right. It truly shows the heart of the Stagg High School community.
The Stagg High School Empathy Committee was tasked with building an empathetic culture around the school. It’s goal: to celebrate ‘us’ as often as it could and to foster opportunities for people to understand each other by telling their stories.
The Empathy Committee, comprised of 29 volunteer members, includes a cross-section of the community including support staff, teachers, counselors, deans, administrators and the school resource police officer in order to gather as varied points of view as possible. Throughout the process they’ve looped in parents, community leaders and a documentary crew from the University of Illinois College of Media.
You can view the trailer for the documentary here.*
The Empathy Committee decided students and staff needed to write and collect powerful stories to create a perpetual empathetic experience for the Stagg community. It knew if community members better understood each other, it would build a stronger environment for learning.
The committee turned to students to research, write and publish the Voices of Stagg High School. From there, two newly created senior elective classes took ownership of this part of the endeavor and participated in an internationally renowned program known as Voice of Witness (VOW). This gave students the tools and support they need to accomplish this monumental task.
Teachers Lisa Thyer and Chris Wendelin, along with their students, have taken this opportunity to share the untold stories that make Stagg the unique, vibrant, and globally-aware school that it is.
“Stagg has never offered a class like this before,” explained Thyer and Wendelin in a message to their students. “Mainly because it’s not a class where we, the teachers, aim to teach you material that you will later be tested on. It’s a project. We don’t have a final exam, but an end goal of publishing a book together. We don’t have worksheets that lead to a unit test, rather experiences that will hopefully give us the skills and perspective to do our best work. The answers aren’t defined by us because we are working with the human experience, and the unique perspective you will bring to that process is exactly why we are happy you’re here. As you can see, it’s difficult to explain the exact parameters to the class because in many ways, they are yet to be defined. What we do know is that what we are doing is very important, there are a lot of eyes on us, and at the end of it all, we will all be authors of a book about the complex and interesting people that make up our Stagg community.”
This is authentic learning.
The Empathy Committee and class have interviewed current and past students, as well as staff and community members, to find powerful stories that depict the culture of the school and community. Through their research, they’ve unearthed individual accounts of tribulation as well as success to paint a picture of the many different experiences that often go untold in a high school. Students have recently completed editing their writing that will be published in a book for sale to the public, which you can pre-order now for just $5. The book will also serve as a resource for the school to continue to build an empathetic culture.
“Reading the VOW stories these past few days has really shown me that there’s a lot of good in the world and more to come,” said student Nia Pappas.
Through this process, Stagg has begun to show what true empathy is, and what each and every member of the community can do to appreciate and understand the many different experiences that make them who they are — Stagg Chargers; a collective family made up of individuals with powerful stories begging to be told.
Look for future posts on &5 about their creative process these teachers and students have taken to write the book.
*Thank you to University of Illinois Journalism Instructor Ken Erdey (and my hubby) for telling the story of these amazing teachers and students, and for sharing the documentary trailer!