Once upon a time, in the chilly great North, a teacher needed to learn some new lessons.
Though far more skilled and confident than she had been at the start of her career, this educator was suffering from a well-known malady – The Same.
The Same is something that creeps up on us. In some cases, it’s welcome and even necessary for survival. In other cases, though the symptoms may seem innocuous, the lasting impact The Same can have in our classrooms makes it a chronic condition worth treating.
In this case, though The Same takes many forms, what was in need of attention was this teacher’s treatment of Narrative.
A well-intentioned sort, this young lady dutifully taught narrative once per year, as was the want of her friend The Common Core. CC suggested that students needed to know how to write a hook, how to transition between ideas, how to incorporate dialogue, and how to conclude the piece in a “meaningful” way. And so, this young educator went about her business. The business of “teaching” students how to tell stories.
But something was missing. Something was very wrong. Her students were…terrible at it. Their stories dry and lifeless – unbending retellings of birthday parties, first boyfriends (who were mean, mean, mean), and middle school drama involving lockers that don’t open and the mortification that comes with being separated from one’s bestie (boring, boring, boring).
I was not ok with what was happening.
“You should not do that,” I said.
“Do, what?” she said.
Suddenly, the bell rang and we were more scared than before. We would never get out of here if Mr. Sanders saw us. We’d be in big trouble. The biggest trouble ever!
The Same had relegated her students’ stories to a checklist, and the results were simply awful. To write. To read. To teach.
What The Same had done was limit narrative. Put it in a box as something to bring out, take care of, and return neatly for the next year. Tell a story, was the charge, but nowhere in that charge was- Share yourself. Explore who you really and maybe how you got that way. Tell me something profoundly true and deeply felt.
It was time to seek out The Change.
As Tom Newkirk suggests, we must “rethink the way we position [narrative] in our curriculum.” Narrative, done well and valued for the deeply personal composition it can be, deserves to be more than an assignment. If we want students’ writing to soar, we need to see the value of their stories and the value in highlighting those stories throughout their work, regardless of the type of assignment they might face.
Narrative lets us play.
Narrative lets us peek into hearts and minds.
Narrative lets us shine a light on what’s only ever been private.
Yet, narrative teeters at the edge of the curricular abyss in countless high school ELA classrooms. And why not? We’ve got other fish to fry. Data-driven, framework-aligned, standardized fish. In an era where argument is king and expository is queen, narrative is often relegated to the position of traveling jester – cute to entertain for awhile, but far beneath us.
However, narrative speaks to what we have to say, where we find our roots, and how we are connected.
Narrative is who we are.
If we aren’t letting students explore who they are through their writing, both the low stakes quick writes and the behemoth argument research papers, then we are missing a great opportunity to support our students to in becoming better writers AND better people.
Reclaiming narrative means joining the conversation. Amplifying our voices means joining the conversation. And I can’t wait to extend the conversation on the power of narrative.
Meet me in St. Louis! Three Teacher Talk, with the amazing Tom Newkirk as our chair, will share our thoughts on the power of narrative and how it can transform the lives of our student writers. See you at #NCTE17 – Session C26 on Friday in room 274 at 12:30.
Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She sincerely hopes that her layover in Detroit today doesn’t foil her NCTE dreams. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum