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Original Articles

Collective Stories of Voice and Influence: Weaving Together Stories and Cultures for a World on the Move

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Pages 423-441 | Received 26 Jul 2022, Accepted 01 May 2023, Published online: 30 Jun 2023


Preparing children and youth for a world of growing complexity, diversity, and mobility requires fresh educational approaches and deliberate pedagogies. In this article, we explore the role of storytelling in making sense of crucial global transformations affecting children’s lives. We examine how migrant children and their peers in two classrooms – in the United States and Greece – learn to listen to, co-construct, and share stories of migration. The article draws on a comparative case study and action research approach to advance a novel “Collective Stories of Voice and Influence” pedagogy. We find four qualities that render Collective Stories of Voice and Influence pedagogically effective: they are collaboratively constructed, multivoiced, materially grounded, and civically empowering. The proposed pedagogy can inform educators interested in novel teaching designs that use narratives to help children address complex global issues while creating safe conditions to navigate moments of vulnerability.

We live in a world on the move. Global international migration is on the rise and reached 282 million in 2020, making complexity, diversity, and mobility a new normal. Forced global displacement is also at a record high, with the number of internally displaced people at around 55 million and the number of refugees at over 27 million (UNHCR, Citation2022).

This shifting demographic landscape presents unique challenges and opportunities for schools. Immigrant-origin students now comprise 26% of the school-age population across the developed world. Schools and cultural institutions play a unique role as integration sites, especially at a time when xenophobia and myths about immigration are on the rise. Central to a 21st-century school’s new mission is helping young people make sense of the world around them, nurturing not only basic literacies and numeracies but also their capacity to participate in the construction of more just and inclusive societies.

Children are not immune to the forces shaping societies. Poverty, violence, and environmental change all too often expose children to adverse experiences that can have long-lasting consequences for their cognitive and socio-emotional development and well-being (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, Citation2012). Children unexpectedly find themselves at times protagonists in key historical transformations, whether embarking on their parents’ journey across deserts and seas to escape poverty and war or playing a welcoming role as old-timers in a community shaped by new demographics. Refugee and asylum-seeking children tend to face more obstacles to adjusting when compared to their local, first-generation immigrant peers. They must deal with disrupted family networks, insecure housing, poverty, negative stereotypes, and trauma – all while learning a new language and adjusting to a different culture (OECD, Citation2019).

Preparing all children and youth for a world of growing complexity, diversity, and mobility requires that we nurture their capacity to investigate the world around them, to understand others empathically, to communicate across differences in rich and creative ways, and to take action in the construction of more inclusive societies – in other words, nurturing their global and intercultural competence (Boix-Mansilla & Jackson, Citation2023). This, in turn, requires fresh approaches and deliberate pedagogies (Boix Mansilla & Schleicher, Citation2022).

In this article, we explore the role of storytelling in helping young children to make sense of crucial global transformations affecting their lives. We examine how migrant children living in contexts of diversity and vulnerability can prepare to succeed by listening to and telling stories. We foreground the role of storytelling practices as shared sensemaking spaces and pay special attention to the construction of narratives charged with capturing difficult developments such as forced displacement due to poverty and war. We ask:

  • How do stories help migrant children begin to make sense of their new land, new languages, new people, new landscapes, and the future that awaits them?

  • What role do stories play in integrating migrant children and families with earlier arrivals and local ones?

  • In what ways can storytelling become an empowering tool for children as they navigate their new lives?

This article’s main contribution is a novel “Collective Stories of Voice and Influence” pedagogical approach that educators can use to respond to global issues shaping children’s lives. Empirical grounding stems from two action-research comparative case studies in kindergarten classrooms in which newly arriving and receiving children learned to create and share stories of human migration. The pedagogy proposed has proven especially effective in creating safe and brave spaces for shared sense making and connection among children. We focus here on human migration, yet Collective Stories of Voice and Influence are applicable to many other global circumstances (e.g., environmental risks, extreme weather events, or food insecurity, among others) affecting diverse and vulnerable children populations of our times.

In what follows, we offer first an overview of the research on storytelling to foreground the central role that narratives play in the construction of identity, bonding, and human development. We examine the complexities of storytelling when the stories hold adverse experiences, trauma, and pain. Second, we describe our comparative case-based research approach. We share how teachers and researchers in two diverse kindergarten classrooms – in Greece and the United States – engaged children in the co-construction of complex stories of migration using a common framework to understand human migration and explore similarities and differences across settings (Boix-Mansilla & Strom, Citation2023). Third, we turn to the key pedagogical contribution of this article: We introduce Collective Stories of Voice and Influence as a signature pedagogy in global education (Boix Mansilla & Chua, Citation2016; Salmon & Melliou, Citation2021), articulating the four principles on which it stands. Fourth, we conclude with a synthesis of lessons learned and implications for further work.

Why stories?

Stories make us human. They give voice to what makes us unique and connect us with universal themes of human experience. Sharing of stories help us make sense of the world around us and give meaning to our experience, weaving together a sense of who we are and where we belong over time. Through stories, we narrate and understand the turn of events in our lives and others’ lives. We realize we are not alone when we are connected to someone’s story (Boix-Mansilla et al., Citation2014).

Sharing stories matters in multiple ways

Stories increase self-awareness as well as empathy and understanding toward others’ perspectives

Inviting children to see their lives as stories helps them slow down and find meaning and coherence in their experiences (Moriarty, Citation2015). It also can help children find direction and begin to draw on the past to envision their future as their narrative unfolds. Looking at the past can be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so they can more wisely build the future (Freire, Citation1972).

Stories provide spaces for mutual understanding

If crafting stories helps students make sense of their lives, sharing and listening to stories nurtures empathy for other perspectives in equal measure. Through stories, we become knowable to others, learn and teach about histories and cultures, connect our past and our present, and transcend to shape our future (Boix-Mansilla et al., Citation2014). Through stories, children discover similarities that bring people together and differences that can invite curiosity and learning. They experience feelings about others’ minds and emotions and engage brain areas related to sensing and regulating the self – and the body (Immordino-Yang, Citation2016). Students who are empowered to share their hopes and fears openly and vulnerably in front of a receptive audience learn to build relationships of greater intimacy and trust.

Stories can strengthen cultural and linguistic sustainability

Stories have served as vessels for the preservation and passing on of cultural wisdom and traditions across generations, across cultures, and over the millennia. They invite the celebration and sharing of cultural values, languages, and shared experiences that serve to deepen family bonds, cultural roots, and self value. Individual stories have the power to become and embody the story of a people or a group and open a space for people to open up and create a sense of belonging (Uccelli & Boix-Mansilla, Citation2020).

Stories are communicated in a medium

Through voices, pencils, paper, colors, words, and imaginary objects, children embody and convey meaning and emotion in story composition. The medium chosen for a story offers a symbolic vessel that shapes not only the process of story construction but also its potential reach. In this regard, emerging technologies can leverage the power of stories as students become excited by sharing their own ideas and emotions with an authentic audience far beyond the classroom. Emerging technologies can invite different forms of communication, offering students a meaningful way to find and share their voices as school becomes increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse. Digital storytelling, in particular, combines narration with images, music, and audio (Robin, Citation2008). It not only enhances the storyteller’s personal voice, it also creates more opportunities to communicate competently across cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and personal differences. Constructing and conveying meaning through multiple media can be highly motivating for children. It can be especially powerful when educators seek to honor linguistic diversity and communicative resilience and support less confident students (Salmon & Melliou, Citation2021).

Stories can present socio-emotional challenges and opportunities

For many children, and especially among vulnerable student populations, stories can bring back personal traumatic events. The narrative mandate of beginnings, turning points, and endings often presents the storyteller with the need to manage (i.e., engage, sidestep, overlook) difficult events along the way. At the same time, when working with vulnerable populations, educators’ legitimate fear of retraumatizing children all too often interrupts the possibility of storytelling and, with that, an important opportunity to connect. Educators understand that adverse experiences mold children’s views about their world and self, yet educators also may benefit from appreciating that, when carefully embraced, child-driven stories can begin the process of healing. In fact, to mitigate the impact of trauma and adverse experiences, healing begins with a shift to asking, “What happened?’ (Perry & Winfrey, Citation2021) and inviting storytellers to choose with full agency what aspects of their story to share, how much, and how.

Sharing stories is key among immigrant children and families, because silencing stories may become a source of disconnection. Caretakers, who may have gone through traumatic circumstances, may wish to move on and shield their children from these past pains. Children, in turn, and in their rush to acculturate, may feel shame around their parents’ “old-country ways” and feign disinterest in their lives before migration. Such budding intergenerational gaps complicate parents’ sense of effectiveness in child rearing and the dynamics of care (Oliveira et al., Citation2020; Suarez Orozco & Boix Mansilla, Citation2022).

Students come to learn that they only matter as “English learners” or “math students” when their personal stories are left outside the classroom. Much is lost in this silence, and much can be gained by giving voice. Teachers can connect to students, to their interests, values, and hopes. Peers find opportunity to learn not only what sets people apart but also what they may have in common. Students also find important opportunities to engage in dialogs that strengthen capacities in their multiple languages. Everyone gains from the opportunity to engage in perspective taking and empathy building-two fundamental skills for both emotional regulation and for strengthening interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, when people have undergone adversity and understand the experience of suffering, they build resilience and have an intrinsic desire to help others so they do not go through the same things. People gain inner strength that begins to liberate them from pain by sharing stories (Brown, Citation2012; Cyrulnik, Citation2011).

Recognizing the importance of storytelling in child development and its particular role in welcoming immigrant-origin children and supporting healthy integration begs the question of how one can safely design educational interventions that invite the best of storytelling and sharing while limiting the risks. Enter “Collective Stories of Voice and Influence” unfolding in two kindergarten classrooms.

Methods overview

A study of two kindergarten classrooms

We employed a comparative case study approach in this study while working in two public kindergarten classrooms that serve a high percentage of immigrant, often forcefully displaced, children. One classroom is in Miami, Florida, in the United States; the other classroom is in Piraeus, Attica, in Greece (see ).

Table 1. Kindergarten settings in the United States and Greece.

Working within an action research inquiry paradigm, we collaborated closely with teachers in each setting, driven by their goals and priorities, supporting their instructional designs, attending to their concerns, and keeping their reflections about improving practice central to our efforts (Elliott, Citation1991). As teacher-researcher teams across the sites, we aspired to foster these young students’ ability to make sense of crucial global transformations affecting their lives in a world shaped by migration. We chose to do so by inviting the children to listen, tell, and co-create a three-dimensional migration story. The Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc provided the curricular foundation regarding “what to teach about migration” and a digital storytelling completed our approach regarding “how to do so.”

Our action research approach involved two progressive cycles of planning, action, observation, and reflection (Gordon, Citation2008). The first cycle was conducted by the local group of action researchers at each site. Our research teams embedded themselves in these classrooms for over two years, creating time for in-depth participant observations, shared analysis of documentation of student work, and deliberations on problems of practice (e.g., how to integrate children who don’t yet speak the local language, how to manage the difficult parts of a story). The teachers and researchers in both settings documented classroom experiences using videos, field notes, photographs, brief interviews, and artifacts of the children’s work. The teams at each site used reflective journals to collect data and make sense of their experiences, often in conversation with peers as critical friends. During the second cycle, researchers and practitioners at both sites shared reflections on the evidence, outcomes, and insights emerging from local practices to achieve a deeper understanding of the processes and of the children’s responses in each kindergarten classroom. The discussions enabled us to revisit interpretive assumptions within a broader collegial professional learning community.

Analysis occurred along the way as our teacher-researcher teams met to review observation notes, revisit specific aspects of the design, and discuss selected children’s work, input, or behavior. Our analysis involved recognizing and interpreting episodes of successes, challenges, and resolutions; it also focused on “emotional well-being” and “level of involvement.” That is, each teacher-researcher team attended to the degree to which the children felt at ease, showed spontaneity, were confident, and enjoyed the presence of and interactions with others (Laevers et al., Citation2013). Attending to “involvement,” we considered the degree to which children exhibited concentration and focus, remained interested and fascinated, and brought their capacities in full to the tasks at hand (Laevers, Citation2011) while learning about and through their personal migration stories (see ).

Table 2. Data collection and analysis procedures.

Contexts: Where did the cases unfold?

Piraeus, Greece

The influx of migrants and refugees in Piraeus has put the local authorities under considerable pressure to provide protection and accommodation for asylum seekers and vulnerable children. This situation has also affected teachers, who strive to identify meaningful ways to address the unique academic needs of refugee and migrant students and to develop practices that engage them in social and bonding activities at school. An additional issue of high concern is the language diversity that complicates the teaching process and highlights associated challenges, such as the absence of knowledge of proper teaching methods and class management strategies (Palaiologou et al., Citation2019).

The kindergarten school of Piraeu, where the study was implemented, is an indicative example of an educational setting where teachers were confronted with several language diversity and lack of special training challenges. The all-day classroom comprised 22 children ranging from ages 4 to 6. Almost half of the children (12) were foreign; their parents were either immigrants in Greece or refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. None of those children spoke Greek at home. Among the newly arriving students, two were separated from their caregivers. Many were likely exposed to a range of protection risks during the journey and upon arrival.

The action research team comprised the school’s early childhood coordinator and two teachers. The team held seven joint meetings to plan, discuss observations, and concerns. The teachers deliberated during these meetings about how to manage the complex topic of migration in such a diverse group. For example, at first they appeared overwhelmed by the task of responding to linguistic and cultural diversity in ways that ensured that each child had an equal and personalized opportunity to participate and feel engaged. Teachers and researchers also puzzled over the best use of guiding questions proposed by the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc curriculum and how to structure the stories in such a way that refugee and immigrant children would not be triggered. The coordinator, experienced in working with diverse students, suggested the use of symbolic play and digital storytelling because their multi-literacy nature could support children in making decisions regarding the story they wish to share.

Miami, Florida, United States

Florida, with its large population of migrant families living in Miami, regularly ranks as a top state for migration in the United States. Our study occurred in an afterschool program part of a Title 1 public school, a school with a large concentration of low-income students. The number of students in class fluctuated daily, as with afterschool programs generally. Our work and data collection thus focused primarily on 15 children who were present most of the time. Most of the children (92%) were English language learners – typically of Latin American descent – whose parents’ nationalities included Colombian, Cuban, Honduran, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Venezuelan.

All the children were bilingual, except for two newcomers who spoke only Spanish. Spanish was the language of preference for most of the children. The majority of the children had been in the United States for a short period of time with only one parent. Their immigration journeys varied – from walking long distances and crossing rivers, to a dangerous boat crossing, to flight arrivals.

Conducting the study in an after-school program was challenging. The children’s attendance was irregular, as were the times when the children were picked up. We opted in this context to engage the children in conversations and activities to reflect on multiple stories, develop their own stories, and share them rather than completing a digital storytelling project.

The U.S.-based team comprised three researchers and one afterschool teacher. The research team played a participant-observer (Elliott, Citation1991) role to gain insight into the realities of the class and gain ideas for activities the teachers could try out. The team met for three hours weekly to observe, videotape, analyze the experiences, and make pedagogical decisions. The data were collected accordingly and reviewed on a weekly basis over five months.

Curricular foundations

Deciding what to teach: Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc

Stories of migration can be complex and multifaceted; therefore, our teacher-researcher teams used the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc () to guide the children in their exploration and analysis (Boix Mansilla, Citation2019). This curriculum framework is designed to prepare educators and institutions to respond to the demands of rising migratory flows around the world.

Figure 1. Re-imagining learning arc https://reimaginingmigration.org/learning-arc/.

Figure 1. Re-imagining learning arc https://reimaginingmigration.org/learning-arc/.

The framework does not tell teachers exactly what to teach; rather, it presents teachers with a new curricular approach centered on foundational questions such as, “Where do we come from?,” “Why do people leave their homes?,” “What do people learn along the journey?,” and “How do people adjust to new lands and new neighbors?” (see ). Its goal is to nurture young people’s capacity to navigate their world with revealing questions and a rich repertoire of possible answers as they encounter novel cases of migration. Educators will need to deepen their own understanding of key questions about migration and develop the capacity to treat this complex topic in accessible ways across disciplines and age groups.

Figure 2. Guiding questions.

Figure 2. Guiding questions.

The teachers were able to select relevant questions and engage in their complexity with age-appropriate depth in both of our case studies. The teachers appreciated the emphasis on questions the learning arc proposed because each question generated a lot of ideas for our brainstorming. They supported children in focusing on particular aspects of the migration experience and going into more depth. One point became clear: To be effective educators for a world on the move, we need to construct a novel view of migration in schools not merely as “the unit we teach in the 2nd grade social studies curriculum” but rather as a conceptual lens through which we can understand ourselves and the world around us and make informed decisions for the future (Boix-Mansilla & Strom, Citation2023).

Deciding how to teach about migration stories: Digital storytelling

Digital storytelling (DS) is the practice of making up stories on a particular topic or theme and telling them in more than one language (Robin & McNeil, Citation2012). This interplay between different representational modes and the freedom to use any medium and tool to create and share meaning is one of the strongest arguments for integrating digital storytelling into today’s pluralistic classroom. Contemporary pedagogy often views digital storytelling as a multiliteracy approach that offers a significant addition to multimodal learning (Dunford & Jenkins, Citation2015; Melliou et al., Citation2018).

Multiliteracy (Cope & Kalantzis, Citation2000; The New London Group, Citation1996) is the ability to identify, interpret, create, and communicate meaning across a variety of visual, oral, kinesthetic, musical, and alphabetical forms of communication. The power of DS derives precisely from the unique multimodal narrative qualities that digital stories possess that enable students to communicate in flexible and meaningful ways with others who are different from themselves.

The multiliteracy aspect of digital storytelling is also related to fantasy and symbolic play as a natural way that students, especially the young ones, use to externalize their thoughts and lived experiences. Play and narrative are closely intertwined in children’s experiences and development (Nicolopoulou et al., Citation2006). Storytelling comes alive when children play with puppets pretending to be the characters of their story or set the background scenery from clay and building blocks. Children’s creations evolve as they navigate the storymaking process, giving rise to new narratives that enhance symbolic thinking and their ability to decide what to tell and how to express it (Boix-Mansilla et al., Citation2014; Schank, Citation1990; Suárez-Orozco & Strom, Citation2021).. Inherent within this process is the incorporation of digital media and tools that can further amplify the potential of playful storytelling. Students can manipulate and take pictures of their creations to produce animated sequences that represent their stories with free-of-cost and easy-to-use applications.

The digital storytelling process, regardless of the context, usually follows a series of intermediate steps. Lambert (Citation2013), one of the pioneers in digital storytelling, described digital story creation as involving owning one’s insights; owning one’s emotions; finding the moment of focus; seeing, hearing, and assembling one’s story; and sharing the story. However, one of the most commonly accepted descriptions of the digital storytelling process is the schematic diagram by Samantha Morra (Citation2014) ().

Figure 3. The digital storytelling process (Morra, Citation2014).

Figure 3. The digital storytelling process (Morra, Citation2014).

We integrated digital storytelling steps into four key moments for this study: envisioning the story, exploring personal experiences, creating the story, and sharing it. Digital storytelling provided a process for narrative construction, while the Re-imagining Migration Learning Arc signaled fertile points for inquiry along the narrative path. This dual approach in our educational settings invited teachers to use children’s books to introduce good storytelling examples to students and to facilitate the story construction with well-designed, open-ended questions. The digital version of the story was then designed and the digital material created, gathered, and choreographed. The storyboarding technique guided decision making about images, video, and sound that could help audiences understand the story’s meaning in a more inclusive way. The digital story then needed to be created and shared, leading to potential feedback collection and evaluation of whether the initial goal was met (Bratitsis, Citation2018).

Instructional practice

Case study one: Piraeus, Greece

Step 1: Envisioning the story

Children’s books were used in Greece as a starting point to explore diverse stories of migration and understand the reasons why some people may leave their homes (see ). This enabled the children to become familiar with good examples of stories and to start envisioning their own. The framework of open questions included in the Reimagining Migration Learning Arc (such as, “All the books’ characters had a story of migration – What is yours?”) became a meaningful vehicle for the teachers to facilitate the invention of some basic story ideas. Aiming to enable all the children to express their ideas, the teachers showed the pictures from the books once again and asked them to draw their favorite one. The ideas were created using visual material. Even if stories were not clear enough, they were identified as a potential story and posted together with the Greek-speaking students’ transcribed proposals. All their stories were able to inform the scripting process.

Figure 4. Young students in Piraeus use children’s books to invent story ideas.

Figure 4. Young students in Piraeus use children’s books to invent story ideas.

Step 2: Welcoming personal narratives

Identifying and clarifying the story was a very challenging task for the teachers in Piraeus. The possibility of inviting refugee children to relive unpleasant moments and to experience negative emotions was high for teachers, especially because the children were not speaking Greek. The teachers organized several activities in the dramatic play area in an effort to engage all students with each other’s stories in a balanced emotional way. All the activities included three parts and were facilitated with provocations, such as works of art and journalistic photographs depicting different journey situations. First, the children worked in small groups and took on roles drawing directly from images in the resources presented. Next, they began making up situations that went along with the role they had chosen. In the third step, they shared their feelings and perspectives in every meaningful way (see ). Role playing was very powerful for the children, not only to identify the story’s characters but also to determine which emotions to include and how to present them. The Greek students who were in the same groups with the refugee children also demonstrated more empathy toward them because they had tried stepping into their shoes for a while. Despite having some initial reservations, the teachers soon realized that the dramatic play was a powerful way to help the refugee children cope with their fears and make their stories visible in a safe and welcoming environment.

Figure 5. Children explore narratives through symbolic play.

Figure 5. Children explore narratives through symbolic play.

Step 3: Creating the story

The teachers introduced storyboarding because of the complexity and diversity of the personal narratives that emerged in the previous step and to help the students determine all the key elements to be incorporated in the story. Storyboarding served as a visual map for guiding the students’ work, from narrating a set of events and individual experiences to crafting a compelling and successful story. The students were able to keep track of their narratives’ main ideas in a non-verbal and equally accessible way using their storyboard as a guide. Willing to meaningfully involve culturally and linguistically diverse students in the process, the teachers suggested bringing the story alive through stop motion animation. The class was separated into small groups, and each of them was responsible for delivering one of the different story-making tasks. For example, tasks that required writing skills, such as writing the characters’ scripts, were assigned to groups of Greek-speaking students. However, steps that were related to ICT use and included hands-on activities, such as using clay to make human figures and the background of the setting, taking pictures and inserting them in the stop motion software, and incorporating music or sound effects, were given to newly arrived students (see ).

Figure 6. The making of a stop motion animation story.

Figure 6. The making of a stop motion animation story.

Step 4: Sharing the story

Taking time to revisit the digital story to consider the intended audience and the clarity of information being conveyed was an important step that also raised students’ engagement. Again, the Reimagining Migration questions were essential to start a reflective conversation with students. Using prompts such as “How do stories of migration (our story of migration) influence how other children think and act about migration?” encouraged students to listen more carefully to their story and evaluate the meaning they wish to communicate. The final version of the digital story was shared with a worldwide audience, including the students in Miami, and was featured in social media platforms of the municipality of Piraeus, receiving enthusiastic comments. While the created digital story was relatively low-tech, in the sense of being made easily on a computer with basic hardware and software, the final product had the advantage of including diverse children’s voices that probably would not have been shared otherwise. This was considered a key motivation for all students, even those who seemed distant and more reluctant to speak, to raise their voices and be heard in the classroom. The final digital story is available at: https://youtu.be/61VPX–1-3iQ.

Embarking the children on this healing journey was not a linear process, especially considering the diversity of lived experiences among the children. The teachers thus prioritized as their main goal building a safe and supportive environment that would allow all the children to begin to challenge the dominant deficit narratives of migrants in Greece – narratives that all too often newcomers internalize by the migrant children themselves. The digital story instead invited the children to see and literally construct a future for themselves as they designed and built the later scene of their stories – an anticipated point in their journeys when they played happily with diverse peers.

Employing the “voice of other” through the children’s books and the creation of their stories’ characters was an important step for encouraging the children to take perspective and share feelings, hopes, and aspirations that had not been communicated openly in front of the classroom so far. Similarly, in the dramatic play area, the children were encouraged to act out the stories’ events not as lived experiences that they had encountered personally, but rather, through a chosen character, as an opportunity for them to create new pathways to disentangle from unpleasant associations. Finally, integrating the digital elements of the project enabled the children to demonstrate their abilities. The children felt more in control not only of the story but also of their environment and the use of technology. The narratives that unfolded during this process did not focus on individual, personal traumatic moments. Rather, the process gave the children a language to speak of feelings and emotions that connect them more broadly around the topic of forced migration.

Case study two: Miami, Florida, the United States

Step 1: Envisioning the story

We began our inquiry in the Miami afterschool program by inviting the children to share their stories as a process to help them understand who they are. We all have a story of migration, the Learning Arc proposed, so we sought to invite the children to construct and share their own and build a sense of belonging – including their place in the group and in the larger narrative of human history. The children’s books were characteristically powerful to provoke intentional conversations. For example, we read Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell’s This Is Me: A Story of Who We Are & Where We Came From, a story about migration in which different families are forced to migrate carrying a small suitcase. The learning arc was used to engage the children in a conversation about these stories: What was life like before migration? What did the characters learn along the way? What did they value? Conversations about the children’s stories in the books immediately activated the children’s own prior experiences and their desire to share. A 5-year-old child who had just joined the group took a marker to draw his personal story. He was a newly arrived child from Cuba. His story was, “I am sad, my dad couldn’t come, he had to stay. I am very sad.” The opportunity to share his story gave the child a sense of belonging, especially when he could see other children cared and shared similar stories.

Step 2: Welcoming personal narratives

The Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc prompts children to reflect on life before migration so they can recognize where they come from and begin to understand why people emigrate. The children were eager to share their stories after reading From Far Away by Robert Munsch, a story that portrays the real-life experience of a Lebanese child and her family who migrated to Canada after being exposed to war. The immediate response of a Venezuelan boy after listening to the story was, “My family and I moved from Venezuela because of Maduro. There was not enough food, we had to sleep in one room.” Another child from Colombia expressed himself using drawings and wooden stick puppets () to tell his story. He, too, was eager to share his story: “I used to live in Colombia, but not anymore because the houses were broken. This is my family (showing the puppets), my brother couldn’t come, he is in Colombia.” Being able to use multiple symbol systems, such as drawings, stick puppets, and more, prompts them to enact their stories by creating a safe environment. They took a risk not only to tell their stories but also to imagine how to change those stories by impersonating and representing the characters of their stories.

Figure 7. Multiliteracies to tell stories.

Figure 7. Multiliteracies to tell stories.

Step 3: Creating the story

Children think in stories. Some of them are imaginary, others are a mix of imagination and real experiences, and others reflect their own stories. Many of those stories tell what people experience as they move from one place to another.

We read The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions by Anna Lenas in one of our sessions. This story has no connections with migration. However, at this point, stories about family separation emerged naturally in conversations about emotion. The quality of the conversations and the safety in sharing sparked in other children the desire to tell their stories. One girl volunteered, “This is the park; I was happy with my family. I was smelling the flowers. Then my family left, and I am not happy anymore.” Working through her story, this child chose to represent it twice: first in a book format, then in a poster ().

Figure 8. Child drawing and telling her story.

Figure 8. Child drawing and telling her story.

Step 4: Sharing the story

A very important step to validate children’s participation is opening a space to share their stories. Every session culminated with children sharing their story in the author’s chair (). The children had to sign up to participate in this activity. Sharing their stories was a critical step to motivate more children to share. The children saw an opportunity to have a voice in this activity. On one occasion, the teacher overlooked a child’s name on the sign-up list and she called another student. The child who was impatiently waiting for his turn to share was very upset, reacting with the comment, “I hate my life.” He crumpled his story and left the group. When the teacher followed up with this child, she learned that he wanted to tell the other children how sad he was for not having friends to play with. His behavior reinforced the teachers’ appreciation of how important it felt for the children to share their stories once their peers shared their own and were validated and understood by all. The author’s chair is an invitation for children to share their stories and share their thoughts. Children who are shy see a safe venue to have a voice in the author’s chair.

Figure 9. Author’s chair and a child sharing.

Figure 9. Author’s chair and a child sharing.

It was not possible to move on to create complex digital stories due to the unstable circumstances of afterschool presence. However, it soon became evident that each time a child shared a story, other children were motivated to tell their own stories as well. They found an opportunity to have a voice and learn from each other in the author’s chair.

The adults modeled the use of the author’s chair by sharing their own stories and inviting the children to ask questions, give a compliment, and have a short discussion about the story. While modeling, the adults taught the children how to give each other feedback with respect. They introduced the concepts of empathy, perspective taking, and caring. The ritual for participating in the author’s chair consisted of signing-in, sharing the story, asking questions, and having a short discussion about the story. The children learned in their discussions to validate each other’s ideas, talk about their drawings, ask questions about the characters, and conclude with a short conversation. The children’s conversations gave the adults clues for teachable moments or for designing intentional learning experiences that helped the children understand concepts such as diversity. For example, when talking about families, a child commented that another child doesn’t belong to her family because he has dark skin. The adults shared a children’s book entitled Brown: The Many Shades of Love by Johnson and Moore in a next session. This was a good provocation to engage children by talking about diversity and inviting them to highlight what they value about each other.

Two cases revisited

Across cases, teachers reported the children’s high levels of engagement, especially during the story construction process. The children concentrated for long periods of time working with materials, writing, and creating scenes with playdough. They also felt at ease and showed spontaneity working on multiple forms of representation of a shared story. The teachers took special notice of newly arrived children who were beginning to find their way, weaving their family stories together with images of their new land and finding their role in the project despite language barriers.

The two cases reaffirm the ecological nature of children’s development, pointing to the micro and macro contexts shaping their lives (Bronfenbrenner, Citation1979). These range from the intimacy of their relationships with peers and teachers in a welcoming school classroom to the macro forces of economic and political collapse and war that forced their families to leave their homes and begin again in a new place. In this regard, the cases show the children’s capacity at an early age to make sense with surprising clarity of the macro societal forces shaping their lives. The children in Miami focused their stories on the socio-economic and political dimensions of their experiences, referring to push forces such as “starving in Venezuela,” where they could only eat arepas and had no electricity. Children named “the government,” specifically “president Maduro,” as drivers of emigration. Painful family separations were also a dominant theme across the stories the children shared, with children naming siblings, parents, or family members left behind. The children in Greece, conversely, who were typically fleeing from Syria, focused their collective migration story on matters of survival and dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea.

Developmentally, the children across cases, immigrant-origin and local alike, showed markers of adaptive psychological development associated with self-regulation, collaboration, and concentration on tasks (Suárez-Orozco et al., Citation2018). They also had an opportunity to begin to work through a healthy process of two-way integration in the new land. The receiving children came to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of their newly arriving peers beyond the language barriers. They learned to listen empathically with all their senses in order to connect. At the same time, newly arriving children began the dual process of enculturation marked by an appreciation of their own stories, cultures, families, and place as well as the open mindedness, intercultural competence, and resilience required to learn to participate in a new cultural environment, contributing to it constructively from a young age.

Our case studies also foreground the teachers’ attentive and delicate work. These adults were able to create safe and welcoming environments for the children to craft and share stories that involved trauma and risked triggering the children. “We are not trained for this in our teaching preparation programs, and even if we read about the theories of trauma-informed teaching, the realities of our classrooms are new,” one Greek educator explained. The teachers thus set out to learn together through close collaboration with the researchers and each other.

Aware of the emotional complexity of sharing migration stories among this population of young children, the teachers and researchers entered the terrain with caution, ensuring that the children maintained agency about what they wanted to share or not and honoring their voices when they shared, inquired, or contributed. Listening carefully to the children’s stories and expressions (verbal, visual, kinesthetic) enabled the teachers to understand individual children better, which was key for creating a climate of inclusion and belonging. For the children, sharing or contributing to stories of migration among both empathic teachers and peers who understood the experience themselves or showed a genuine desire to understand it created an emerging sense of belonging – a sense of not being alone on a journey filled with fear, pain, and hope. The children felt connected in an environment that was safe and felt courageous enough to embrace feelings of vulnerability, the desire to know and be known by trusted others, and the expression of pain as a natural response to difficult moments in life.

Creating safe and courageous learning environments also involved embracing important opportunities for healing and healthy adjustment. The children learned that it is safe to share difficult stories among trusted adults and peers. Stories for healthy adjustment also involved validation and anticipated resolutions. For example, the teachers described how the characters’ bravery and persistence in the children’s stories evoked positive emotions, even among students who had experienced family separation. The teachers also spoke of the power of anticipating positive resolutions in their stories. Here, as described earlier, the children chose to depict the final scene of the stop motion digital story with a scene of a public playground where local and newly arriving children shared in play and laughter and where local characters received their newly arriving peers with welcoming signs of friendship and joy. Finally, healthy adjustment was also embodied in the children’s understanding that stories can also have a public purpose – to ensure that others also know and understand. Illustrating this point, the children in Greece expressed pride in creating and sharing a digital story with the intention to help others – as one member of the team put it, “so people stop hurting other people and to give hope to other children who are experiencing a hard journey to the new land.” In fact, hope for a better life; to be seen and understood; and to feel connected, welcomed, and able to contribute in legitimate ways to a new society are central driving forces and sources of resilience in the experience of migration. They had a privileged place in the classroom dialogs in both settings.


The case studies just described and the analysis that followed reveals the role of young children’s storytelling in making sense of crucial global transformations shaping their daily lives. We showed how migrant children living in contexts of diversity and vulnerability can prepare to succeed together by listening to and sharing each other’s stories. Storytelling practices, we showed, can serve as important sense-making platforms to process the complexities of the world around us. Underlying our work thus far are pedagogical principles we have come to see as powerful ways to potentially guide future educational practice. Such principles are embodied in the signature pedagogy we propose—Collective Stories of Voice and Influence.

We define Collective Stories of Voice and Influence as children’s cognitive, social, and emotional engagement in working with others to create a narrative that captures complex human experiences and shares them with others to shape their perspectives. Collective stories of voice and influence help children organize their own subjective experience in collaboration with others, finding ways to express their views and be heard.

Four qualities define the storytelling practices we have in mind:

  1. Collective Stories of Voice and Influence are collaboratively constructed, because the narrative is informed by dialogue and exchange and nourished by multiple experiences and connections. Individual personal stories emerge through multiple opportunities for conversation. A most vivid end telling example of this quality is the collaboratively built composite story developed by the children in Greece. This was not a specific child’s story but rather the story of one Syrian child leaving home for a new world. Such co-construction created space for the children to contribute their expertise about the voyage without making the conversation too personal for them. Over time, the collective nature of these stories allowed for mutual influence and calibration vis à vis children’s understanding of migration.

  2. Collective Stories of Voice and Influence are multivoiced, in that they invite a broad range of the children’s communicative capacities and multiple literacies, offering meaningful ways to express themselves and find their voices. In our cases, the children wrote, told, drew, storyboarded, illustrated, edited, role played, and added sound and music to their stories. The proposed Collective Stories of Voice and Influence underscore the importance of employing multiple symbol systems to recognize that, as human beings, we have multiple forms of communication. We are reminded that the purpose of languages (verbal, visual, digital, musical) is to build relationships with our selves, the world, and others. In this sense, limited mastery of the language of reception (Greek or English in this case) need not become a gatekeeping force of exclusion that limits the richness and complexity of expressions of which children are capable (Moll Citation2019; Uccelli & Boix Mansilla, Citation2022)

  3. Collective Stories of Voice and Influence are materially grounded. They are anchored in creation involving paper, colors, pencils, play dough, puppetry, the body, and video. Materials ground children’s ideas, offering concrete anchors (characters, places, movements) that hold the process of narrative construction together and invite an emotionally safe and playful engagement. Children construct knowledge of the world by acting on objects (Piaget, Citation1972). A book offers a story one can return to and interpret in multiple ways. A stick can become a character, a barrier, or a flagpole, depending of the meanings that children attribute to it and negotiate with others. The concrete materiality of a built story in this sense provides children with a series of “boundary objects” (Carlile, Citation2002) that become the mediators of a collective effort of narrative construction. They become the point of intersection and negotiation of multiple forms of meaning making. Perhaps most important in the context of culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms, the materiality of the Collective Stories of Voice and Influence grounds meaning making in non-verbal and safe symbolic play.

  4. Collective Stories of Voice and Influence are civically empowering. They create opportunities to empower children – especially children in vulnerable life situations. They do so by inviting the children to use not only their voice but also their influence. Not all stories must pivot on a child’s civic disposition. At times, making sense of complex global issues affecting their lives and doing so with trusted others is enough. At the same time, we have observed that children, when secure in their bonds and the process of co-construction, can find excitement in viewing their stories as a means to influence others. Children in the United States were able to share their stories, helping everybody in the class to understand the universal nature of migration and that one can have dreams and pursue them even in difficult times. Children in Greece are committed to ensuring that many others would see their digital story and learn to be kind and welcoming to newcomers. Having an authentic audience and a relevant purpose yielded excitement among the children. In this regard, Collective Stories of Voice and Influence builds on the idea of the child as a current – not merely a future – citizen, able to participate and shape the world around him or her (Malaguzzi 1989), indeed a person with the right to do so beginning in the early years of life (Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989).

In sum, a pedagogy of Collective Stories of Voice and Influence builds on the four core pillars introduced above—collaboratively constructed, multivoiced, materially grounded, and civically empowering. These four principles can directly inform new teaching designs that seek to use narratives to help children and youth address complex global issues that shape their lives and place themselves or their peers in states of vulnerability at times. Teaching and learning unfold in a context, so the success of this signature pedagogy pivots on the teachers’ capacity to create safe, nurturing, welcoming environments for learning, environments in which children can be themselves and embark on the courageous and joyful task of constructing complex stories. We turn to such environments and the main lessons learned in our concluding section.


We began our inquiry by asking: How can stories help newly arriving children begin to make sense of their new land, new languages, new people, new landscapes, and the future that awaits them? What role do stories play in integrating newly arriving children and families with earlier arrivals and local ones? In what ways can storytelling become an empowering tool for children as they navigate their new lives? The cases we have described respond to these questions by illustrating the power of story creation and sharing for children to make sense of their inner experiences and memories as well as the world around them. In turn, a pedagogy of Collective Stories of Voice and Influence and the principles proposed offer an actionable approach for instructional designs able to foreground learning, healing, relationships, and joy.

Stories are fundamental to who we are as humans, and sharing them with an audience that listens validates our experiences. Building an inviting and risk-free space proved critical for the children to share their stories. They felt valued because they felt that their stories matter. Underlying the success of the cases described was the quiet capacity teachers had developed of ensuring a welcoming and safe learning environment in the classroom. These environments put a priority on relationships. The teachers sought to understand each individual student well by appreciating their narratives, validating their emotions, and inviting them to move on. The teachers expressed very high expectations vis à vis the expressive capacities of all children regardless of the language used, as well as the wisdom they would be able to bring to the work by drawing on their funds of knowledge and life experiences. The teachers did not shy away from deep engagement with moments of the migratory experience, including the dilemmas associated with decisions to leave home. However, they also sought to offer ample opportunities to engage with support and employing multiple languages. Walking into these classrooms, spaces showed the centrality of the children’s thinking and work. Storyboards, dilemmas, the children’s reflections, drawings, and photographs of their learning process were displayed prominently on the classroom walls, loudly signaling the relevance of the work. Perhaps most interestingly, it was the teachers’ and researchers’ willingness to experiment, to innovate in caring, collaborative, and informed ways that enabled them to sustain this effort.

Our study, as in all comparative case-based action research, sheds light on the local dynamics of inclusion facilitated by the Stories of Voice and Influence pedagogies introduced here. The principles guiding these pedagogies might be applicable and adaptable to other contexts, yet our findings are not predictive. Other classrooms, group compositions, teachers, and leaders will give rise to new insights. Further research could focus on the role that families play in co-constructing stories, on the role of stories among older vulnerable youth. Further research could also expand this new pedagogical approach to other contemporary global issues, ranging from stories about a changing climate and planet to stories of race, community, and exclusion.


We thank our collaborating teachers whose insights and dedication directly informed our work.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).


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