Our Places and Our Worlds

Jessica Fei is a member of the Out of Eden Learn team and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is a Spencer Foundation Early Career Scholar in New Civics. With separate funding from The Germanacos Foundation, Jessica is running a pilot study called Story/Space to complement what we are doing with Out of Eden Learn and to pursue her own research interests related to place, identity, and storytelling in young people’s lives.

Throughout our years—and even over the course of a day—we move through many places. We journey from places of rest to places of work, places for learning, places to play. Of all the places we’ve been, which places matter to us, and why? What do these places tell us about ourselves—our memories, our hopes, our happiness, our dreams? What might we learn from sharing our stories of place, and listening to those of others?

In exploration of these questions, 35 teenagers in the Greater Boston area participated in the Story/Space pilot this spring. Together they engaged in reflective thinking and creative expression through stories about place. For example, in an activity called “A Space for our Truths,” participants shared personal truths about places that they come from, and interrogated popular myths and dominant representations of these places. In “A Space for Imagination,” young people discussed where they saw themselves ten years from now, and what role they wanted to play in the places where they grew up. Through such exercises, Story/Space participants tapped into the power of storytelling as a way to bring their whole selves into their learning, build knowledge as a community, and ask questions about the realities of their lives.

Because it was based in one local area, the Story/Space pilot also gave participants a chance to learn more about peoples and places that are close to home – from perspectives that might be very different from their own. This helped spur a learning process based on rendering the familiar unfamiliar, and appreciating the individuality and diversity that surrounds them every day. Some of the added advantages of this design were that it enabled close collaboration with our partnering educators, and afforded opportunities for participants to meet in person. At our closing celebration, we held an open mic for participants to freely share the writings that resonated most strongly with them, and created customizable books to showcase the young people’s work.


Since the conclusion of the Story/Space pilot, we’ve been talking with our participants to learn about what the project was like from their point of view. Here are some of the themes emerging in reflections on what Story/Space, at its core, has been about:

1) human(izing) connections

Through Story/Space, young people found ways to make meaningful—and at times, unexpected—connections with other individuals in their lives. Within the online learning community, participants dove deeply into their inner worlds, and offered compassion and support to one another through their comments. Participants also began to consider the people who have made their places special: the crossing guard whose smile brightens their every morning, the teachers who taught them not to give up, the afterschool program staff who helped them through the ups and downs of adjusting to a new place. Sharing these connections illuminated the interconnectedness of our lives, sparked wonder about the stories of the people around us, and cultivated a sense of respect for the unique perspective that each person can bring to a space.

2) life stories

For many, talking about places often led to revisiting those times when something important happened in their lives—elevating a place from being just another place that they moved through, to a place that they could never forget. Some participants shared stories about green spaces where they went to escape a chaotic household, to just breathe and think; some shared stories about the hallways and rooms where they discovered a particular passion and gained self-confidence. In these ways, places became springboards to discuss significant personal experience; they became stories containing wisdom about both the storyteller and life in general. In the words of one participant, a takeaway from Story/Space is that “every person is a teacher”—a guide who can help others navigate a complicated, shifting world.

3) future talk

Finally, Story/Space created a foundation for thinking about how our varied experiences might inform the directions we wish to take in the future. What places do we feel we belong to, and how do we want to care for them as time goes on? What places do we long for—perhaps because they symbolize a fresh start, represent an ideal, or bring us closer to a sense of home? Contemplating these questions, Story/Space participants told stories not only about what is, but also about what is possible and desired. In doing so, it seems that they took the first steps towards bringing these new realities into existence. For as Gloria E. Anzaldúa once wrote, “nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

Check in for more blog posts on Story/Space in the coming months. In the meantime, please feel free to use the comment section below to share any ideas or recommendations for Jessica as she plans the next phase of the project. You can also contact her at jessica_fei@mail.harvard.edu.


  1. Carlos · · Reply

    I like your Story/Space project. The way you connect the students with their daily life in terms of art is very poetic.

  2. This sounds like great work! I look forward to reading more. I also wonder how “placemaking” might come into play with students observing and designing spaces in their communities that foster these experiences and exchanges. Here is a useful link if you are interested: http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/

  3. […] the next months, I will be developing new curriculum for Story/Space, a specialized OOEL learning journey that focuses on themes of storytelling, identity, and place. […]

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