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Stories Connect Us: 6 Ways To Empower Your Students To Tell Their Own Stories

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

I was honored when Todd and Adam over at #KidsDeserveIt asked me to write a guest post on their blog. The request came at a time when several disparate ideas were occupying my thoughts:

  • For months now I've been chewing on the idea of how stories connect us. This seed was planted in large part by John Schumacher (who quotes Kate DiCamillo almost as much as I quote him!)

  • I've also been thinking about how important it is for educators to tell their stories - the real stories - of what happens in our schools every day. And yet... 

  • At the same time, I've found myself disappointed by some of the things I've seen on social media lately - a disturbing trend in which popular educators (including librarians) seem to have shifted their focus to self promotion and away from what, in my estimation, really matters: making a difference for kids. 

  • And finally, I've found myself wondering about all the kids who come to school every day but who go virtually unnoticed because they don't cause trouble, are compliant and capable but generally fly under the radar. 

So... all of this was bouncing around in my head when I was asked to contribute something to the #KidsDeserveIt blog. This post (and accompanying infographic) about empowering students to tell their own stories is the result. And although much of this focuses on my experiences as a classroom teacher, I've been thinking of ways librarians can provide students with opportunities to share their stories and will share those soon. In the meantime, thanks again to Todd and Adam for challenging me to write this post and for keeping your focus on what really matters. #KidsDeserveIt ------

Stories Connect Us: 6 Ways To Empower Your Students To Tell Their Own Stories  

When I was a 3rd year English teacher, I made a completely spontaneous and totally reactionary decision that changed my instructional life forever. Frustrated with the quality of my students’ writing and convinced that, no matter how many drafts I assigned, no matter how many opportunities for peer editing I provided, and no matter how many times I repeated my belief that writing is a process of vision and revision (and then more revision), my students were not proofreading, and therefore not editing, their work before turning it in. And so, in a fit of extreme grumpiness I announced that from that moment forward, before turning in a paper, ALL students would be required to read that paper out loud, to me - with them holding one copy and me another. I was convinced that making them listen to their own words, lifted off the page, would highlight all the spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and instances of awkward phrasing that had become the bane of my existence. My students groaned, but I couldn’t wait to get started. I convinced myself I wasn’t doing this to punish them. Rather, I was going to teach them a “valuable lesson.” Little did I know that the person who would learn the most from that experience would be me.

On day one of our dictatorial writer’s workshop, as I sat and listened to one of my first victims volunteers nervously read her paper out loud to me, something completely unexpected happened. Listening to her trembling words, I had the sudden realization that I’d never heard her voice before. Now… this was by no means the first week of school. And I’d certainly called on her to answer questions in class or to read a short passage from a text before, but this was the first time I’d heard her speak for any length of time. This was a child who didn’t cause trouble, who didn’t interrupt, who turned her assignments in on time, who nodded at at all the appropriate moments, who was compliant and sweet, and, therefore, had gone almost completely unnoticed by me - the very person who was charged with making a difference in her educational life that year. Needless to say, I was mortified.  Then something else happened.

Something she read caused me to ask a question about why she’d chosen that word or why she’d drawn that conclusion. Her answer, followed by more reading, led to more questions and more answers and then more questions, followed by even more answers and so on. And before I knew it, we were having a conversation. She was telling me the story of her life as a writer and a learner in my class, and I was listening. When she finished, and the next student took her place and began reading their words to me, I asked more questions and listened intently to the answers. All the while getting to know my students in new and important ways..

That afternoon I took out my gradebook. In those days, teachers at my school were instructed to fill our gradebooks with hieroglyphs. Next to each student’s name, but before the columns where we recorded their grades, we were required to mark symbols to remind us of certain facts about the young people we worked with. For example, a red dot next to a student’s name might mean that he/she had only obtained a very low score on the previous year’s reading assessment. A green square might mean that he/she was struggling with a specific learning objective, a yellow triangle might indicate that he/she had difficulty reading text above a certain grade level without support or a blue star might mean that he/she needed to be challenged with more difficult vocabulary, etc. The idea being that we could transfer everything we’d learned about a student from reading his/her cumulative folder and perusing their prior assessment data into our gradebooks via a secret code. And that code would, in turn, remind us to call on specific students when tackling skills they needed to master. Glancing over the dots and squares and other shapes next to the names of the students I’d conferenced with that afternoon shook me to the core. Despite everything I’d recorded, I didn’t really know my students.

I’d gotten to know their data, but I’d neglected getting to know them as learners or people. In short, I knew their statistics, but I didn’t know their stories.

And stories matter, because they connect us. When we know a person’s story we are more likely to care about what happens to them. We are more likely to empathize with their foibles and celebrate their successes. When we know a person’s story, we are reminded that, as Maya Angelou put it, we are more alike than we are different. When we know a person’s story we’re more likely to trust that person, to choose kindness over criticism and to offer a hand when they need help.  Stories connect us.

And these connections matter. Because when we know our students’ stories, we’re able to move from simply knowing how our students perform to understanding why they perform that way. When we learn our students’ stories, we’re able to move beyond simply doing what works for most students to customizing learning for individual needs. And when we know our students’ stories, we are able to move from merely being invested in our students’ success to being invested in them as people.

In the days that followed I changed the way I taught, creating more opportunities for students to tell their stories. Weekly writing conferences continued, but along with them I added in class journaling as a way for me to get to know my students on a deeper level. Later, I created a blog and discussion board as a way to amplify student voice - in particular for those students who found face to face chatting difficult. Eventually, I gave up on the whole class novel and allowed students more autonomy to choose what they read (regardless of arbitrary reading levels) - feeling exposure to more stories, chosen in authentic ways, would not only increase their exposure to the written word, but also illustrate that I valued stories as a crucial element of learning. For this reason too, I also read aloud to my big, bad 8th graders on a daily basis, and when appropriate, I shared my story with them. I didn’t ignore their testing data or toss out the curriculum. Rather, I allowed my students’ stories to inform how I used the other instructional tools at my disposal to create more meaningful and far more personalized learning experiences for each of them. And together, we became a community of readers, writers, learners and storytellers.

Now, when I have conversations with educators about the students they teach I am sometimes troubled by the labels I hear attached to their young learners. Students are described as struggling, at risk, low income, ADHD, ELL, etc. These labels are a way for us to wrap our heads around the varying and often daunting needs our kids come to school with. I get that. And I know that they come from a good place. But our kids are more than the sum of their labels. Each of our students is as unique as their individual fingerprints. And in order to truly serve them, we need to know more of than their statistics. We need to know their stories. And not just because it will make us better teachers. But because, in the end, #kidsdeserveit.


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