A Story Exchange: Colum McCann Meets Waynflete

Last week the Irish-American author Colum McCann came to Portland on a mission. He wanted to tell the story of Narrative 4an organization of authors and artists dedicated to mending our social fabric through cultivating “fearless hope” and “radical empathy” in youth (Colum co-founded Narrative 4 and currently serves as president). He also came to hear the story of Waynflete, because of what he had been told about the school.  

Colum held a public talk in Franklin Theater in the evening, in which he read from several of his novels, including his most recent one that is just now heading to publication, and discussed Narrative 4. Narrative 4 had sent an advanced team to train 27 Upper School students as facilitators of their signature activity, the story exchange. In his talk, Colum referred to Waynflete as a “visionary school” for our work promoting dialogue as an essential skill and mindset, which he saw as well aligned with the goals of Narrative 4.

The next day, we suspended classes and dedicated the time to the story exchange and other related activities. Our intent was to strengthen the Upper School community, hone dialogue skills (including deep listening), cultivate empathy, give a cohort of students the opportunity to lead, and provide students with an important experience aligned with the annual New England Youth Identity Summit, which Waynflete co-sponsors with Seeds of Peace.

While my expectations for the day were high, it turned out even better than I had hoped. Colum delivered an inspiring talk, spinning tales worthy of the master storyteller he is and challenging students to, at least for a time in their lives, “do the things that do not compute” and “jump off cliffs and grow wings on the way down.” After his talk, four brave students demonstrated a story exchange to the entire high school. Then the trained student facilitators went to work orchestrating story exchanges with every Upper School homeroom. One student’s description of the powerful experience of the story exchange is linked here.

After a lunch break that featured the head of school and others dishing out ice cream sundaes in the Atrium, we headed off to the gym for “Who’s in the Room?”,  an activity that highlights the hidden diversity in any community. We then held small group conversations reflecting on the day, and ended back in the theater where the student facilitators shared their hopes for our community. A sampling of their hopes, which speak eloquently to the impact of the day, is linked here.

The day ended with music that turned Franklin Theater into a happy house party. A video is linked here.

I am always interested to hear an outsider’s view of our school. A guest educator, who was observing the story exchange, participated in the training and helped out with the logistics during the all-school story exchange. In a follow-up email, she had this to say about Waynflete:

“Thank you for including me in these amazing days with Narrative 4 at Waynflete; it is an experience I shall cherish and build upon. I was blown away by the phenomenal energy at the school, and how brave and articulate the Waynflete students are, and how generous and passionate the faculty is. It was a pleasure meeting all of you.”

The word “generous” used to describe the faculty especially caught my eye. I don’t think that most faculties get described that way, but “generous” is a word I frequently use to describe our faculty and staff when I am asked what makes Waynflete the school it is. On top of being intelligent, skilled, and passionate educators, they are remarkably generous in how they open up themselves to being in authentic relationships with our students.

Such openness and authenticity by adults in a school community is a powerful teaching fuel that goes a long way towards generating the qualities our guest observed. The story exchange is an effective method for building understanding in a community, and our students were primed to take full advantage of the opportunity—as leaders and participants—in large part because of the culture our faculty so generously embraces each day.

We are all lucky to be a part of it.