Seminar Day has a long-standing tradition at Norfolk Academy. Originally a day devoted to the entire campus reading and discussing a children’s book, the full-day event has evolved into a day with a topical focus, such as study of the Chesapeake Bay (2015) and international diplomacy (2017). The focus of this year’s theme went hand-in-hand with Norfolk Academy's Year of Listening: storytelling.
Thanks to Dr. David Kidd and Ms. Elizabeth Johnson, Literacy Fellows Co-directors, and the Literacy Fellows, who came up with the idea and oversaw the logistics behind the event, all three divisions participated in a story exchange. The story exchange was framed after a model created by Narrative 4, an organization whose mission, according to its website, “…builds a community of empathic global citizens who improve the world through the exchange of personal narratives.”
Every division had the same goal in mind: to conduct a story exchange with their peers. For most grades, this included advanced discussions in homerooms on how the activity would take shape, supplemental readings, and the act of disclosing a story with a partner prior to a group share. First and third graders conducted a story exchange and had time for sharing. Third graders shared their stories with partners, wrote them out, and shared within a group. The sixth grade, Middle School, and Upper School mirrored these activities, with the addition of readings and discussion added into the mix. And they all came armed with stories to share.
Readings included the excerpt “Eleven” from Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros; text from author J.K. Rowling’s speech at Harvard’s 2008 graduation ceremony; Celebrating the Upside of an Emotional Plunge by Natalie Lindeman; and Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life by Shane Parrish.
Fifth and sixth grades, Middle School, and Upper School students could select one of three prompts to guide their narratives. They had the option to choose whether they were going to share a story about a transformative moment in their lives, a time they failed, or a habit they formed and how it influenced their lives. First and second graders were asked to talk about a time they failed; third graders shared stories about a time when they felt invisible; and fourth graders had the choice between disclosing a time when they failed or experienced a transformative moment.
Once they had their stories in mind, the students met with their assigned partners and traded tales. They proceeded to write down their partners’ stories, at which point a few members from the Literacy Fellows stopped in to see how things were progressing and to offer guidance.
“When I first heard what seminar day would consist of this year, I feared that the students of Norfolk Academy would have very similar stories,” said Micah Whitmire ’18. “However, I was completely wrong. Not only has this exercise allowed me to know more about my classmates, but it taught me many important life values which I did not already have. I feel much closer with my classmates and the school in general because of this extraordinary experience."
Once it was time for group share, the students sat in a circle and told their partner’s story as though it happened to them, using pronouns such as “I” and “my” to convey the stories. Some discussed learning from failures or fears, others singled out a transformative moment. For a moment, the students invited their peers to see a side of them or discover something that would not necessarily be public knowledge. Conveying a story that does not belong to you was more difficult than some students anticipated.
“I realized that it’s harder than I expected to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to explain their story from their perspective,” said Salomé Francis ’18. “It was something I’ve never done before and it forced me to think differently...it allowed me to feel like I had experienced the story as well.”
The power of active listening was at hand, accompanied by the hope for students to be empathic and engaged listeners.