Bringing Empathy into Storytelling

Please meet Chloe the Optimistic! This is a story I co-created with my novice 1A session.
Please take a minute to observe Chloe’s portrait which was drawn by two in-class artists.

What do you see?
What do you think?
What do you wonder?

Do you see an eye with tears on the bottom of Chloe’s face? Do you see a tiny little nose on the right side of her cheek? Do you see a big red mouth on her forehead? Do you see two hearts, one is intact, one is broken…?
What do you think? Do you think this is a master piece of drawing? Do you think this is a target of ridicule? Do you think this is an expression of uniqueness? Or do you think this is a cry for fitting in?
What do you wonder? Do you wonder why we created this character together? Do you wonder what is Chloe’s story? Do you wonder whether or not she is ever going to be happy?

Well, please meet Chloe the Optimistic!
Some of my students intended to make Chloe the Optimistic to be a target of ridicule. Could you imagine someone only having one eye, but her eye and her mouth switched around? She has a proportionally small nose, but not in the middle, it’s on the side of her cheek? Could you picture the energy in my class? Some kids laughed and giggled and other kids got super upset?
It is not because that I lacked sensitivity and let chaos happen or lost control of my class. Within the yinyang symbol, chaos and order are in constant changes.

In the mid of chaos, we could always bring clarity back. Simply, all we need to do is asking questions:
Is Chloe similar or different from us?
How would she feel about being different?
Would someone laugh at her because she looks different?
Would someone talk about her because she looks different?
Is there a time, you feel that you are different from others?
Is it bad to be different?
The moment I started to question whether or not Chloe is different, the energy in my classroom shifted. Giggles diminished, seriousness and concerns grew.
I asked about Chloe’s personality. The class agreed that she is friendly and optimistic. I inquired about the things which Chloe liked to do. As it turned out, she is sporty as well as artistic. She plays basketball well, but she plays alone because nobody likes her appearance. She sings well but nobody knows because she either sings alone or in a band who all wears masks.

“Okay, students, we are going to give an appropriate name to Chloe’s band. Please take out a whiteboard and write down a name for her band.” Students happily complied. I walked around and questioned their choices.
“Hmmm, Chloe and her band…” I pointed to the words of “thinker” and “logic” on a poster board and pressed on, “We are all thinkers, think logically, she wears a mask and sings in a band, would she really call her band with her name?”

Eventually, a girl got an idea! “I think she must feel like a black cat who is not welcomed anywhere! I’ll call her band “the Black Cat!” Everyone applauded.

Then, we arrived at the classical part of storytelling. What was the main conflict?
“Chloe wants a friend and she likes someone, but that person doesn’t like her!” A student suggested.
“A very good suggestion! So, does Chloe really knows that that person doesn’t like her or Chloe feels that that person won’t like her?”
Everybody paused, took a breath and thought about it. “She THINKS that person doesn’t like her.”
“Laoshi, does she want a friend or “friend friend”? A girl put up her fingers and made a quotation mark.
“I really don’t know. Does that really matter?” I pushed back. The class decided it was not a big deal to have a “friend friend” instead of a friend.

Next, it comes to a moment of truth whether or not Chloe should embrace her vulnerability.
What should Chloe do? What would Chloe do? If you were Chloe, what would you do?

Walk way from her longing for connection? Say something to that person? Or better yet, she is a singer and has a band, how about writes a song and sings?

“SING!” Everybody shouted.

Chloe sang the song on a Friday concert. We don’t know whether the person she likes is there and hears her.
But we know Chloe would be okay once when she starts to embrace her difference and feels okay about herself.
I also know that my students have become more acceptable of others due to this collaborative story together.

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