The Power of Community and Storytelling

Jennifer Dines, NBCTMay 16, 2018

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I believe in the power of community to provide support during a time of need.

I realized the potential of storytelling within a community on a recent Saturday. I was feeling incredibly low from a challenging week at work – two former students at my school were murdered – one a 17-year-old at a party and another gunned down in broad daylight outside of the Burger King near my school.

On the day of the murder at Burger King, I taught with helicopters flying outside the window and my students and I in lock down mode. At a meeting after school, we had a moment of silence and then it was business as usual. This is not because my colleagues lack empathy. It’s because this is a story that is all too common – young men of color are murdered regularly, almost routinely. When temperatures rise in Boston – as they did on the recent sunny day I taught in lock down – I want to fully enjoy the weather, but I also worry because when the young people who carry guns can hang outside, violence often erupts.

That Saturday morning, while sipping coffee and watching my preschool-aged daughters complete a floor puzzle, I thought about so many questions. What is is like to lose a child? What is it like to live in fear? What happens when trauma makes me feel hazy and disconnected – as if living in a fog? Deep inside that fog, I began to brainstorm about what I could do right there, right now, to create some positivity and to feel as if I had a modicum of control over the situation.

So, I decided then and there to ask for books – a special collection of high interest books for teens that read at a primary level – because I believe that learning to read well is life-changing and that books provide a much needed escape from one’s personal and emotional life. Reading books and writing in my journal are two of my most valued outlets, and I share this love of language with my students.

I posted a project for my students on DonorsChoose and then I told a story of a recent day in my classroom on my neighborhood’s Facebook page. Within a few hours, my dream of receiving $900 worth of books for my classroom library became a reality due to the generosity of my neighbors.

Dear Roslindale Neighbors:

I am a Boston Public Schools teacher in Grove Hall. While this neighborhood is only a few miles from ours, the median household income is half of Roslindale. I have recently created a project on DonorsChoose.org to garner resources for my ESL Level 1 classroom.

This week, I taught with helicopters lingering outside the window of my classroom and the school in “safe” mode – no one could go in the hall and we lock the classroom doors. There was a shooting in the neighborhood, mid-day, and my students couldn’t walk their usual way home. So, with violence happening, books provide a much needed escape from the pressures of living in a neighborhood prey to gun violence. My students are so determined – a group of my 8th graders attend five additional hours of school per week to research mental health and mental illness and will be working to improve our school community’s knowledge and resources around these issues.

We are in desperate need of materials to propel our learning forward. Thank you for reading – no amount is too small and a “Share” is much appreciated! I am feeling desperate to do as much as I can for the wonderful children in my care.

Right after posting this, I closed my computer, put my coffee mug in the sink, and went about my day. A few hours later, I checked my e-mail, and I could not believe my eyes. My project had been fully funded due to the generosity of my community. Additionally, the librarian at my local branch had seen my post, and, when I visited the library a week later, she presented me with some books for my classroom and told me that she would keep looking for more for us. And I received a gift card to DonorsChoose from someone who wanted to donate but found my project funded.

I was blown away by the support I received simply by sharing my story online. Prior to this, I thought that no one cared much about the neighborhood where I work, but maybe that was because it was invisible to them. All the good that resulted came from storytelling. My community felt magical – the encouragement proven by the generosity and interest of others made me feel supported and loved.

And, as I shared our new books and the story I told with my students, they not only enjoyed reading, but they also saw an example of the caring brought about through writing.

Jennifer Dines, NBCT

Jennifer Dines is the Director of English Language Learners at the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School, a Pilot School in the Boston Public Schools. Jennifer is a National Board Certified Teacher in the area of English as a New Language. She is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, Lesley University, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. In addition to blogging for The Standard, Jennifer currently maintains her personal blog http://www.literacychange.org as well as a newer collaborative blog focused on writing across the curriculum: http://www.writingisthinking.org. Follow her on twitter @literacychange.