Sharing Stories: Building Family & Classroom Connections

Students engage family members in sharing stories of their history, dreams, or struggles - and share these stories with their peers. 

By the end of November, students and educators alike may have grown weary of routine assignments. At this point in the year, students are likely comfortable enough to go deeper than icebreakers to build connection and community. This is an opportune time to introduce the Family Stories activity to high school and older middle school students.

The task is for students to tell a story related to their family’s history, dreams, or struggles. At my school, this works well to conclude a sequence of immigration stories, poems, and speeches, and also serves as an excellent introduction for my winter unit on Lorraine Hansberry’s play on family, dreams, and housing discrimination, A Raisin in the Sun. This lesson can also stand alone as a circle-based sharing round or opportunity for students to practice storytelling as well as active listening. Additionally, this activity provides an excellent opportunity for positive family engagement. 

Often, I am able to schedule this assignment right before Thanksgiving break (though this activity can be done at any time of the year). With many families gathering over the break students can interview different relatives to elicit their stories of hope, hardship, and everything in-between. For those students who may not gather with extended family, underscore that a parent or guardian’s stories are just as welcome to share. Families should be informed about the assignment via whatever mode of communication they prefer and educators should be available to answer any questions or concerns.

One concern students and families in my community sometimes have is that “no one needs to know our business.” They feel a sense of privacy or even fear that they will be judged for what they share, or simply may not want to dig into traumatic history. 

To anticipate this concern, I explain that there are many options for how to define a family “struggle” or even “family.” In my area, we have had some natural disasters, in addition to Covid, that can provide a less-personal option for students to share about. I suggest brainstorming some specific local suggestions like this in advance for students who feel stuck about sharing something too private.

However, in my experience, most students and families are excited to dig into their history and share about their heritage, their experiences, or a beloved family member. Sometimes I’ve had reticent or quiet classes, and speaking aloud in front of peers can be academically and emotionally challenging. However, students learn that storytelling is a collective act; they all go through it together. This project often results in significant bonding between classmates.  Review the lesson plan below to engage your students and their families.

A open book with pages that form a heart

Photo by Theo Crazzolara on Unsplash.

Day 0 (optional)

Read and discuss texts about migration, family, and struggles. I’ve used “Running to America” by Luis Rodriguez and “The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell is a Harmful Lie” by Sean Sherman. One excellent example that also demonstrates public speaking skills is Michael Rain’s TED talk, “What It’s Like to be the Child of Immigrants.” To process their reading/listening and to collect quotes for future writing purposes, I like to have students pull significant quotes onto the top half of a sticky note or piece of paper, trade with a partner, and then write an explanation of their partner’s chosen quote on the bottom half, before sticking the note up for the whole class.

Part 1

Family Story Brainstorming (20 minutes): Share the Family Stories assignment handout with students, including a grading rubric. I grade this on Common Core standard SL.9-10.4.

I try to give several options for this assignment, to accommodate the diversity of students and family situations, and to connect to our previous readings on immigration:

  • When did your family move to [local area], and why did they come?
  • When is a time that your family struggled to overcome a difficult situation?
  • What do people misunderstand about your family, your culture, or your background? What do you want people to realize?
  • How does your heritage affect who you are today or your dreams for the future?
  • Who is a person in your family who inspires you and why?

Then share a family story of your own, following one of the prompts and demonstrating the speaking skills you hope to cultivate. My story, about my great-grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany between the World Wars, is usually about 3 minutes with details.

 Then, give students some time to think about their chosen story and plan whom they will interview over break. Model some excitement about talking to relatives or investigating a story they’ve heard in the past. Circulate intensively to support individuals. Be sure to let families know about the assignment, if possible.


Part 2 

Post-Family Interview (30 minutes): Split students into groups of 4. Have them divide a sheet of notebook paper into quarters and write the name of a different group member into each quarter. 

Then have them share their stories aloud with each other for peer review. For each speaker, they should write down 2 things they did well and 1 thing they could improve on, and then share out, so that person can take notes for themselves.

Circulate intensively to help reluctant students. I find that these groups are usually extremely supportive of each other’s stories, and this becomes an important bonding moment that ensures students feel ready to share their stories with the whole class.


Part 3

Presenting Stories (time will vary):  Write a speaking order on the board in advance, using a combination of volunteers and “Ok, you will be next.” This reduces everyone’s anxiety and improves everyone’s ability to listen to their classmates because they all know who’s going next.

Encourage the class to applaud everyone both before (as they come up to the front) and after their stories. You have to set the tone here because not only is public speaking difficult for many students, but also the topic can be very personal. However, this assignment is truly worth it. Students regard each other with newfound respect and admiration when they hear about the challenges they’ve overcome or the common values they hold.

After all students share their family stories, invite students to reflect: 

  • What connections could they make to the stories shared? How did hearing these stories make them feel about themselves? Their peers? Their families?
  • What did they notice the class, as a whole, doing well, and what did they notice the class could improve on for future speaking assignments? 

Encourage them by noting that they can do hard things and improve together. Thank and affirm them for sharing the experiences and people who have helped to make them who they are today.


Family Story

PDF version

Tell a story related to your family’s history, dreams, or struggles. Choose ONE of these prompts.

  • When did your family move to [local area], and why did they come?
  • When is a time that your family struggled to overcome a difficult situation?
  • What do people misunderstand about your family, your culture, or your background? What do you want people to realize?
  • How does your heritage affect who you are or your dreams and goals?
  • Who is a person in your family who inspires you and why?

Whom will you interview to get more information about this story?


Write 3 big ideas or parts of the story that you plan to discuss.









Remember, if you want your story to be exemplary, you need to really connect with your audience, so communicate with emotion and use details! Plan the big ideas you want to talk about in advance, but it's better not to read off every word so that it sounds more natural and real.