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‘Let’s Just Remember We’re All People’: This International Program Is Bringing Empathy, Storytelling to Idaho Schools

June 28, 2024

Jaymie Hogg remembers speaking from the heart about divorce. She was in front of her colleagues at the Boise State Writing Project, sharing an incredibly vulnerable story about one of the most life-altering experiences a person can go through. Just saying the words aloud made her tear up.  

Jaymie Hogg

But Hogg, a member of the Boise Education Association and a third-grade teacher at Collister Elementary, didn’t have relationship trouble. She wasn’t getting divorced. In fact, the story that had made her feel so deeply wasn’t even hers — it was her colleague’s. In that moment, Hogg knew she had come across a program that would forever change her approach in the classroom: Narrative 4.  

“I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool,’ ” she remembers. “ ‘I want to do this in my classroom. I want to do this with my school.’ ” 

Narrative 4 seems to have that effect on people. Since 2012, the organization — which describes itself as “a global team driven by artists, shaped by educators, and led by students” — has been helping students (and adults) connect through the power of story. The backbone practice of Narrative 4 is the Story Exchange: two people sit down and actively listen as the other recounts a meaningful experience. Then, each person retells their partner’s story in front of a group. The story is retold in first person, which is how Hogg wound up sharing someone else’s deeply moving divorce story in front of others.  

The goal is to help participants develop and deepen their empathy skills. Narrative 4’s website features success stories about students from opposite ends of the economic spectrum, of queer teens exchanging stories with students who formerly bullied them, and of prison inmates sharing with university students.  

Sharon Hanson, a former teacher in the Boise School District, was introduced to Narrative 4 by one of its co-founders, the

Sharon Hanson

author and National Book Award winner Colum McCann. At the time, Hanson was still teaching creative writing at Boise High School; The Cabin literary organization arranged for McCann to talk to her students.  

“He sat down and told me all about Narrative 4, which just spoke directly to my goals and intentions in the classroom,” she says. “And that is sharing our stories and using those stories to build community in the classroom, because learning cannot take place unless you’ve been able to build some kind of trusted community.”  

Hanson was so struck by the organization’s mission that she joined as a recruiter and trainer. She brought the training to the Boise State Writing Project, where Hogg learned about it.  

Hanson’s last years in the classroom were actually out of it, during COVID. As she watched her students struggle to connect with each other — and she struggled to connect with them — she decided to try Narrative 4’s Story Exchange. The students retreated to breakout rooms, shared stories, and then reflected on what was said.  

That helped them make connections they otherwise wouldn’t have, she says. “The students were saying, ‘I’ve seen these faces, and we’ve had other discussions in class. But now I know every face here is represented by a story.’ One of my students said, ‘I feel like we just broke through the wall.’ ” 

After the exchange, Hanson noticed, students were more willing to turn on their cameras. Their discussions were more vibrant, more alive.  

Hogg has experienced similar transformations in her classroom. “Once they get used to the format, you can delve deeper,” she says. “We delve a little deeper with indigenous people in fourth grade, and perspectives and characters and books — but you definitely have to scaffold it. You definitely have to be trained.”  

Teachers who would like to try out the Story Exchange for free can check out a Virtual Story Exchange event. Hanson is hoping more educators become interested in bringing Narrative 4 into their classrooms. She taught a Narrative 4 workshop at a previous IEA Summer Institute and facilitates trainings throughout the state, including for school districts. To schedule a training, Hanson suggests reaching out to her directly.  

Hogg says she will continue to build upon what she has learned through the program.  

“It takes a lot of trust and vulnerability,” she says. “But in the end, it brings so much connection and empathy and understanding that I just don’t think you could teach otherwise. 

“I think that’s why I loved it so much,” she continues. “It’s not just for kids. It’s for everyone. Let’s just remember we’re all people.” 


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