Volume 9, Number 1, 2019
Special Issue: A Narrative Works Monograph. Listening to Stories of Courage and Moral Choice: Creating Conversations about Inclusive Care in our Schools and Communities
Guest-edited by Adele Baruch, Robert Atkinson and Holly Khiel
It is difficult to do justice in a page or so to a book whose implications are as far-reaching as those of this one. As someone who has devoted the whole of his scholarly career to the study of stories—of how they are integral to virtually every aspect of our lives (our identities, relationships, emotions, and beliefs)—I heartily commend Listening to Stories of Courage and Moral Choice as a testament to the power of narrative to effect positive, transformative change in the world.
The Courage and Moral Choice Project (CMPC) is introduced, as is the associated research. Stories of helping under duress were brought to various settings, most extensively to high school students with integrated teacher and curriculum support. Listening to these stories appeared to elicit increased memories of helping experiences, as well as increased sharing of personal stories by participants, if engaged in a safe and/or nurturing environment. For a number of students, the stories inspired questions of moral choice and a view of oneself as part of a community “that helps.”
This chapter recounts the events and early research that inspired the start of the Courage and Moral Choice Project in area schools. The project appeared to work well in a school district focused on the need to develop a climate of inclusion and empathy, as the district had recently experienced a high influx of refugees from many parts of the world into a community that had been fairly homogeneous for generations. Teachers noted an increased tendency for students to share personal stories with others after listening to stories of helping under duress. They also noted increased engagement with questions of moral choice. Both students and teachers said that they repeatedly reflected upon the question of, “What would I do if faced with similar circumstances?” Students noted that they began to identify with the stories of helpers once they engaged in service of their own.
Phase 2 of the Courage and Moral Choice Project (CMCP) involved a more structured and planned learning experience than had Phase 1. Two teachers at an alternative public high school collaborated with researchers and artist educators to develop an integrated, three-month learning experience around stories of helping. Students participated on a voluntary basis and focused on these stories through language arts, history, art, and service learning experiences. They were encouraged to tell their own stories of courageous moral choices, and their exchanges led to more general disclosure and trust in the learning environment. Artist educators were brought into the schools to encourage students to translate their experiences of moral choice into poetry, essays, art, and songs. Teachers and students reported a more cohesive sense of community as well as increased empathy and awareness of the help of others among participants.
The special circumstances related to helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—both a natural disaster and a man-made catastrophe—are explored. Stories of individual, formal, and informal networks of helping, alongside stories of exploitation and despair, were shared by participants. Significant to the history of the aftermath of Katrina was the eventual formalizing of some of the informal helping networks, such as the establishment of a musician’s village and performance center in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. The theme of “doing the right thing” echoed throughout our participant interviews, as did “the chance to move beyond angry.” Stories of helping appeared to provide examples of hope to the citizens affected by the storm, as well as encouragement towards purposeful action. The stories of helping, along with participation in altruistic social networks, appear to provide a pathway to the recollection and transformation of traumatic memories.
Stories of helping during the Holocaust offer opportunities to reflect on the choice to act in the face of great suffering and danger. Those who listened to these stories of helping had the chance to explore the circumstances, internal and external resources, and the relationships that made the choice to act possible. Stories of helping from different geographical and political contexts were shared by participants. Some of these contexts, such as Zakynthos in Greece, and all of Denmark, had leadership and a social and political history that helped to create conditions for interactive networks of helping. Some contexts, such as Central Greece, offered more isolated, individual opportunities to help. In some cases, narratives carried through resistance networks sustained and supported helping activities. Those who heard stories of courageous acts of helping carried a sense of pride and identification with the efforts to help. Individuals who heard stories of help and resistance after the war grappled with questions about how they might react in similar circumstances.
This chapter presents three personal stories about the experience of hearing stories of courage and moral choice within the context of family or work environments. These stories range from the retelling of experiences in Greece during the Nazi occupation to stories shared by senior citizens looking back at responses to discriminatory practices in Puerto Rico as they offered shelter and support to the author during Hurricane Katrina. In each case, the stories were either told repeatedly by relatives, or the stories echoed similar stories told in the past by family members. In each of these contexts, the listener describes the experience of learning about moral choices made in challenging situations that have helped to shape the choices that they continue to make long after hearing those stories.
In this chapter, participants from the Courage and Moral Choice Project share personal essays about their experiences with the project. Teachers describe the ways in which they sought to connect the stories of moral courage with a deepened awareness of the needs and challenges in the school and wider community. One teacher described the stories as “reminders” that courage and goodness exist in the world, a world often filled with stories of despair. Another teacher, who was once described as an “at risk” student herself, also noted that the stories provide a perspective of hope. One student described how meaningful it was for her to hear stories about the many Danish citizens to shelter and transport their neighbors during the Nazi occupation. She notes, “I think more people need to be like that.”
In the course of our study on listening to stories of courage and moral choice, we noticed many examples of the way in which the stories appeared to function as a cognitive bridge, providing a vision of possibilities for caring action. We also observed that in order for these stories to promote identification with altruistic action for listeners, facilitative conditions are needed. The two facilitative conditions identified repeatedly by students and teachers were the sharing of the stories in a nurturing environment, where students felt emotionally safe, as well as an opportunity to practice helping behaviors, either inside or outside of school. These stories of connection, courage, and gratitude often elicited the question of “What can I do when faced with destruction and despair?” That question frequently revealed a wish to be a part of the connection, courage, and action inherent in these stories.
Appendix A presents a further discussion of methodology as it relates to both the Courage and Moral Choice Project (CMPC) and the Zakynthos and Hurricane Katrina interviews and analyses. Appendix B contains the interview questions. Appendix C presents a curriculum map for those interested in undertaking a project similar to the CMCP.