The Power of Storytelling as a Tool for SEL

By SEL in Action Community

This conversation is part of a series led by SEL in Action awardees from across the country. SEL in Action community gatherings invite educators to exchange promising social and emotional learning (SEL) practices, co-create solutions to challenges, and tap into a network of peers for support. This summary reflects key themes and takeaways from our conversation on March 31, 2020.


Storytelling offers many opportunities to practice SEL, such as expressing the breadth of one’s emotions, connecting with others different from oneself, and more. Written essays, spoken word, performance art, and digital production are all forms that students are using to share their voice and personal stories. In this “What’s Working” gathering, educators came together to share and learn how storytelling is being used as a tool to develop students’ social and emotional competencies.

The Power of Story

We began by sharing a few ways that storytelling has impacted us. Stories have the power to:

  • Grow empathy and compassion.
  • Enhance connection and deepen relationships.
  • Elevate student voice and give power to lived experiences.
  • Help students understand and evaluate things that have happened.
  • Preserve and honor cultural heritage and family histories.
  • Break down barriers between individuals or groups.
  • Create a sense of belonging and build community.
  • Empower and build confidence.

Building Resilience and Lifting Each Other Up

SEL in Action awardee and former Portland Public Schools educator S. Renee Mitchell is co-founder of I Am M.O.R.E. (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday), a program that connects youth of color outside the classroom and helps them become active researchers in their own lives and change agents in their communities. Through storytelling, the young participants learn to reframe their interactions with trauma in ways that help them move beyond the trauma and own their personal journeys.

I Am M.O.R.E. student portraits accompanying their personal stories.

Renee described the approach: “It’s a celebration of who they’re becoming rather than something of which to be ashamed. Empowered resilience is more than bouncing back. It’s trying to find purpose and being able to help others in the process. It’s an inside-out journey.” Further, she emphasized the importance of anti-saviorism. Students, not adults, need to be the heroes in their stories.

The young people involved in I Am M.O.R.E.’s programming are telling their stories across a variety of mediums and platforms. Examples include written essays, photography, graphic novels, and a keynote presentation to school district staff. Recently, I Am M.O.R.E. hosted a storytelling fashion show entitled “Resiliency in Rhythm.” One student used different costumes as a means of sharing her story from the time she was in a refugee camp in Tanzania, to her current life as a dedicated student, to the professional she wants to become in the medical field. Through what Renee calls empowered resilience, the youth “find their voice, find their passion, and find ways of helping others in their community.”

Creative Writing and SEL in the ESL Classroom

Nicole Tabolt Da Silva is also a SEL in Action awardee who is using storytelling to support students’ social emotional learning. Students in her 10th grade English and ESL classroom at Boston International High School are all recent immigrants, representing more than 40 different countries of origin.Ā Since 2017, Nicole has engaged her students in weekly journal writing, open mics, and an annual literary magazine in an effort to develop their creative writing, speaking, and English language skills, as well as to authentically teach SEL. Through these storytelling formats, students are given space to work through real-life challenges (e.g., making new friends, feeling homesick) and express their feelings.

Students write in their journals twice each week. One entry is always from the current ELA unit, and one entry focuses on an SEL skill. For the ELA unit prompts, Nicole chooses different authors who reflect the students’ different cultures. Students have an opportunity to choose a journal entry to share with the class on open mic days. Nicole shared, “The open mics have definitely been a way to build community. The students really like getting to hear what other students are thinking. For example, a really quiet student will read a really funny poem and nobody expected it. It’s been a great way to get to know each other.”

A student in Nicole’s class teaches her family member during the writing breakfast.

Nicole also talked about how she plans journal prompts to help students respond to predictably challenging times of the year. For her recent immigrant students, Thanksgiving and the days leading up to school breaks are always hard and so she teaches about homesickness and culture shock. As high-stakes testing gets underway in March, her journal prompts give students space to deal with stress.

This year, Nicole’s class hosted and invited students’ families to a writing breakfast where students taught their family members about memoir writing. Students got to learn of new stories from their families, and similarly family members got to hear new stories from their students. The event was especially powerful because families were able to engage in the creative writing process in their own language. Rather than treating English proficiency as a deficit, the workshop valued everyone’s expertise and personal narratives.


Storytelling and Connection in This Time of Social Distancing

As our online gathering came to a close, we wrestled briefly with the question of how these and other storytelling practices can help students in the current context of school closures, remote learning, and home quarantines. These ideas were shared:

  • Share a story of impact. As everyone is working under new and stressful conditions, an encouraging note to say how someone impacted you may be just the support they need.
  • Set up a back-and-forth creative writing exercise in which two or more people write a poem together. The teacher might begin, “Coronavirus impacts me in this way…,” and then a student might respond, “Coronavirus impacts me in this way…”
  • Focus on the quality over the quantity of conversations. An authentic “love tap” in the form of a call, email, or text message goes a long way.
  • Set up optional, virtual office hours where students can share their stories, passions, and special talents with their teachers. Use this time to spark new connections and build relationships.
  • Bring students together for community connection. Create a safe, moderated online space where they can discuss emotions, experiences, and challenges.

Continuing the Conversation

We greatly appreciate everyone who joined this online gathering, and especially Renee and Nicole who stepped up to share how storytelling is working in their interactions with young people. We’ll continue these SEL in Action gatherings through the spring. Join us for the next conversation on April 15, 2020 on the topic of building workforce diversity in support of SEL.