It was three minutes before the last bell of the school year was expected to ring when, Obasi, a sophomore, came sliding through the door of my classroom.
“Oh good, I found you! Hey, I wanted to find you because I have something for you.”
“What is this, Obasi? School supplies?!?” I asked excitedly.
“Well sort of. It’s a label maker! You know, like the one you said you wanted in that story you told us? The one you told at the beginning of the trimester?’
“A LABEL MAKER?!? I can’t believe it! You got me a label maker??’ I beamed. He smiled back.
On day three of my public speaking classes, I hand out the course outline and syllabus. BORING, BORING, BORING--but important, necessary, essential. So instead, I begin with a story. It is intentional. It is a frame for my expectations of them and foreshadows what they can expect from me-- no surprises! Due dates are clearly outlined, expectations for mutual respect are discussed, tardiness is talked about. But more than that, the story gives my high school students a sneak peak into the culture of my home, my relationships with my husband and children, my personality, and my quirks. And telling this story sits at the heart of what I believe to be true about using narratives within the classroom: first, they offer teachers an important tool to communicate and connect, and second, they provide students an opportunity to be heard.
Within my classroom, stories play a substantial role in how we learn. And I believe that this is something that many gifted educators do. I recall my sophomore English teacher, Mr. Erickson who delivered a lot of the content from that class through narratives. He retold stories that connected to each other in multiple forms-- folktales, movies, books, plays. The heart of his class was storytelling. In a similar fashion, I tell stories about my mistakes, my fears, my childhood, my pet peeves, my challenges, my biases, my family, my loves. I tell stories about articles I’ve read, speeches I’ve heard, and school experiences I’ve lived. All of these connect to the content, but more importantly, and hopefully, connect to my students.
These stories live on. When I see former students in the halls or community after we have spent 12-weeks together, they usually reference at least one story they remember from our class. Sometimes the stories they recall aren’t necessarily ones I WISH they remembered… but I trust the sentiment of Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, when she states, “Stories are like mental software that you supply so your listener can run it again later using new input specific to the situation.”
Beyond just delivering content and establishing connection, however, I believe that creating a “narrative culture” in a high school classroom empowers students to then tell their own stories. In return for my willingness to offer “pieces of myself” and expose some of my vulnerabilities through story, I have been given many more gift stories from my students. Their stories about personal experiences with homelessness, cancer, substance abuse, racism, deportation, teen pregnancy, incarceration, autism, have been rich moments of education for all of us. Together our stories have made our classroom a place where our “messes” have become our “messages.”
As one story invites another, I have found that through my willingness to be vulnerable by sharing stories from my experience, my students are more willing to expose their vulnerabilities through stories as well. The sharing of stories creates an environment in a high school classroom that can chip away at social barriers and provide students a voice and a sense of value for their lived experience.
The ability to create an environment where stories can live takes time and trust. Yet doing so brings us back to what makes us fundamentally human. Something more than the categories and labels we make for one another. Something that privileges the “surprise” twist, and the unexpected turn. Something that has the power to change us.
A full nine months--1,309 hours of class time later, Obasi’s true gift to me is the reminder that stories have power, even with high school sophomores, and school is much more than the bulleted items on a syllabus.