Things I Know 43 of 365: We can tell stories better

It is indeed true…I do not write at all, my not writing is taking on dimensions.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

April 19, I’ll be floating down the San Juan River in Utah with a group of high school students. It will be my third rafting trip in as many years. I can’t wait.

Last year’s trip took us down a stretch of the Colorado River. Returning to the San Juan means calmer waters and a chance to see some amazing petroglyphs.

I remember standing, staring at them two years ago.

Our river guides were explaining their pre-historic origins and importance as sacred relics to the native peoples of the areas.

“What do they mean?” I kept asking.

As seasoned as our guides were, they admitted we could never know, but only guess at the stories being depicted.

As a collector of stories, this saddened me.

One of my G11 students, Luna, IMed me this afternoon to share something she’s been working on as part of the Stones project my kids are collaborating on right now.

It frightened me.

My formal training and experience is in the realm of reading and telling stories linearly. I’m not talking analog versus digital. My training, the stories I’ve been told work along line from beginning to end.

What Luna created starts to push against that.

It spiraled and flowed and moved. Readers can choose where they enter the text and in what direction they move from there. It has an order and sense to it, but those elements can be freely ignored.

I’ve never taught her that. I’ve not taught any of my students that.

I rally against digital storytelling for the simple reason it shifts the focus from the story to the medium.

I’ll continue to do so.

Digital storytelling, at least what I’ve seen, asks keeps the standard structure, adding images and sounds.

The Anasazi, Ute, Navajo and their archaic pre-cursors understood the implications of telling a story in pictures centuries before VoiceThread or Prezi came on the scene.

In fact, they did it better. Watch most digital stories online and consider how closely they are influenced by standard narrative structure. They remain beholden.

Stare at an ancient petroglyph, though, and realize there are ways to tell and read stories that have been lost to us. That loss opens the door to their re-creation.

I’m uncertain how to do that.

I worry I don’t do enough to help my students see words, language, reading, and writing as more than just skills, but to help them see those things as art as well.

Arts programs around the nation are being reduced or cut. Unofficially, it is because they are untested subjects. I’m fortunate to work in a subject whose survival is protected by standardized testing. Unfortunately, that protection also threatens its existence as an art.

I don’t know if the tools exist to help my students tell stories outside a traditional linear narrative. As a standard point of entry, PowerPoint does much of the early work of reinforcing the idea the tales we tell must move along a thread (voice or otherwise).

I’m unsure how to prepare my students to balance the traditional linear intake and creation of stories while giving them room to play with the ideas that because this is the way they’ve always experienced stories, doesn’t mean they can’t find a better way.

I don’t know how to teach myself that either.

I do know we can teach stories better.

Things I Know 36 of 365: We’re really good at not teaching kids to sing

I celebrate myself, and sing myself.

– Walt Whitman

Each day in fifth grade, as the bus arrived at school, I hoped everyone would break out in song. I didn’t have a particular tune in mind – at least not one that I recall now.

I just thought we should start singing the way the people did on stage when my grandparents took me to the symphony. Mayber “Carmina Burana” or the “Ode to Joy.” Something simple.

“Let’s sing,” I’d sometimes say to whichever friend was sitting next to me as we stood to de-bus. No one ever did.

Last summer, working with educators in South Africa, as we closed our week of workshops, the teachers would sing in celebration. Everyone, to a person, would sing. We’re talking harmonizing and vocal percussion.

These same teachers who at lunch were bemoaning contract negotiations and class sizes and access to technology, they sang. They transformed from teachers I could drop in to any faculty lounge across the country, to the cast of Glee.

I’ve never felt as foreign as in those moments.

This was what I’d hoped for every bus ride to school. It was happening around me.

But years of education had taught me I didn’t know how to sing.

So I stood sort of clapping arhythmically waiting for what I’d hoped for all those years to be over.

I mean, what would you do if everyone on staff broke into song at your next staff meeting?

When Jabiz Raisdana said he’d be taking my students’ writings and cobbling them together into a song, I thought, “Oh, I could do that.”

When he said, he’d be recording it, I thought, “Oh, no never, hu-uh.”

Worse still was the look on many of my students’ faces when I read them Jabiz’s suggestion that they might contribute a recording of a chorus of the song – fear and panic.

I’m not entirely certain when we teach students they can’t sing. I haven’t found where that particular standard resides in the curriculum. Whatever best practices we’re using to teach students not to sing (or play instruments for that matter) we should really start to employ them in the teaching of math and reading. We’re really good at it.