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Stop Slamming Stories

The theme for this year's National Council of Teachers of English's Annual Convention is Story as the Landscape of Knowing, and as an English teacher, I couldn't be happier. A national organization, one of the most trusted voices on literacy pedagogy, has chosen to place story at centerstage. Then why, in just my few short years as an English teacher, do I feel as if the power of stories has been repeatedly diminished and challenged, and that stories have been treated as if they are anything but complex?

Yesterday, Jim Burke referenced the work that we do in terms of an ongoing narrative when he said, "We are trying to help kids make their stories their own." Every day, I see hundreds of students, and they each have a unique story. As teachers, we are charged with the complex work of unraveling and learning about the histories of all our students, and we are also charged with the task of teaching them how to reclaim their narratives. Far too often, like my friend Kris reminded us at dinner, we aren't able to share the stories of those children. We can't communicate their pain with the outside world, but we read their pain when they enter our classrooms every day. And then we have to find a way to encourage students to take control of the pens that are writing their stories. This is complex work that can't be taken lightly. This is beyond the on-demand writing prompt required for a standardized assessment; these stories are students' futures. They are real. They don't mean something--they mean everything.

Too often, I see students that feel hopeless. Their stories are filled with such defeat. They feel as if their lives are five-paragraph essays. They have no control over their structure; they are predetermined and must adhere to theses they don't get to develop. I mentioned this idea earlier today in my presentation with Beth Shaum, Kirsten Leblanc, and Jessica Winck: I have yet to read a five-paragraph essay that gave me goosebumps. On the contrary, I have heard students recount their stories and work to actively construct their futures in ways that I will cherish and remember as an educator. These stories can never, will never, and should never be pigeonholed into something they are not: narrow definitions of good or bad or other false notions that tend to stick to students for the rest of their lives. Their stories are works in progress that aren't too late to revise.

It's without these students' stories that my teaching becomes decontextualized. I become rigid, and my practice becomes meaningless. And, possibly worse, I forget the humane side of the work that I do that is crucial to both teaching and learning. My students' stories are complex, their emotions are complex, and teaching is complex. And that is a narrative worth understanding and for us worth sharing.

Thomas Newkirk in his newest title, Minds Made for Stories, challenges the notion that stories are simply a type of writing. Instead he argues that "Narrative is a form or mode of discourse that can be used for multiple purposes," including informative and argumentative thinking and writing (6). And he crafts an argument in his book that stories go beyond even that. When signing my copy of his book yesterday, he issued this reminder: "Narrative isn't something we do; it's who we are." Narrative is how we learn, think, communicate, and understand the world. When I learned the alphabet, I learned through the stories of anthropomorphic letters. When I learned multiplication facts, I learned them via stories. Stories are so pervasive. We simply can't separate them from our lives. Because of that, we can't continue to treat them as a compartmentalized type of writing that is something we can check off on lists of standards and never return to again.

And while we write narratives, both figuratively and literally, we also should think about the reading of stories. When I was expected to tackle Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace" with my students, I quickly learned that not all stories are created equal, and certainly aren't equal for all readers. None of the work that we do matters if we don't find a way to make it matter in the contexts of our students' stories. Like A.J. Fikry writes in Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, "...the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa" (41). Every story isn't right for every reader, but it should be a part of their stories--and with our help--to keep searching for the right one. It is never too late to reflect, revise, and improve.

We must also remember that the stories we place in front of our students now are vital to the shaping of positive images of self. During yesterday morning's general session, authors from diverse backgrounds engaged in a discussion about the importance of diverse literature in our classrooms. As Matt de la Peña reminded, "The quickest way to create monsters in the inner city is to not let them see themselves in children's literature." If we don't expose our students to all types of stories, as well as encourage them to craft their own, we are doing a disservice to them, their futures, and our profession.

On a similar note, my friends Cathy Fleischer and Beth Shaum have taught me that we have to work diligently to reclaim the narratives about ourselves as teachers. It won't be easy, which is contrary to the belief that those too often in charge of ELA curricula and standards want you to think. Narratives are deep and complex, and it's never too late to start telling our stories. Let's use this convention as the impetus for our work. Like I've heard many times, if we don't, someone else will. 

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