Storytelling Project Explores Identity

During a recent visit to the sixth floor, a striking scene unfolded. With the walls around the classrooms, lockers and elevators transformed into a public gallery of sorts, clusters of Middle School students wandered among the pieces made up of eye-catching imagery and descriptive text, pausing to study each one’s “story.” 

“My object is called the qipao,” declared a student’s story beneath a photograph of a short-sleeved red dress. “My object is an Indian board game called Parcheesi,” said another. “My item is a prayer mat,” a third stated. Other pieces included a pocket watch, a wedding photograph, a jar of lentils, a mandolin, and an elephant statue, among many others.

Although these stories appeared as unique as the Class 5 students who created them, they were all connected by the common threads of identity, immigration and cultural heritage. After exploring these themes last year at a Tenement Museum workshop, the Class 5 advisors (Ana Gutiérrez, Lindsay Quinn, Anna Mello, Nisa Wheatley, Jonathan Shiller and Jenet Dibble) were inspired to engage their Advisory groups in an interactive, interdisciplinary activity shaped by “Your Story, Our Story,” the museum’s national storytelling project.

To begin, the students interviewed family members to help select an object or a tradition that represented a personal experience around immigration, migration or identity. Each item or custom needed to fit into one of six categories: attire, foodways (the intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history), fun, religion, work/education and miscellaneous. It also had to include specific countries or places (like Africa, Poland or New York) and hashtags related to the particular story (such as #grandmother or #discrimination).

In the next part of the process, the students wrote moving reflections about what their particular selection meant to them, both on an emotional level and from the perspective of their ancestral and cultural paths. After assembling their imagery and texts and adding bold red titles, they displayed their finished pieces throughout the sixth floor.

At turns poignant, funny, heartfelt and enlightening, these stories were simply magnificent. A student who chose “cornrows” for her object, for example, wrote: “When I think of something that represents who I am and my heritage, I always think of cornrows… I have so much pride in my culture.” A photo of a smiling woman with this hairstyle accompanied her words. 

A second story featured an image of a modest yellow house with a metal roof, along with this narrative: “My grandfather’s house in Ireland that he grew up in with his 13 siblings plays a huge part in my family history.” With “Scotch pot” as her object, another student stated, “This pot reminds me of the hardworking women of my family and the delicious food we’ve shared over the years.”

Back on the sixth floor, the students savored the opportunity to explore their classmates’ stories. In addition to viewing the images and reading their peers’ reflections, the observers were encouraged to ask questions and offer feedback using colorful Sharpies. 

Curating their own stories, Ms. Dibble explained, enabled the Class 5 students to become active and informed historians of their lives, and resulted in a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world. A perfect example of the undeniable power of storytelling!