The Importance of Sharing Our Stories

Our stories have great value. I believe if I connect only as voyeur in someone’s life, it is really my stories I fail to hear. Connecting with kids not only changes their lives, it changes mine.

~

December 20, 2011 – The views to my blog soared. That day my blog received its second highest total number of views since I began sharing here in 2009. It had been almost three weeks since my last post.

December 19, 2011 –  The previous night, was my school’s annual winter concert. For the second year in a row my senior ELA students, grades 9-12, performed.

This year, however, my students embarked on a collaborative creation and knocked the community’s collective boots off.

Hurrah, you might be saying. But hold on to your hats, not everyone was cheering. A few folks were physically uncomfortable with my students’ stories, and expressed dissatisfaction!

However, the cheers resounded from my students’ stakeholders. All of my students’ parents, siblings, friends, former teachers, and many community members shared a big hurrah. And so did my kids.

And sure, after the whirlwind of different dust settled, my principal reminded me how far we have come.  For the past year and half my kids – and I – have been learning how to tell our story. It’s pretty darn amazing considering that our journey is only 16 months old.

We started with the simple typical stuff kids and teachers do: posting, writing, sharing, and inviting experts into our space to share their stories. We then spent five months learning how our experiences and places shape who we are and how we share our stories (Place Based Education). We learned to listen in hospital rooms, coffee shops, soccer fields and abandoned barns. We learned to listen to the stories of trees, rivers, wind and labyrinths where we learned stories we had never heard before.

We were vulnerable.

One afternoon in June, limbs shaking, writing pieces at the ready, we set up a mic and shared our stories in a coffee house while the world went by. Then magic happened. People stopped. People listened. People choose to connect with our stories. Some stepped up to the mic. Turns out what we had to share was good and honest, and really worth hearing. Turns out we were change makers! Turns out that by sharing we find there are heaps more stories yet to share.

And this is how we began this past September…

thanks for sharing [and] reminding me of the importance of our stories. it caused me to think about the stories of the kids we work with every day and how we shouldn’t assume anything. we might want to think that they will become nothing but everyone has potential no matter what they start with. encouraging students to tell their story helps them know their own worth and allows them to be validated by us.  ~ Lori Meyer, Superintendent of Learning, PSS210, December 28, 2011.

Kids know what they want. I aim to have classes that are differentiated and student-directed. Not a week goes by when I don’t ask my students what they need from me, from my instruction, from each other, from their learning. I try to ask about everything. There are no “elephants” in Ms. Saas’s room. “If there is something you need that I am not asking about, share it. And if we can’t talk about it in circle –that’s a rarity- then leave it for me in your journal, in my purse, somewhere, just keep sharing.”

Last September – my students announced they wanted live-streamed Open Mic Nights. They said they would host. The kids wanted to invite all the high schools from our entire division. I offered to help with the first round of invites, and off we went to visit the principal.

Our second Open Mic is scheduled for February. We have also earned hosting privileges at our city’s Open Mic, that’s set to happen in April. Since October we have shared our stories in Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Skyping with others, and stopping in to share with elementary classes to help create a sense of the power of story. We have come to understand that storytelling is different for everyone.

Where does this all fit? My ELA 30 kids have been studying Landscape and my ELA 9 kids have been studying Family. Essentially, these are both study of personal identity and connections. Must we not continually use our social justice lens during a critical study of identity? As well, these themes mandate that students examine the events in their own lives. Offering students platforms to construct and deconstruct the language that society often uses to label students as powerless or at risk can also be the same language that students use to self-define as empowered and as resilient.

This is passion-based education fuelled by the voices of youth, and every day I am in awe, and every day I push my own sense of identity and connection with this world.

Mid-November – I received a text message. A few of my senior kids had come together and had a plan for the winter concert that would fit our diverse voices, the comfort levels of everyone in our class and the need to perform at the holiday concert without being bored. I gave my kids the lead. The next day, I sat cross legged on the back counter with the grade 9-12s around me and watched the kids do what we often do as a team: post needs and wants, design principles and find our big idea. Though my younger kids were a little hesitant, that only lasted the first period. In the end, we spent ten periods putting the project together.

10 periods for a winter concert during a departmental year? Heck ya.

The Big Idea that the students selected for their concert performance – How do you forget: a critical perspective on holiday.

All of my students in grade 9-12 were on board. All of them participated and that doesn’t mean someone simply opened the curtain. Everyone collaborated, creating multiple layered language learning pieces for the project.

The result: 21 minutes of live, timed, powerful truthful multi-media storytelling without student faces, using images, sounds, voices and the power of layering and light. The audience wept. The entire toddler-tight bouncing cramped gymnasium of an audience wept.

Prior to the presentation the kids had asked me to share about their storytelling movement, #undone. I was reluctant. It was their piece, their moment. But they asked me, all of them. What I shared was the essence of this unsolicited reflection a student emailed four days prior to our performance:

I couldn’t face it for a while but when I did it was refreshing. It was good to know that I can still become paralysed with fear because of the truth. Because of the truth in my own life. When I saw [our stories] on the wall my first reaction was how beautiful we all really are. [My classmate’s] piece was amazing. I think his secret was exactly what I needed, but the best part was I realised my classmate can be a genius if he wanted. Intelligence should not be measured by education. The pieces were personal, and I believe this way they will stay mine and show the world. I can move on, I don’t need to hold these things forever anymore. I can let go. It doesn’t paralyze me anymore… I suppose the beautiful thing about [the project] is that it should never end. We should always have those little secrets that we keep to ourselves and if we choose to share it with the world. It really can change lives, I don’t know if my secrets muster the words to change other peoples’ lives. I don’t think it will.  But honestly, the beauty of it is, that even if it doesn’t I’ll be okay with that.  ~ Language Learning Student, Mortlach, Dec 2011.

My kids made certain to keep the content school appropriate. Yet, in hindsight, I should have pre-warned my community about the potential of such an emotional event. Following the concert, I shared these thoughts with my students. Their response: unanimously no. My kids are fine storytellers. There were no cheap thrills. Their storytelling was gentle and honest.

I am proud.

The #undone project (the name my students have given to our storytelling movement) is spectacular. However there is more. The story that nudged my students into ‘telling their own concert,’ happened this fall.

Flashback to the last fall – there were three people in my principal’s office that morning: my principal, a student and myself. My principal, sat four feet from my student. I stood six feet away. I was standing with my back to the closed door. My arms were crossed. I was hot-mad, tears rolling down my face. And then my student said, “You know the truth.”

I sat down next to my student and wrapped my arms around my student, and my student, heaving with tears and pain and defeat long delayed in coming and beyond my student’s control, wrapped arms around me. We cried. We shared. We listened. We understood so much. There was fear – of life – like the likes nowhere near shared at the concert in December.

And I understood some truths in that moment. No adult had hugged this kid in a long time. I knew my principal and I were going to do whatever it took to fight for that student. I knew that those moments were the ‘difference making’ moments of my career.

And every one of my kids felt it.

“A child’s most basic psychological need is for love – to find a secure bond with at least one other human.” Larry Brendtro, Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters.

That means, listening to their stories. Listening to my kids means being connected with them, it means effort, it means commitment, it means being uncomfortable, and being tough, and being honest, and sometimes not having any words; it means aching along with them as they cry, and celebrating along with them as they succeed; and mostly, it means allowing the stories my kids’ share to resonate with me; it means learning from my kids.

June 1st, 2012 – With the financial support of our school division and the Moose Jaw Festival of Words, my kids, #undone, will host a Southern Saskatchewan Spoken Word Night at the Mae Wilson Theatre. The theater seats 400. The Provincial SLAM team will moderate.

We believe in each other. We believe in the power of our stories. 

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