The Facing Project can be a tool to help your students move beyond writing their own stories and journaling about their own lives to connecting with their peers, listening, and writing the stories of someone else. The project started as community- and college-led projects, but has been adapted for middle school and high schools.
Below are lessons on the core components of a Facing Project. Feel free to adapt them as needed to fit your class. The key component that must be maintained in order to be an official Facing Project is that no one writes their own stories. Instead, writers write the story of the individual who they interview in the first person as if they were them.
As you incorporate these lessons into your class, you may also want to explore the entire Facing Project toolkit for additional ideas.
Please share how you incorporate the project into your class so we can better help future classes.
The Facing Project Team
Introduction: The Facing Project
The Facing Project is a nonprofit that connects people through stories to strengthen communities. We provide tools, a platform, funds, and inspiration so communities can share the stories of citizens through the talent of local writers, artists, and actors.
Taryn Beckman, a teacher in Muncie, Indiana, created the chart below linking The Facing Project to Indiana and common core standards for 7th and 8th grades:
Our model guides schools and communities as they enlist of writers to be paired one-on-one with students/citizens who are facing life circumstances that deserve to be shared to better educate the broader community. The pairs meet, get to know each other and share stories of triumph and tragedy, of loneliness and community, of hate and happiness, of deep depression and lofty goals.
The writers use their talents to take on the voice and persona of their subjects and write as if they were them—in the first person—bringing a voice to life.
Through these stories often shared online, in journals, in books, and on stages, communities can begin to sit down together to face the next steps of discovering new, grassroots solutions to the problem.
Lesson 1: The Conversation
This isn’t a traditional interview. This is a give and take conversation. You need to try to capture how they think and feel and speak. The most powerful stories are the ones that do NOT read like a feature in the local newspaper. Bring a recorder or use your smartphone’s recording app to capture the conversation, so you can lose yourself in the conversation and not notetaking. Do take some notes, though! Use your notes to capture the storytellers emotions and movements—how they said what they said.
Don’t have a list of prepared questions that you simply power through. Help guide your storyteller’s conversation with your questions. Focus on key moments—when they decided to speak out, when they sought out help, when they overcame an obstacle. Ask them what they felt, saw, and smelled. Drill down into details so you can see through the storyteller’s eyes and walk in their shoes.
Your story is only as good as your ability to listen and to ask questions that don’t interrupt but make the conversation flow.
The importance of conversations and what makes for a good one (from the #SchoolOfLife):
Lesson 2: Listening
The most important part of an interview is listening. If you want to have a conversation, you must listen and give the storyteller a safe space to share. Also, as a storyteller you need to be open to sharing your story.
By far, the best way to be a good listener is to be genuinely curious about the other person. Besides, you know all about you already. Shut up and listen.
Here are some tips followed by a few short videos to help introduce your students to listening and having genuine conversations:
Ask open-ended questions, not yes or no questions.
If you aren’t sure what to ask next, summarize what the storyteller has shared with you already. This allows you the time to reflect on what you might want to know more about. It also shows them that you are in fact listening and gives them the opportunity to clarify anything that you may have misunderstood.
Silence is your friend. It allows the storyteller to fully express, rephrase, reflect, and explore how they think and feel. Don’t be afraid to let 10 seconds go by. Chances are the storyteller will fill in the silence with their story.
Be an active listener. Nod, make eye contact, encourage them to go on, react to what they say, and take notes. Show that the storytellers words are heard and they are making an impact on your behavior. Don’t interrupt the storyteller in the middle of a story or a point they are trying to make. Wait until they pause and then add what you have to say or ask the question that occurred to you. If you are genuinely interested in your storyteller, you will automatically begin mimicking their body movements–when they lean forward you’ll find yourself leaning forward. You also may begin mimicking their word choices. Do not check the time or a device.
If a thought or question occurs to you during the interview, write it down and ask it later if the opportunity presents itself in the conversation.
Avoid judgement. You are trying to capture the storyteller’s truth. You should be listening and not debating. You should never say something like, “You should’ve never done that. You should’ve done this.”
Celeste Headlee shares how to have better conversations in the 10 minute Ted Talk below. The video should benefit students both as writers and as storytellers alike:
(start at 4:18)
1. Don’t multitask. (4:27)
2. Don’t pontificate. (4:50)
3. Use open ended questions. (6:02)
4. Go with the flow. (6:39)
5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. (7:26)
6. Don’t equate your experience with their. (7:46)
7. Try not to repeat yourself. (8:26)
8. Stay out of the wits. (8:46)
9. Listen. (9:08)
10. Be brief. (10:29)
And here is a 5-minute video with 6 tips to be a better listener:
Empathy is at the heart of any genuine conversation and the point of The Facing Project. It is important to all students (and humans) to know the difference between empathy (feeling with someone) and sympathy (feeling at someone). Here is a 3-minute, entertaining animation of a talk by Brene Brown that captures the difference :
Write your story in the first person as if you are the storyteller.
Keep it around 1,000 words at the most. Stories should be as long as they need to be, but anything much more than 1,000 words gets a bit long. Again, focus on a moment, a feeling, a lesson, a universal truth. Try to key in on moments that define the storyteller’s situation.
The classic writing advice “show not tell” applies to facing stories. Yes, you’ll need to tell some details, but your main goal is to take the reader into a scene of the storyteller’s life.
Try your best to write the story in the voice of the storyteller. This is where the recording is really helpful. Use the storyteller’s phrases or a word that identifies their voice.
Here is an examples of a story from Muncie’s Facing Disabilities that has a strong voice:
Genius. There. I said it.
Of course most parents believe their child has superior intelligence but unlike those parents, I have the paperwork to prove it. In fact, I have the paperwork to prove that Daisy’s intelligence is “very superior.”
Daisy isn’t even five years old and can sit down with workbooks meant for second graders, read the instructions, and complete the assignments like it’s her job. Her ABC’s were nothing to learn and no one even had to teach her to read; she just started reading one day. And, in trying to do things like talk me into giving her just one more cupcake, she incidentally does basic arithmetic and algebra.
It’s incredible to see her soak up every single thing that she hears and sees, even the things you wish she wouldn’t. It’s with these displays of intelligence that I realize just how brilliant Daisy truly is.
And while I have the paperwork to prove that my child is an academic genius, I also have the scores to prove that she is pretty low-functioning socially. This is where the conundrum comes in. You see, it’s hard for an outsider to see an IQ score when the child in front of them seems completely unaware of her surroundings and just threw herself on the floor and started to scream because another human being entered her personal bubble.
If you really want to take on a challenge, use as many of the storytellers words as possible. Kelsey and J.R. both have written stories almost exclusively using the storyteller’s words by transcribing the interview with the storyteller and then rearranging them into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Here is NPR’s Scott Simon on what makes a powerful story:
See J.R.’s first Facing Project story: Inextinguishably Wholly in which he used this technique.
More example stories
From Facing Hunger in Manhattan, Kansas.
Hundreds of more stories facing a variety of topics can be found on our Community Page.
For Middle School classes
The model of matching writer and storyteller together is a powerful tool to get students to listen, share stories, and write. Students are consistently asked to write about themselves and their own experiences and in their own voice. A Facing Project journaling activity gives students the chance to connect with their fellow classmates.
Here’s how it works:
- Separate students into pairs. Choose one of them to be a storyteller and one the writer.
- Provide a question to prompt their conversation.
- If time allows have them switch roles and repeat.
- Allow time (or assign homework) for the writer to write a short story in the voice of the storyteller crafted around the prompt.
- Have the students share the stories with their partner and choose a few who are willing to present in class.
Another option is to have students connect with students at other middle schools either in person or via Skype during class time. The students would follow the above steps to capture one another’s stories and create a connection with a student from a different school (think à la 21st century pen pals with a twist).
What’s your dream for a better world?
What do you want to do when you graduate from high school?
Who in your life makes you feel like you’re amazing?
What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done?
What would constitute a perfect day for you?
What is your most treasured memory?
What’s your most prized possession?
If you could live anywhere outside the United States where would you want to live?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
What do you miss most about being in elementary?
When did you last sing to yourself? What song?
What do you like about yourself?
What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard today?
What’s something about you that people don’t expect?
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen this week?
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
Suggestions for High School Classes
High school classes can use the journaling model outlined above or use the Toolkit from start to finish to run a full Facing Project.