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by Marie Cochran, Adjunct Professor, Art Department

When I began planning the first day for my African American Art History course, I realized that I wanted to go beyond the basic questions about the students’ backgrounds and inquiries about the reasons why they were taking the course. After having taught the course for almost 10 years in different institutions, I wanted to immediately engage the students in a way that would "set the tone" for the entire semester.

Customarily, when I go over the syllabus, I would remark that I wanted their experiences to be active rather than passive. My goal was to reorient their assumptions about the first day—which is often considered a "wasted one," as students search for the right room, haven’t purchased their textbooks and may not be able to show up, and are waiting on checks to clear and registration to go through. I decided to make their experiences the engine that drove our initial conversation. So, what was the best approach among the chaos of a starting date and apprehension of the first meeting of strangers?

The answer was simply a "tool" I had already used quite often in my community-based oral history projects. I would ask my students to provide their own definition of our course in the form of a Story Circle. The size of the class did help—there were a dozen of us. The chairs could be moved, so we could actually create a circle. The beauty and the danger of using the Story Circle were that I didn’t know what I was going to get, and I couldn’t anticipate the direction the accounts were going to take. Yet, every time I participated in Story Circle, magic happened!


A Story Circle is a simple yet effective community-building technique based on the premise that everyone has a story that he or she needs to tell, and that others equally need to hear. The Story Circle allows people of different backgrounds and experiences to share their personal sagas in a safe and nurturing environment.1

Though class discussions have always been the mainstay of my teaching, I learned the Story Circle technique from John O’Neil, a New Orleans-based playwright and actor. O’Neil is a former member of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and the "Free Southern Theater" founded in 1963 as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement. O’Neil has traveled around the country performing an award-winning trilogy of works based on collected stories about the Civil Rights movement. His most recent undertaking is "The Colorline Project," an oral history project that is archiving stories of the Civil Rights movement from around the nation.2

Guidelines 3

First of all, we begin with a designated facilitator (usually the person who has convened the Story Circle). The participants must gather and form an actual circle. Everyone must be able to make eye contact with everyone else without effort, showing that everyone within the group is equal.

The facilitator kicks off the Story Circle by posing a question to the entire group. The facilitator actually begins the process by being the first person to answer the question. Afterward, stories proceed in a clockwise fashion.

Each story has a maximum time—based on the size of the group, and is usually no more than five minutes, but no less than two minutes.

No one can interrupt or comment on the story while it is being told. The group is merely a silent witness.

No speeches are given; only stories are shared. Stories are things that the individuals have witnessed from their own experiences, or that have been passed on to them or that they have heard. No opinions are debated while the story process is occurring. Respecting the circle is the key. Each person’s story is his or her own. No one can attack any of the views shared.

If it becomes a person’s turn and they go blank or don’t want to tell a story, they can pass. After the entire circle has been completed, the facilitator returns to that person (or persons) to see if they have a story to tell. No one is required to tell a story.

After everyone has told a story, the process ends with "cross-talk." At this point, anyone can make comments or ask questions, as a way to respond to the stories that were shared.

In my particular class, I asked the question, "What is African American culture?" This simple question opened up a door of responses which were historical, political, and often personal because everyone was given "center stage" to share their views without judgment. One thing that makes this first day experience so powerful is that when we "conclude" that day’s class, we have only just begun.

1 John O’Neil established Junebug Productions in 1980. JPI is the organizational successor to the "Free Southern Theater."

2 For more detailed information on the Story Circle process, see the link for The Story Circle toolkit (the .pdf file is 39 pages)

3 For an example of the use of Story Circles in academic settings see:


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 2

Spring 2004