10 Activities for Building Virtual Community Through Storytelling

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My grandma Sylvia met my daughter for the first time in 2010. I recently shared this memory with my students.

Over my 20+ year career as a high school teacher and principal, university instructor in teacher education, parent organizer, and nonprofit leader, I developed facilitation practices that were engaging and equity-centered. 

 

But in March 2020, when Zoom took over my work world, I had to quickly pivot and identify new practices for cultivating community in online environments.  

 

Knowing that these environments can stymie authentic connections, and often reinforce the same inequitable practices and cultures that were present before the pandemic, I focused on activities that use storytelling to create brave spaces. Below are some of the activities that have resonated the most with colleagues and students.

1. Storytelling Prompts

I encourage groups to move beyond the ‘if you were a flavor of ice cream, what kind would you be?’ type of icebreaker question, and instead invite participants to discuss questions that promote vulnerability and more meaningful connectivity:

  • Tell us about a family member, living or dead, who has had an important impact on your life.

  • Tell us a story about something kind you did for another person, or, tell us a story about something kind another person did for you.

  • Share a food memory that is connected to a family custom or tradition.

  • Talk about joy. When was the last time you felt joyful? Tell us the story.

  • Share a story about a time when you did something challenging that took a lot of courage? Or share about something a friend, family, or colleague did that you considered to be really brave.

2. Two Truths and a Lie

This is a classic activity for good reason: it provides people with an opportunity to share more about themselves, and it often sparks laughter. I like to set some parameters, for example: the stories told have to be from the participants’ childhood, or from their past weekend, or draw on experiences from a former job. This helps ensure the ‘truths’ that get shared are more personal than just facts about participants. Put people into breakout rooms of 3 - 4 to play the game. Later invite some participants to share with the whole group something they’ve learned about a peer that resonated or that they connected with.

3. Just Like Me

Adjust your Zoom settings so that each participant can Spotlight one of their colleagues. Then read several statements that you’ve prepared in advance, such as the ones below, which each participant should say out loud (probably with microphones off) while looking at the person they’ve spotlighted. Save time to debrief the experience afterwards.

 

  • This person gets sad sometimes, just like me... 

  • This person brings joy to others, just like me... 

  • This person is under pressure, just like me... 

  • This person Is super powerful, just like me... 

  • This person feels far away from a loved one, just like me... 

  • This person has fears, just like me, just like me... 

  • [Does anyone in the group want to add any?]

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4. Treasure Hunt

Provide participants with a short list of items (ex. something black, something round, and something special) and give them a few minutes to find items from their home, office, etc. that fit each category. Invite people to share one of their items and tell the story behind it.

 

5. Black Lives Matter Bookshelf

Provide participants with a link to this virtual bookshelf that has links to videos of people reading aloud from picture books such as A is For Activist or A Kids Book About Racism. Working with 1 - 2 partners, the small groups select a book/video to watch together in a breakout room, and then share with each other how the book resonates with their own experiences and values. 

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6. Mood Chart

Share this chart that captures the different feelings that might be present for participants, or create your own. Using the Zoom annotate feature (or a similar tool on a site like Jamboard or Miro) participants can anonymously circle (or place a symbol on) one one or two words that resonate with how they are feeling. Give the whole group some time to observe their collective results. Then invite participants from each of the four quadrants to share more about their selected word.

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7. Awards Ceremony 

This activity helps foster a culture of public appreciation and celebration.

Prepare a series of slides with awards, trophies, or certificates on them which can be easily created using Canva, using categories like the ones below. Share the slides with your participants and have each person select someone else in the group they want to give an award to. Each participant then has a chance to to share who they are giving their award to, and why. 

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Award/certificate categories could include:

  • Brightens The Day

  • Did Something Caring

  • Went Out Of Their Way To Help

  • Supported Me on a Challenging Project

  • Is Inspirational

  • Demonstrated Courage

  • Spoke Truth To Power

A twist on this activity is to have participants create a Bitmoji avatar which they paste into a shared deck that contains the awards you have made. Participants can then move each others’ avatars next to a trophy or copy/paste them next to multiple trophies. This approach ensures everyone gets at least one award. Once the sorting is done, provide participants with an opportunity to talk about who they are recognizing and why, so the group can hear the stories behind the recognitions.

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8. Breakout Quotes

Choose four quotes that will resonate with your group and put them into a slide deck that you share from your screen. Select quotes that speak to issues your community cares about, or reflect values held by participants or your organization. Invite different participants to read each quote aloud. Participants then self select breakout rooms that align with their chosen quote and discuss why that option resonated with them. 

 

An example of a quote that could generate powerful conversations between colleagues is from Michelle Obama:

 

“Do not bring people in your life who weigh you down. And trust your instincts ... good relationships feel good. They feel right. They don't hurt. They're not painful. That's not just with somebody you want to marry, but it's with the friends that you choose. It's with the people you surround yourselves with.”

9. That’s Me

Prepare a series of statements that go from playful to more personal. When you read each statement, all participants who agree with the statement use the “Raise Hand” feature in Zoom. At the end of each round, provide participants with an opportunity to tell a story that illustrates why they raised a hand. This activity helps build community by giving participants the opportunity to share personal stories. Consider saving the most personal questions for groups where a high degree of trust and safety has already been established.

  • I ate something delicious last weekend

  • I have taken a few meditative or mindful moments in the past week

  • Someone in this group did something kind for me recently

  • There are some things going on in my personal or family life that are weighing heavily on my heart today

  • I experienced negative treatment because of my identity in a previous workplace (or class)

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10. Billboard Chart

Using a service like Spotify, identify five songs and play 3-second sound clips from each. Participants try to identify the artist and song title, and type their response into the chat but don’t yet submit them. Then, when you say ‘go’, they use the Waterfall technique: everyone submits their response at the exact same time. Next, ask participants to direct-message you with a song they associate with an important person or poignant memory. Play the guessing game again, and afterwards, ask the person to share the story behind their song choice.

 

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IT'S TIME TO BUILD COMMUNITY

Integrating these activities into your lesson plans or meeting agendas will help foster a deeper sense of community among your colleagues or students. You may find yourself with less time to cover some of the other business items or course content, but the tradeoff is definitely worthwhile. People who feel known, appreciated, and connected are more likely to experience a feeling of belonging and embrace the humanity in their peers.

 

Facilitating these activities will require attention to participation structures that ensure all voices are heard -- a topic I’ll cover in a future post.

I’d love to hear from you if there are activities I can add to this list, questions you have about implementing these practices, or experiences you’ve had as a facilitator or participant that you’d be comfortable sharing.