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HELBLING READERS BLOG

Making connections: Building communities with stories

August 27, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

When we thought about the past year, both on this blog and in our daily lives, one thing stood out as being especially important - the connections we forge and keep. So this year, we have decided to delve deeper into the theme of CONNECTIONS, looking at it from twelve different perspectives. Each month, we will explore the connections in stories, learning, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, and we will show you how to develop them with your students. We will do this through language-based activities and stories so that you find plenty of opportunities to develop your students’ English language skills while guiding them in establishing connections and supporting their own learning. 

When we think of connections, E.M. Forster’s famous line ‘Only connect…’ comes to mind. What exactly does this line from the 1910 novel, Howards End, mean? The full quote goes like this: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’ Reading these words in the context of the novel, we realize that the real value, and often difficulty in life, is making healthy personal relationships. This basic human need to feel connected gains special significance today. The more time we spend in digital environments, the more we need to make connections, and the more we realize that they come in many shapes. 

In January, we focused on connections in stories and the literary concept of intertextuality. In February, we looked at connectedness in reading, thinking, and wellbeing. In March, we focused on connections between different types of knowledge: abstract ideas/concepts and experiences. In April, we have a special interview about environmental education with ELT materials writer and trainer Harry Waters. In May, we focused on connecting people through sharing ideas. In June, we recommended 30 ways of connecting school and holiday learning. In July, we talked about connecting places through reading. In this post, we show you how stories build communities and how they can help us recognize shared challenges and values.

Making connections through stories

Imagine that you have travelled to a faraway country and you are sitting on a train reading your favourite book. You notice that the person sitting across from you is reading the same book in a different language. How does it make you feel? Maybe you feel a secret bond and shared understanding between you and the person reading the same book. You have something in common which you both like and value, and you immediately have something to talk about. Books have the power to connect people not only through space, but also through time. Imagine you are reading the same story that another person read 200 years ago, or you are reading a story someone else will read in a 100 years from now.

Through stories we can make connections with both friends and strangers. We can learn about the challenges that people in very different situations are facing, and spread the word about it. We can also realize that our lives and problems are often very similar to those of many other people. The experience of reading a story makes these connections possible. 

We have collected some ideas to inspire community building through reading. 

Things to talk about

1 Cultural communities

As Patrick R Moran explains in his book Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Practice (Heinle, 2001), communities consist of specific groups within a culture which can range from broad communities like nation, language, gender, religion, region, or generation to narrowly defined ones such as a social club, a sports team or a family among others. One person can belong to many communities both in the broader and narrower aspects of the term. 

Ask students to work in groups and think about the different cultural communities they belong to. Then, pick 5-10 communities (depending on your class size) and ask students to think about one community and explain how they define it, what it means to belong to this community, how they connect with other members (even if they are far away), and what values they share.

2 Stories that connect us

Ask your students to think about stories (e.g., fairy and folk tales, young adult fiction, classic literature, science fiction, detective stories or drama) and choose some stories which mean a lot to them. They should consider their childhood experiences and their home reading experiences. Then see if any of the other students have chosen the same  stories. Get them to explain why these stories are so important and what values they represent.

3 Universal themes in stories

Develop Exercise 2 by thinking more deeply about the most popular stories in the classroom. Ask students what main themes they present. Are they about love, friendship, some kind of fear, challenges in the natural or social world? What do they tell us about other people’s experiences in the world? In a way, students might realize that ‘your story is my story’ and we deal with similar issues all over the world. 

 

Things to do

1 Go to the library: where stories meet 

If we want to start building a community reading project, the best place to start is the library. Libraries give access to diverse stories. They also welcome all sorts of people: younger and older ones and people with a wide variety of interests. First, ask students to explore the library and see what sort of books are available. Then, see if your library offers any reading events where people or children can meet with each other or authors.

Check out our posts about libraries here:

2 Organize a reading event

Organizing a reading event might take some time, but it will also be a memorable event for your students. Here are some ideas to get you started. Involve other teachers or the school/local librarians in the preparation.

  • Organize a reading marathon day
  • Organize a book swap day
  • Organize a ‘bring your favourite book to school’ day
  • Organize a reading day for families
  • Invite a famous (or well-known local) author to your school 

3 Connect with other schools and students to see what they read

You can also set up reading projects with other schools in your town/country or even internationally. A simple but effective way of starting such a project is reading the same story in parallel to another class in your school, if you have connections with other schools in the community, you could twin with a class in a different school. Then, organize discussion events and creative projects (e.g., making a short film about your favourite scene, illustrating a scene, writing a sequel) together. You can use platforms such as eTwinning to set up the project.

4 Map the online world for reading communities and join one

Communities are no longer connected to a physical place. You can join reading communities in the virtual world. Ask students to search their social media platforms for reading clubs. They can also look for popular book- and reading-related hashtags or challenges. For example, students can check out if other people are posting about the same stories as they are. 

5 Learn about what others read

A strong sense of belonging can be established through reading, if we find out about others’ reading experiences. Here are some questions to ask your students. Tell them to talk to the members of their families and their friends to find out about their reading. It’s also a good idea to find out what students read for fun in their free time.

  • Have other members of your family read the same books? What did it mean to them?
  • Do you know what they read when they were teenagers?
  • Do they know what you read for fun?

6 Teacher reading communities

And finally, teachers can also make connections with each other. You can start in your staff room and find out what others read for pleasure or for their professional development. You can perhaps set up meetings to discuss your reading. Alternatively, check out what your national language teacher associations offer on their websites and their programmes. You might ask other teachers about their reading experiences on the association’s social media platform.

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