Pass the Story Stick

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

There have been some well written articles on the power of storytelling over the past year. I recommend them. They illustrate how teachers can leverage their own stories to engage their students during instruction. But engaging instruction isn’t enough. What these powerful articles don’t do, and what I’ve been striving to do my entire teaching career, is leverage student storytelling to enhance their learning, to nurture their voices, and to honor their silent and invisible burdens, which fuel their desire to learn.

In full disclosure, I am a storyteller born unto and raised by a community of storytellers. It is not just in my nature, it has been nurtured into my being. That being said…storytellers struggle too.

I’ve spent the better part of six months (maybe longer) looking for my words, my story, my inspiration to clearly communicate my beliefs and practices regarding storytelling in the classroom. Then today, inspiration in the form of Aaron Abeyta’s poetry came across my Facebook feed. You see, I did my undergraduate work at Adams State, I was one of the first students to graduate from Adams with a BA from their creative writing program, and Aaron was one of my professors – an influential one.

I had the privilege of taking a number of courses with Aaron. One of my clearest memories is from the fall of my junior year. The semester had ended, and I ascended the stairs of McDaniel Hall and made my way through the halls. I laid my head restfully against the wall opposite of his office as I leaned against the neutral toned surface and awaited the start of my portfolio conference. I closed my eyes for a moment and listened to my poetry play over and over in my head; the words were still clunky in spots, spBook stackoiling any rhythm I could muster. Aaron’s door was opened by my classmate, and after he walked down the hall and around the corner, I looked over to see Abeyta waving me inside. I stepped inside his five foot by eight foot alcove office and took a seat. Aaron opened my portfolio, pausing before pulling out the typed full page of feedback he had for me. He set my portfolio on his lap, open still, and looked me in the eye as he said, “Before I start, Kris, I just want you to know that other than my own, your feedback to your classmates was most influential on their revision. You really seem to know how to understand the intent of the writer, not just the words on the page.”

We had been instructed to include the critique that most influenced the revision of each poem we wrote that semester, as well as his critique. Apparently, a significant number of my classmates used one or more of my critiques in their revision process. All semester long, I had struggled with harnessing my own voice. I still mimicked too much, or mixed genres or dialects, or played with archaic language and faded metaphors. But in that moment, I realized that even though I may not be a poet (I even wrote a poem that semester titled “I am not a poet”) I still had a voice worth listening to.

What he taught me then – though at times I still struggle – is to value my own authentic voice. He helped me appreciate and find my voice in the sea of other voices that I parroted in order to make people, professors, friends, family members comfortable. He helped give a voice to one who was voiceless. And every day, I try to repay that debt.

Slowly, my classroom is turning into one that is built on the foundation of students finding their academic voice. This semester, I have themed my freshman composition course around the concept of authentic voice. Instead of teaching modes via a textbook definition, we have discussions about the power of communication and miscommunication. We share our stories in class verbally as well as through the written assignments.

However, I still succumb to pressures of public perception and standardized assessment. I often fear my students will think I am short-changing their education by not telling them the answers but instead inviting them to play an active role in my pedagogy. I still have to follow the standard canned curriculum (textbook, modes, premade assessments, etc.) passed down to me to appease policies which are too often created by non-educators.

We’ve become comfortable with the having answers as experts of our disciplines. We are conditioned to create disciples and simulacrums when we should be focused on nurturing our students, mending our relationship with them, and giving of ourselves. It is a privilege to be in my classroom – my privilege, not theirs. My story is enriched with every discussion we have, every story they tell, every smile they cast.

I do not have the words to tell you how to make your students’ stories matter in your classroom because they already matter. Their stories matter to their learning more than they can express in words, their stories are the conduits to making meaningfulness out of each lesson, their stories are the key to their success because it is their stories, their experiences, their life lessons that turn our beloved disciplines into treasures and tools they will carry with them.

What I can tell you is that I have never regretted taking the plunge and giving up my control over the pedagogy, the rubrics, the assignments, the assessments. We now work together as a community of learners who analyze the objectives, create the assignments, and develop appropriate assessments. We push our limits by choosing authenticity and growth through the stories we share.

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