Would it be okay if I write about something somewhat off the topic of writing/being a writer?
Teaching and Learning. They're on my brain. Because it's what I do to pay my bills, and also it's a Snow/Ice Day here and I have some time to catch my breath to think about it. Here is what I'd like to write about today:
I'm concerned. And because I'm concerned, I think you should be, too. Not about teaching or teachers, not about what's going on with public schools, not about teacher unions, not about teacher pay or merit pay, not about No Child Left Behind or Race To The Top, not about testing and if we're utilizing it too much or appropriately, not about the crumbling infrastructure of many of our schools or the social injustice of the entire set up of the system in general, or even about the disastrous effect poverty is having on our children and our schools and our society and our culture and the fact that nobody--NOBODY--is doing an effing fucking thing to address that, yet somehow more tests and putting all the responsibility/accountability on teachers will magically get rid of all our societal ills.
No. I'm actually just concerned about storytelling. Specifically, are we doing enough of it in our schools, and how can we use it to teach and learn better? Can I give you an example of it?
My students love stories. They particularly love stories that I just tell them--books are cool and all, but they love love love when I just tell them an oral, listen-to-what-happened-to-me-when-I-was-in-2nd-grade-five-hundred-years-ago story. In addition, my students love to TELL stories. I cannot tell you how many times I've begun, oh I don't know, a lesson on plural nouns, and suddenly some little hand shoots into the air (or, in my current class' case, someone just blurts whatever's in their brain) because hearing the word "foot" changed to the word "feet" suddenly reminded him of this one time he ran down the street barefoot right into a sea of broken windshield glass strewn across the road and his mom drove him all crazy to the emergency room, both feet bleeding profusely all over the backseat of the car. (True story.)
Stories matter. OUR stories matter. Stories make us who we are, define the world for us, help us decide who we want to be in that world and how we want to react (or not react) to the people we meet in it. From the time people were walking upright, we have been storytellers: Cave paintings, the Bible, folk songs, medieval poems, Shakespeare's plays, autobiographies. Human beings tell stories.It's what makes us human (aside from the well-developed frontal cortex and the ability to choose good or evil, of course). Dare I say stories are the ONLY things that really matter?
When I am done with this world, I will have accumulated many, many stories. I will have stories about myself, stories about people I love, stories about people I hate, and stories about people I've briefly encountered along the way who, for whatever reason, have made me stop and ponder. I see this in my students, I see this in my daughter. I see they each have their own stories, and they are all kind of desperate to tell them.
You know what makes me the saddest? There's simply no time. In 21st century American public education, there's just no time for storytelling. They have to pass tests. They have to reach a certain reading level by May. They have to reach full automaticity with fact families. They have to close read paragraphs so they can pass a test. They have to
talk about how their brains are working and defend those brain
workings. They have to be able to construct a viable paragraph to earn enough points to pass future writing tests, and these paragraphs and the way we have to teach them--because students are coming to us from families who don't read or talk or tell stories or let their children have their own voice--are always so perfunctory, so without soul. But they get you a passing grade, and that makes the schools look good. And in 21st century America, appearances appear to be the new, big Thing. It's really all we talk about, if you think about it.
The other night I was reading something about three great Greek teachers/writers/philosophers. Aristotle was a student of Plato, who was in turn a student of Socrates. Aristotle walked around as he taught. His students followed him, walking around and listening to him. He talked to his students about math and science, but also about music and art and the nature of the world. Aristotle's teacher, Plato, traveled a lot, talking about a lot of the same things, meeting students wherever he went. Plato's teacher, Socrates, never really answered questions--he just volleyed them right back. Questions were always more important than the answers. But no matter how they taught, they did it via Story. Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were all storytellers.
My point is (and I do have one): you know what none of those guys ever did, at least not according the writer? Hand out a test. And if they did hand out tests, I am certain they never used them to measure what their students learned, or how to analyze how they were doing as a teacher. They didn't construct and de-construct paragraphs. Nothing was timed, because seriously--who cares? They weren't worried about the What; they were more interested in the How, the Why. And they taught through stories. Everybody loves a good story. Everybody.
Why do we not focus on this with our children? Why do we not allow our children to just play? To learn about the world and themselves via play and stories? Why do we not just sit with our children and talk to them about what they're thinking, how they're perceiving the world? Why can't we just sit and listen to them? I wonder how many children never, ever feel heard. Or validated. How many of those children grow up into adults who don't have time to listen to their own children? Who don't have a clue how to validate the human beings they've been gifted with, and are sending out into the world?
The worst feeling in the world for me as a teacher, a mom, a human being is when a kid has this really big story to tell me and I'm on a tight schedule: "Sweetheart, I'm sorry. But Ms. Samson has to do this lesson on reflexive pronouns right now--we have to take a quiz on Friday. Can you tell me your story at bus call? Just remind me." And then bus call arrives and I have to deal with Timmy and Jimmy, because Jimmy has anger issues and doesn't know to properly borrow an eraser. And there are 24 other kids who all need my attention about homework, about somebody who stuck their tongue out at them, about needing a band-aid or a drink of water or if they can be the line leader next week. (What were Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates' class size numbers capped at?) And the kids all get put on the bus and realize: oh, crap. I forgot to hear X's story. Poop. I hope X can remember the story tomorrow, and I hope I can remember to ask X to tell me the story tomorrow.
Because stories matter.
....I'm sorry, I'm just having snow day existentialism, and if you're still with me, I'm taking you along for a windy, existential ride. I hope that's okay. I'm disillusioned right now with numbers--I get it, I get it: Math matters, too. And Science and Technology and Engineering (though, personally, I think they just stuck the "Engineering" in the acronym to make it read better...STM just doesn't have the same ring as STEM). But for me, storytelling will be the thing that will save the world. Because I think you can control technology and engineering, and science and math, too, to a certain extent--how much do you want to bet somebody, somewhere, has engineered a way to totally eliminate the need for our outrageous fossil fuel consumption? And that somebody, somewhere, is suppressing that knowledge and information because somebody, somewhere, doesn't want it out there just yet. Knowledge = power.
But storytelling. Anybody can do it. And if somebody, somewhere, is telling you not to, then you can just do it secretly in your brain, when you're by yourself. It doesn't matter how many degrees you've got, what socioeconomic level you were born into, or how fast you can solve f (x) dx = F(b) - (a) (in addition, outside of NASA and MIT, does anybody really care what f(x)dx equals?). Anybody can tell a story, no textbooks required.
It matters more. And I think it matters that our current policy makers, the ones setting the agenda and national curriculum don't seem to think it matters. And I think it matters that our media, our watchdogs who are supposed to be driving the talk about what matters, don't appear to think it matters. And I think it matters that our families--particularly our poor families--don't have enough resources to have time to tell (and listen to) stories with their children. And that should concern all of us.
Stories define whole, entire generations. Stories teach us about who we once were, and they remind us who we never want to be again. Stories take us on adventures we could never possibly have, but can still dream about having anyway. Stories open up our potential. Stories give us the courage to be more than we ever thought we could be. Stories help us figure out who we are.
If your focus is solely on teaching your children to read technical manuals so they can be better workers later, will it matter to you when they aren't interested in reading stories to the children they will bring into the world, stories like Peter Pan or Wizard of Oz, which are about being brave and kind and true--to yourself and to others; which are about believing in who you are, and finding beauty in a very scary world? Will it concern you when the vast majority of our populace lose their sense of wonder and belief in the possibility of magic?
Are you worried about--or even aware of--the fact that teachers--who teach, every day, in microcosms of society, are standing on roofs of schools right now screaming about seeing the loss of this into the wind and are largely being ignored? Will you worry when reading becomes this skill, this task of reading, becomes just something you have to do because, well, it's a job. Will you be sad when Art and Music and Poetry and Books start to look more like functional cogs and gadgets to move forward technology and science instead of sharing confusing or uplifting or amazing pieces of somebody's soul? So you can be okay with or understand your own? Are you comfortable with and okay with living in a country, on a planet, where we've developed the technology to bomb a town without taking out any civilians...but have lost the curiosity and ability to question WHY we want to bomb anyone in the first place? Are you going to be cool when you're 99 years old, on your deathbed, and your adult children are sitting vigil next to you, saying good-bye, while multi-tasking/texting about a work project as you take your last breaths? Because you taught them that technology was more important than storytelling? And you modeled that for them?
I worry. I'm concerned. I love technology and the advancements it's brought us, I heart Science almost as much as real Scientists do--I like to understand how the world really works. But I also think there's a lot to be said for walking around as your students follow you, asking questions more than giving answers, and focusing on Art as much as Science. It's important to write on paper, as much as type. It's okay to use your fingers to count sometimes. It's not bad to sit and read a book made of paper and glue--they're easier to make notes on in the margins and highlight quotes that you'd like to memorize forever, til they're embedded parts of your soul.
And I like to teach through Story, but I increasingly find I don't have time to do this. I would like to walk around talking and asking--not answering--questions all day, but I don't have time. I would like to take my students to art galleries and science museums and the theater, but I don't have time...or money (budget cuts). I would like to talk to children about what they saw on our excursions, and tell each other stories about our experiences. It's what I do with my own child, and I see she is leagues above where some of my students currently are. And she's younger than them. And I worry about that. And I am sad.
This is a hard planet to live on. There are some pretty nasty characters running around it. There are people in it who seem very normal and nice but are actually quite the opposite. But there are also stories. And they help us find the good parts of the world and the people in it, and find ways to appreciate the beauty of our collective Yin Yang. They keep us in touch with what really matters and who we are.
I have no idea how to end this blog post. Maybe because there is no real end to it. Stories go on and on, because Life does. I think that matters, too. And I think we should have a really gentle and thoughtful national--international--discussion about it. In storytelling format, of course.