Stories From SXSW EDU 2019: What We Learned

I have always loved stories. As a kid, I regularly holed-up in my room to devour a stack of books and would totally lose myself between the pages of a good novel. As a young adult, podcasts became the background music to life’s routines – This American Life during the morning commute, Hidden Brain at the gym, and Fresh Air while cooking dinner. Today, I look and listen for stories in unconventional places – during meetings at work, in passing moments with neighbors, in brands that I follow.

It should not have surprised me, then, that my SXSW EDU experience was peppered with stories. Storytelling was the thread that seemed to connect all the bits and pieces of my week in Austin. The most poignant came from a friend and former colleague who, over dinner, told of a former student who came to him just a week before graduation and confessed that he couldn’t read. The young man, a popular and engaged student, somehow never learned the skill and had found a way to fly under the radar. Soon, he would be catapulted into adulthood virtually illiterate.

In its simplest form, storytelling is how we make meaning of the world. Through keynotes, sessions, the Expo, and happenstance moments at SXSW EDU, I was reminded of the power of storytelling to impel empathy, to provoke learning, and to rouse inspiration.


Storytelling helps us forge common understanding.

Patrick Awuah, the Founder and President of Ashesi University College in Ghana, shared his story during Tuesday’s morning keynote and left the audience contemplating a series of challenges and opportunities that have marked his journey. Awuah was raised in Ghana but came to the United States for college, arriving with $50 in his pocket and a few belongings. He hailed a cab from the airport to Swarthmore College, soon realizing that he had “arrived to the U.S. with 50 minutes of cash” as the taxi meter ticked. His experience is not unlike that of countless first-generation college students, international college students, really most college students who are strapped for cash in a pricey postsecondary quagmire.

Awuah went on to share his deep commitment to changing the leadership core of Ghana by developing a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders at Ashesi. He told a story of Ashesi’s early days when a female student ran for president of the Student Government Club and lost, even though her peers reported that she was more capable than her male challenger. The experience led Awuah and his faculty to initiate a conversation with students about what constitutes good leadership and to subsequently overhaul the curriculum in response. A few years later, a female student won the Student Government Club election with 75% of the vote. His story spoke both to bias regarding women in power and to an institution’s capacity for reflection and change.


Storytelling helps us discover new things.

In the session Storytelling for Impact, a panel of folks who leverage storytelling with young people made a compelling case for its value as a learning tool. Storytelling is foundational to memory and cognition – storytelling helps to make meaning of content. And yet in education, we typically default to the formulaic five-paragraph essay as the vehicle by which storytelling happens.

Michael Hernandez, an award-winning high school cinema and journalism teacher in Los Angeles, rejects the formula and instead develops the storytelling chops of his students through multimedia creation. The basics of good writing – idea generation, content curation, structure, editing – underpin storytelling in any form, whether an advertisement or a documentary or an e-book. The results of his work with students is astounding. Several years ago, he led a trip to Vietnam, a significant experience for his students, particularly those who were on their inaugural journey outside of Western culture. He encouraged them to closely observe, to ask questions, to carefully document every aspect of the trip. His students were humbled and produced a moving 10-minute documentary titled, There is Light, a profound example of storytelling as learning.

Brett Pierce, the Executive Director of Meridian Stories and former producer at Sesame Workshop, challenged educators to create stories around curricular goals and release students to experiment with multimedia. “Storytelling through videos,” he said, “is the literacy of their generation.” His work at Meridian Stories, a nonprofit dedicated to providing students with meaningful media-creation opportunities, elevates and celebrates storytelling in ways that are relevant to young people.


Storytelling helps us birth new ideas.

SXSW EDU offers a platform for entrepreneurs, designers, and the everyday attendee who wants to flex a creative muscle to develop and test new ideas. This is perhaps the best part of SXSW: that folks have the chance to entertain wild ideas in the company of like-minded trailblazers.

The 24-Hour Playwriting Challenge, a session for attendees to write and produce a play in just one day, exemplified how storytelling can foster new ideas. Over the course of 24 hours, six groups explored issues of equity and social justice, particularly in the context of education, and wrote five-minute plays that were performed by a troupe of professional actors. My favorite was Johan’s Web, the story of an elementary school boy (Johan) with a working single mom and a baby sister. He has a homework assignment to read the last three chapters of Charlotte’s Web but his attempt to tackle the assignment is thwarted when his mom must take an extra shift at work, and he’s left to care for his sister. As a former teacher, the story was familiar to me. In busy working families, students often take on many responsibilities that can take precedence over homework. The story left me wondering, how might we reimagine homework? How might we design homework in such a way that is accessible and attainable for students who are juggling work, caregiving, and the like?

The Learn by Design Competition, a celebration of groundbreaking work at the intersection of learning and the built environment, featured seven projects that used stories about the student experience to design inventive and responsive solutions. Project Lemonaid, for example, is a conceptual project committed to using mobile solutions (a la food truck) to meet the enormous unmet need in mental health on college campuses. Hannah Park, Assistant Professor of Design, Visual Communication, and Interaction Design at the University of Kansas and the lead on Project Lemonaid, told the story of a former student who faced addiction and mental health issues. She gave the student a higher grade than he had earned, worried that anything lower might exacerbate his struggle. Park used this story to give dimension to the mental health crisis on college campuses and to point to Project Lemonaid as part of the solution.