The Story Circle
“I thought I had walked into Students at the Center (SAC) backwards, with a blindfold over my eyes and a false statement of what SAC really was. But then I turned around and slowly realized this is why I was meant to be here.
“The teachers were different: It wasn’t always their input but ours as well. It was their techniques that raised my hands to remove the blindfolds. We sat in a circle. We told stories and discussed real issues that many teachers don’t care about.
“They turned some of my inventions into creations. I love being in class, because it helps make me who I will become. I also learned that reading can be fun. I remember it like it was yesterday, reading the book Coffee Will Make You Black in three days. I was so excited, as if I had written my first book. SAC gives you a chance to enhance the creativity you have or don’t have. I remember when I first did my movie that took weeks and weeks to do. I had accomplished something much more than reading a book in three days or writing a poem. I had written a script that became a movie. I love SAC for what it brought to me. And I love myself for what I brought to it.”
--from an essay by Keva Carr,
2005 graduate of Douglass High, New Orleans
Keva Carr, who’s now a Freshman at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, missed our retreat/reunion in Clemson, South Carolina earlier this month. We had bought her a plane ticket, but a recurring illness put her in the hospital instead of on the plane on Friday, October 7. (Keva’s fine now. She missed our retreat, but she didn’t miss any classes.)
I’ve been thinking about Keva and her writing and want to share a bit of it here—not just because she couldn’t join us on the retreat but mainly because it introduces an important technique we use in SAC work: The Story Circle.
In the first entry in this series, I reflected on the SAC philosophy: “Start with what you know to learn what you need to know. Start with where you’re at to get to where you want to go.” One technique we use to accomplish this in our classes is the story circle, something Keva alludes to in her essay.
A story circle is basically a small group forum in which participants sit in a circle and move around the circle reflecting on a theme or concept that has been chosen for the session. The ground rules direct that the story one tells must be grounded in one's personal experience. At the same time, all participants are encouraged to listen to each person's story without interrupting. We usually agree on a short time limit, generally two to three minutes per story. After the circle has been completed, participants ask questions, summarize lessons learned from the stories, develop visual images and other creative responses to the stories, and engage in other forms of “cross talk.” Although this sounds like a simple process, our experience has demonstrated that the story circle is an effective way for people to get to know one another and to honestly share ideas and emotions. With both young people and adults, our experience has been that the story circle produces individual involvement in the sharing process at a much deeper level than anticipated by the participants when they start the process.
This technique creates classroom conditions in which students can have as much expertise and knowledge as the teacher. Those of us who are teachers participate as equals in the story circle, waiting our turn, observing the time limits, and listening closely along with everyone else. For students who have not had much prior success in traditional educational settings (or who come from families with this history), such conditions are vital to developing academic success.
The oral nature of the story circle is equally important. We have students in our classes who arrive with a range of special education circumstances. We welcome them but not in a shallow, “hello how are you” way. We make sure that they can start with where they’re at, that they can immediately contribute valuable material to our class as they continue to develop literacy in all areas.
The movie Keva describes in her essay is about a teen girl deciding whether to have an abortion or not. Keva’s goal in the movie is to make the range of perspectives and positions on this issue understandable, to flesh them out. Keva and her classmates have talked frequently about the way the story circle process encourages them to move beyond their initial understanding of a topic, refining that understanding as they hear classmates’ stories (and read related material from texts and other sources). Keva’s creation, her movie, comes out of that process.
As I write this entry, Keva has just sent me a few more installments in The Diary of Virginia Banks, the book she started last spring based on her study of Robert Charles and the New Orleans Race Riots in 1900. She learned about this history by reading Ida Wells’ Mob Rule in New Orleans and William Ivy Hair’s Carnival of Fury. But in this historical context, she is also working out what it means to be an independent woman in a romantic relationship when social and political circumstances interfere with the relationship. In our classes and our story circles, she has learned that her experiences can infuse and inform the way she writes about the history of her city.
Finally, the story circle represents SAC’s concern with placing our work within the history of struggles for human and civil rights and for social justice. You see, we didn’t learn the story circle technique from colleagues or from our education courses. The story circle was developed by the Free Southern Theater (FST), founded in the 1960’s as the cultural arm of the civil rights movement. We are fortunate to have John O’Neal, one of the founders of FST, as a community partner in our school and our classes and to have former FST member and playwright Kalamu ya Salaam as co-director and teacher in SAC. FST developed the story circle because it was dissatisfied with audience feedback sessions after their performances. They wanted a more democratic process that included all voices. They also wanted to emphasize story rather than argument, understanding that stories tend to bring people together, to help them find common ground or at least to understand each other.
And in New Orleans right now, we need unity informed by deep dialogue and careful listening as much as the freedom fighters of the 1960’s needed it. In terms of SAC, the stories we have told and written with each other over the years have kept us close and focused during this time of separation. Keva will be with us in New Orleans for our “homecoming” on Saturday, November 12. She’ll participate in some story circles and share some new writings. Rodneka, who would have been a senior at Douglass this year, will bloom a slow smile of recognition and delight as she hears herself in Keva’s writing, as she remembers a book or essay they both read in class and that now echoes through Keva’s new essay. At that moment, we’ll all be closer to getting back home.
For those of us who don’t know each other already, who haven’t spent time together but share a city, coming together, learning together, and smiling together will not come as easily. But working toward that is still important. In that regard, I want to thank Thomas Lambert and Earl Luetzelschwab, a student and teacher at Franklin High School in New Orleans, for their responses to my previous entry. I appreciate their willingness to share their views. I also hope that one day soon we can come together in New Orleans in a different setting, one that’s more like a story circle and allows us to understand each other and find common ground. We at SAC respect everyone’s right to pursue an education in the best way they know how and encourage that.