Monday, November 11, 2013

Stories Matter: Where Does Story Fit in the Common Core?

We need to insure that stories are an integral part of our instruction and we need to be able to explain why to those who might challenge this notion in the name of “college and career readiness.”

I have a story to tell you. This week I was attending the annual College Reading and Literacy Association conference in Boston, Massachusetts, to learn from colleagues and to deliver a paper. On Friday afternoon, I delivered my paper, attended a late afternoon session and returned to my room about 6 PM. Being in the city and alone, I searched on the internet to see what plays might be going on that night. I couldn't find anything that struck my fancy, so about 7:20, I decided to walk the few blocks from the hotel to the Boston theater district to see if I could find something interesting. As I turned the corner onto Tremont Street, I saw a large, well-lit marquee declaring “Live from the Dublin Theater Festival, Waiting for Godot, October 31 – November 10.” Perfect, I thought; I had seen the play twice before and enjoyed it, why not see this production direct from Ireland? I wondered why I hadn't seen this on my internet search.

As I walked down the street I noted that there was a large and loud contingent of teenagers and their parents lining the sidewalk. “Must be some American Idol phenom in town,” I thought, as I made my way toward the ticket booth. The lobby of the theater was mobbed with people waiting for the doors of the theater to open, so I had to wriggle my way through them to the ticket booth. I thought, “Nice to see so many young people interested in a Beckett play.”  At the ticket booth, the friendly young woman said that they were nearly sold out, but she was able to find me a sole ticket way up in the mezzanine. “I’ll take it,” I said, feeling fortunate, and forked over my 40 bucks.

Turning away from the ticket booth just as the theater doors opened, the mob of young people, parents, and a few folks of my vintage streamed past me to get to their seats. I looked down at my ticket. It read, Step Africa: A Celebration in Dance. Wait. What? I walked outside and looked up at the marquee once more. There in small print below the ad for “Waiting for Godot”, it read, “Two Nights Only, November 8, 9, Step Afrika.” Hmm… Well I had already purchased the ticket, so I went inside, climbed to the top of the mezzanine, seeing all the young people in the crowd in a whole new light, took my seat and waited for the show to start with a combination of anxious anticipation and amusement.

What I saw was one of the most exhilarating performances I have ever seen. Step Africa is a dance troupe dedicated to the tradition of step dancing that began among the African American college community as a sort of combination of the traditions of tap, African dance and social dancing ( I learned all this from the program.). Whatever the influences, it was an exciting display of rhythm, movement, high energy and sound. Ten young dancers on the stage possessing amazing dexterity and grace. I accidentally walked into a performance I would have never chosen, but was extremely pleased that I got a chance to see. I was thoroughly entertained, but still waiting for Godot.

Why do I tell you this story? Because I think the role of story in the classroom could be undervalued by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The CCSS call for 50% informational text in Kindergarten and a gradual increase in that percentage as children move through the grades, along with the call for reading short excerpts and an emphasis on close reading may crowd story out of the curriculum. There seems to be a devaluation of fiction and story in the CCSS focus on making students “college and career ready.” Is there room for story and storytelling on a standardized test? But stories matter and stories deserve a central place in any curriculum. Here’s why.

Story is how we make sense of the world. There is no reading comprehension without a sense of story. My little story above illustrates so many things about life, small and large, not because it is such an exceptional story, but precisely because it is not exceptional. It is a shared experience. Who hasn't made some kind of silly error by not paying attention to the clues around them? Who hasn't gone to see something they thought they would not like and enjoyed it immensely? Story makes us human. Story builds community.

Kathy Short comes to the defense of story in the curriculum in her recent article, “The Role of Story and Literature in a World of Tests and Standards”, which has just been published as a part of a series of articles I highly recommend in the book Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? by Goodman, Calfee and Goodman. I have discussed other articles from this book in the blog pieces here and here. Short says, “We need to understand why stories are important and why they matter to our students as learners and as human beings and to our work as educators, both in our work in developing curriculum and in addressing the broader political context of public policy and mandates (page 114).”

In other words, we need to insure that stories are an integral part of our instruction and we need to be able to explain why to those who might challenge this notion in the name of “college and career readiness.”

What do we need to know about story? Here is what Short has to say.

·         Story is how we make sense of our experiences
Just as it did in my story above, story allows us to take all the crazy stuff that happens to us during the day and make some sense of it (Rosen as cited in Short, 2014, p. 116). It helps us find meaningful patterns in our world.

·         Story is how we make sense of information
Information does not tend to be retained unless it is connected in some way through a story (Gottschall as cited in Short, 2014, p. 116). This is why effective math, science and history teachers couch new concepts in stories. Remember Archimedes and, “Eureka!” When we tell the story of 9/11, we often begin with the story of how we first heard of the attack on the World Trade Center.

·         Story is how we connect to each other and our histories
Without our stories of the past (growing up during the depression, Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, first responders on 9/11) we can’t envision a better world to come.

·         Story is where we explore our fears and our futures
Story allows us to practice for the real life dilemmas we will face. One type of story we all experience is dreams. Dream stories allow us to work out our fears, much like fairy tales help young children work out their fears of abandonment and loss.

·         Story is where we develop values and community
Stories contain life lessons. One lesson the story I told on myself above might be “Pay close attention to your surroundings for clues about what might be happening.” Another lesson is “embrace serendipity;” it can yield unexpected rewards.

·         Story is a way to change the world
Short notes that a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is a story that changed the world. The story of Malala Yousafzai, the Afghan teenager shot by the Taliban because she insisted on attending school is changing the world as we speak.

·         Story is a strength for all learners
As any teacher of primary children can tell you, all children have stories to tell. Short says that the challenge for the teacher is to build on children's strengths through the stories they bring with them. Acceptance of the stories, from many different cultures and backgrounds, must be a valued part of meaning making for all children (p. 118).

Short says that the CCSS call for a 50/50 split for fiction and informational text is a “false dichotomy” (p. 121). Much informational text is told through a narrative structure (Think of books like Gail Gibbons, Monarch Butterfly or Martin Jenkins, The Emperors Egg, both of which are informational text told in narrative form). And then, of course, there is historical fiction like James and Lincoln Collier’s, My Brother Sam is Dead or Irene Hunt’s, Across Five Aprils two books that teach much information in the process of telling a fictional story.

Short is further concerned that the CCSS emphasis on short texts will mean that students are reading truncated stories. A chapter from a good book is not the same as reading the book. Take a look at a typical high school anthology excerpt of “The Iliad” to see if that gives the student a good sense of the story.

Finally, there is the issue of text dependent questions. When the focus of the instruction is first on what the text actually says it robs the student of what Louise Rosenblatt has called the “lived through experience of the text.” Essentially, what this means is that the reader creates his/her own “story” of the text from which all further explorations are based. We need to encourage students to have this lived through experience because without it we lose engagement and without engagement we lose any chance at rigor. Mining the text for what it says explicitly is the necessary next step.

So, no matter what directives we may get in the guise of “college and career ready”, let us remember that all children need story and need to have their stories valued. Our classrooms must remain places where there is plenty of time to create, share and revel in our stories.

Short, K. (21014). The Role of Story and Literature in a World of Tests and Standards. In K. Goodman, R. Calfee and Y. Goodman (Eds.), Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies? (113-127) New York: Routledge.

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