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Character Education

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Digital Learning

Telling Our Stories

Who tells your story? Your parents tell it back to you at first, all the tender and embarrassing moments that you were too young to place into accessible memory at the time.  For most of your life, you tell your own
stories: to new and old friends, sometimes to strangers, to those who already love you or who may be falling in love with you, to your own children and grandchildren. After you are gone, your stories are held by those who knew you best: siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, former students, and former colleagues. If you have kept and left diaries, generations to follow in your family will come to know you as if you walked the earth together. If you become famous your lifetime, future biographers will tell their own versions of your story.

Eliza Hamilton tells us Alexander's story, as well as her own, in the Lin-Manuel Miranda song from the play "Hamilton". I know you've been singing or humming it to yourself since the first line of this post. Right? Eliza asks us, "And when you're gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?" She also tells us, "I put myself back in the narrative." That line turns our teacher brain right away to personal narratives, often the first writing genre we try to teach, drawing from personal experiences, the stories our students love to tell. They love to tell their stories orally, yet are often more reluctant to start writing them down. We all know the experience: a flurry of raised hands, one child is recognized to speak, and the response begins, "Once....." Uh oh, not an actual answer, but a story. What do you do? Honor the need to tell our stories, or try to swing the focus back to the standard that must be taught in that 40 minute block? Not an easy choice, yet one that each of us makes several times at least every day. I have been guilty so many times of not only telling my own stories, but of allowing more than one student to get personal with their responses. The challenge to me as an educator was always how to draw the connecting lines so that the time spent will be meaningful in advancing the lesson for all.

Teacher Takeaways

I've been spending way too much time on ZOOM lately, and I don't have a class of students to meet with. Two ZOOM meetings and a Facebook Live each day for three days in a row this week made me feel your pain even more strongly, teachers. I applaud you and pray for you. One of my Zoom calls this week was a meeting of the three congregations affected by the Tree of Life mass murders two years ago. They were meeting to discuss a new book filled with narratives written by those who were either directly involved, or were close to the area or to the victims of the tragedy. My uncle is a survivor of that horrific attack. He deals with the after effects every day, and when he told me about the book and the meeting, I asked if I could attend. The book is Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy, edited by Beth Kissileff and Eric Lidji.

I was drawn to this topic at first because of my family's connection, but as I looked inside the book, I noticed that one of the writers had once, long ago, been a third grade student in my classroom. Of course I wanted to see how his writing had improved since third grade! I ordered the book on the spot! Listening to the writers as they read and discussed excerpts from the book, there were so many teacher takeaways. Two takeaways stood out from all the rest to me as a teacher. Neither was new to me, yet their importance surged in my mind, given our current situation in this age of the pandemic. One is the cathartic nature of just being able to tell your stories. The second is the way the same story is different when told by different people. Each of these, I believe, is important enough to make telling our stories a vital part of our teaching practice this year.

A Catharsis

Kids need to tell their stories. It's a release and a relief. Emotions are running strong right now for all of us. Stuffing our feelings deep inside isn't healthy, and storytelling can be a release. Kids need to be scaffolded into this practice. Start by honoring those responses that start with, "Once...". Plan for lots of short story responses in your morning meetings, and in the first moments of your lessons. Don't let the pandemic and our "new normal" be an elephant in the room beyond the screen. Bring it forward and encourage your students to talk about it. Becoming comfortable with talking about it can become a comfort with writing about it.

Text to Self becomes Text to World

Beginning with these mini oral histories and moving to journal entries, you are well on the way to longer, more traditional personal narratives. As kids start writing in journals, we need to be accepting of short answers as well as longer ones. A good way to ease reluctant writers into the practice is to allow drawing, diagramming, and even stickers to help fill the page at first. Most kids enjoy sharing their journal entries aloud. I wouldn't require it, but gently encourage it whether in small focus groups or with the class as a whole. An online bulletin board would be a great way to anonymously share some journal entries with the rest of the class. 

As you begin to teach personal narrative writing, journal entries that your students have been collecting are a gold mine of topics and prompts for writing. Kids can mark pages that they choose for future narratives with yarn, ribbons, string, sticky notes, or stickers that extend beyond  the page.. (Try sticking a second sticker to the back of the extended sticker to make it a little more long-lasting.) If you are collecting journal entries to show growth through the year as writers, journal entries paint a pretty accurate picture.

As I mentioned in my second takeaway above, writing about the same topic or event will look very different and unique from writer to writer. Many interesting and valuable lessons for writing can be drawn from this. Point of view, compare-contrast, even the basic elements of introduction, plot, characters, problem, and resolution will look different from student to student. The global lesson from this may be that it indeed matters very much who tells our stories.

I started a list of discussion/writing prompts to get you going, if you'd like to explore this more with your students. Just click below, and it's yours! (Background by Workman's Wonders on TpT)

For more ideas for moving from storytelling to journals to personal narrative writing, I hope you'll take a look at some of these classroom-tested resources from Rainbow City Learning! Just click below for the "Telling Our Stories" resource group.

Whatever your story, I wish you peace n the days ahead. Be well.

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1 comment

  1. What an interesting blog post. I remember my Grandmother telling me stories her mother told her about the Civil War. I still share those stories with my grandchildren.