Month: January 2013

Stories to Live By (Stories to Leave By)

Every other Tuesday I attend a writing/story group. Attendance isn’t a requirement of my graduate work, but yet I feel it is a useful space to share stories with other grad students who tend to have a relational narrative way of living and being with the world. Along with my instructor, there are six of us. Everyone shares.  

Last Tuesday I shared a two and a half page poem about a former student’s suicide journey and how my then principal and I had come to journey alongside his narrative. After I had shared, the group’s feedback almost stopped, stuck between discomfort over both the shift in style and content as well as the power of the story, “I feel like you’ve pushed me in the stomach and I don’t quite know how to respond.” I tried to meet my group members’ eyes, but really, the discomfort had been the point of the poem.

I looked toward my instructor, not there to grant grades, simply a woman giving her time, and offering time for story-sharing, pulling us together so we might … I don’t know: grow, create, critique, pause or push.

The purpose in sharing the story was to show through narrative that in so many ways students’ voices are silenced in schools, in classrooms, within teachers. Some stories are told with the hope they live only as hidden-stories.

Darn it! I wanted feedback.  

The poem will become the transition to a larger document I will share with my division in a few weeks. After a few moments of silence and after I had shared the poem’s purpose, many in the group asked if I was worried whether this professional work of opening spaces where student narratives are honoured will put my job at risk.

I wonder.

Pushing the boundaries around silence is messy work. Those on the boundaries listening to narrative for the first time “cringe at the mantra of people growing ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty feet tall with pride as they “disclose” the sexual abuse they suffered at residential school or the relentless cycle of attempts and failures as characters try to put their lives in order. But in all this, there is a delightful inventiveness of tone, a strength of purpose that avoids the hazards of the lament and allows the characters the pleasure of laughing at themselves and their perils,” (King, 2003).

My instructor listens well. She allowed me to talk my way through to understanding how best to figure out this question.

Much of our work attending to the lives of children involves creating safe spaces by listening to each other creating stories to live by. Clandinin et al state we are creating and sharing stories to live by when we are “finding the space with parents and children to try ‘something different’,” (2006). For the most part, our ways of attending to the lives of families and of children creates stories to live by.

But sometimes kids aren’t connected to schools or to their teachers, and they leave. Sometimes, the same thing can be said for teachers who similarly are not connected to their school, to their administrators or to their divisions. And this happens again and again.

I’d sure like to understand why.

When I looked up and met my instructor’s gaze last Tuesday, it is stories to leave by that she was sharing.

Years ago, before my instructor was a Mom, she resigned her teaching role in a large school. Dismayed over changes in the division that demanded shifts in her practice that did not coincide with her philosophy, she resigned. Her departure was an act of activism, though a silent one then. Her choice to leave her position had a lasting effect on her future. Tuesday she shared that when she left, for the most part, only her immediate supervisors knew the reasons for her departure. Hers was a silenced story to leave by.

My work is messy work. “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous,” (King, 2003). I do not want my work to become a story to leave by.

I hear stories to leave by every day with kids I live alongside.


Three years ago I met two brothers – kind kids, busy. They reminded me of me when I was their age. I coached them in junior basketball; they hung out outside my window on Saturdays while I worked late at school. We talked dirt bikes, school, Graffiti Art and life. Through a series of events, the boys had been storied negatively by some adults as trouble makers. I think this was why they liked being with me. I let them tell their silenced story. For hours and hours, while they cleaned the classroom and Art room, they shared. But outside the classroom other stories were being told. Soon not only were the boys able to explain the benefits of moving schools, but it was like no one could read any other story than a story to leave by; “storms can be tricky,” (King, 2003).

And their lingering story, these many years later, some days feels as though, if I were to let it, would become the opening line of my own story to leave by. I just never understood this until I sat down to write this post.

Years ago I met a fluffy haired kid dressed all in black. He knew no other story than a story to leave by and he told it clearly and to anyone who would listen. “I’m a drunk” & “I’m dumb,” (he is not & he is not). He became one of my favourite students. His name is Dylan.

When he graduated his classmate told me it was really important that I speak at his graduation. When I asked why, the classmate said that he had been ready to drop out of school when I had met him. What is important about Dylan’s narrative is that it wasn’t his connection with me that helped him retell his story. Dylan began to tell a story to live by because he had a space where he felt safe sharing his story.

I guess you can say Dylan’s story is my plot.

Last fall I met a senior student, Derek (pseudonym) who had been silenced in his home life and at school. Though he is happy now, and expresses a deep connection to his learning space, Derek arrived open to listening. I arrived open to listening. Derek has a past filled with the kinds of stories which the community and parents caution should not be shared in learning spaces. I find these statements oppressive. I am my stories. We can no more silence student voice than we can be allowed to hide students. Yet often, this is the norm.

Often I wonder how anyone could have chosen not to listen to this young man. But Derek tells me he wasn’t the same then, and I get that. I remember the way I lived alongside my high school teachers. The other day, a community member stopped by the school and Derek, seeing the vehicle, returned to check in on me. He wanted to make certain “I wasn’t’ getting any grief.”

I am amazed how well my students understand the tensioned-stories that I try to keep silent. I know they can read my behaviours, the times my eyes are a bit darker underneath, or when I’m not bouncing around the classroom as much. They listen to me as well as I listen to them.

This weekend, as I sat down to read journals and prep for student-led conferences, Derek, who had been away from school three years and is back, sent this note, “you better not leave until I do,” (Personal notes, 2013).

Last Friday one of my grade ten students decided to transfer.  I wasn’t surprised.  I had been listening to him tell his story to leave by for months. I knew he’d go. Last year, it was a grade eleven student (who has since returned home now to graduate with his friends).  But each story is different. Each child is different.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was saddened. The grade ten student and his story to leave by had begun when his best friends moved three years ago. I had tried to help him tell a story to live by.

Why had I allowed him to keep telling it as a story to leave by? Maybe, it was because I knew I’d open a space by listening. Maybe it was because I cannot save kids. Maybe it was because, I just don’t know…

Why do we allow some students transition between places, why do we allow teachers to leave without asking why? Why do we choose not to listen?

Why do we choose not to share our stories to leave by? Why do we stay silent?

I am guilty of silence.

But I’m learning.

When my instructor retold her story to leave by I think she was saying, “Share, for goodness sake, Cori, share. Don’t stay silent.”


This is messy tension-filled and valuable work.  Do not let the voices of a few force you to be silent.

Stories. “I tell them to myself, to my friends, sometimes to strangers. Because they make me laugh. Because they are a particular kind of story. Saving stories, if you will. Stories that help keep me alive,” (King, 2003).

So, I am pretty sure, Derek’s story, like the stories of so many of our students, is my theme. His story is my theme because so often we have told stories to leave by and have come to tell stories to live by.

Last Friday after our first basketball game while the kids were running amuck in the gymnasium, I shared my week with a friend and colleague. And you know what? He storied in return. He shared a tensioned-filled grief story. And I felt honoured.

More importantly, I felt rooted in our story space.

If I so desperately need this space, so do kids.

Honour stories. Live, tell, retell and live stories to live by.


Indifference to Stories

A couple days ago I asked my online network to push back and wonder along with me about the “insistence in schooling spaces to choose only to listen to the easy, accessible and gentle stories.”

None of you replied.

Sure. Perhaps it’s because I’ve a rather small blog following, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I tweeted the link twice. If you add to that the number of followers that glanced over my blog and to that their networks…

There’s more to the story.

Let me put it this way. Last July, in the middle of Summer Institute at the U of R, an instructor pulled me aside and told me “Stories have no value.”


Well, it is. But nonetheless, hearing those words from a person of power and privilege nearly knocked my feet out from under me. Relational narrative inquiry is all about stories, is about attending to our stories, and listening to our stories. This hasn’t only been my graduate work, but it has been the way I’ve learned to live and be in my world, how I’ve learned about my world; stories help me make meaning of my culture and traditions. They are my language.

Take my stories away and you prove your indifference towards me.

Indifference is easy for someone in power. It is easy to choose a dominant social norm – a grand narrative. And frighteningly, educators too often choose to adopt these traditional views in their classrooms.

A few days ago when I offered my messy story I was doing so as a means to open discussion that would push back against these commonly held easily accepted maxims that ignore the messy stories and silence those around us who are without privilege. When we choose only one way to tell, to retell or to listen to story we are simply reinforcing one way of living, a dominate normative way. And in that space, we silence others.

A year after I’d separated from my marriage, family member used to deliberately stop conversations by simply interjecting, “Cori is divorcing.” The family member used her privilege to control the narratives in spaces for her own means. She knew this and she wielded the power of story to serve her own needs. Those around her were most often unable or unwilling or – heck, too darn scared – to challenge her power and to create a counterstory. A counterstory is, as Clandinin et al state, “a story that contributes to the moral self-definition of its teller by undermining the dominant story, undoing it and retelling it in such a way as inviting new interpretations and conclusions,” (2006). I don’t know about you, but if we open spaces where counter-stories might be honoured, then aren’t we, as educators, allowing students space to become curriculum makers too?


But why is being so indifferent towards the messy stories so easy? Why is listing to the gentle stories, the stories of strife in faraway places so simple? This is my first year alongside Middle Years students in a while. Recently they’ve been planning a Middle Years workshop and they’ve asked the senior students to host the educational awareness sessions. When the senior students presented ideas like abuse, violence and addiction, many of the MY students seemed to have never heard of such issues existing close to home. But they do exist; I know the kids. The stories are real.  The students simply have not yet found a school-place where their difficult and tensioned stories are allowed to be shared.


Sharing stories is messy work and with whom would the power lie if teachers and schooling were to give voice to students? If they were to honour students?

It would no longer lie with the adults.

For me, as teacher, as a white educated adult in the learning space, I recognize my power and privileges akin to the following: “I was the boy next door, schooled in America’s pedagogy of racial stereotypes, fear, and racism. [Here, p]rivilege, stereotypes and irrational fear were on full display. I fear, I profiled, and I lived within America’s racial logic.”

So how do I begin to listen?

Because of that feeling that came over me when that teacher told me my stories had no value, I knew she was not honouring me. I knew it was a familiar feeling, a feeling I’d learned at an early age. I knew I never wanted to feel like that again. I knew that was a kind of power I have, but that I do not choose to use. I knew I never wanted anyone I love or dislike to feel their feet-out-from-under-them because of my indifference to their story.

“The truth about stories,” Thomas King writes, “is that that’s all we are,” (2003).

I am my stories. I am our stories. And I need a space to share them. Students need to share them too. That’s a wack sack of stories. What amazes me is our reaction, the devaluing of youths’ stories because they are kids’ stories. 

So I ask you, help me push this further, how do you honour the messy tensioned student narratives?

Attending to the Messy Ones

“[W]hen the words form I am merely retelling the same story in different patterns,” (King,  2003, p. 2).yoho stream november 2012

This past year I’ve been thinking deeply about story; this is what my Dad calls ‘storying’ – the process of living with narratives and attending to the lives of those we love  – and storying is messy.

And I’m tired too. Storying can be difficult. Storying can be filled with “tension [simply in] being part of, and contributing to [our] narrative history,” (Clandinin et al., 2006, p. 70).

These past few months I’ve been living, telling, and retelling stories – thinking deeply about my stories in an autobiographical relational narrative way – sometimes as the stories came to live so clearly for me, as I searched for them in attics, basements, storehouses, and most important spaces, the ones that hide in plain sight – the stories became fresh, a bit less uncomfortable for me, and yet once shared, no longer secret.

This past fall I was scrimmaging at noon with our junior and senior boys’ basketball teams. I blocked a layup shot by a dear student, James, (pseudonym) a very broad-shouldered, very tall grade twelve student. The force of James’s layup drove his elbow into my nose. Blood and memory oozed, pain swirled, swallowing the backs of my eyes. I was blindsided by the residual effects of story. It had been more than a decade since someone for whom I cared had hit me. That fall day, though my feet had remained planted, my mind swirled away into a retelling of a story that James had meant to harm me. The swirling stretched into 15 long, long seconds. I waited. I said nothing to the students. I was silenced by the unplanned memory of my familiar long silenced difficult story. I walked to the bathroom. The administrative assistant tipped grey powder onto the gash, clotting the blood. When she left, I closed the door, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, slid down the wall, and wept; I was 21 years old again, blindsided and alone. “This is a story I know,” (King, 2003, p. 1).

I think it is sad how easily schools and teachers often make assumptions about students’ difficult stories – stories that are frequently deemed too uncomfortable for students and staff to share in teaching and learning spaces, stories that are kept silent behind closed doors by never being discussed, by beinghushed, by being ignored, by being discounted, by being push aside, by being marked, labelled, or marginalized. Place, when supported with trust and entered through narrative, can bring comfort to the retellingsof our difficult/tensioned-stories. Place does this for me.

I stood in the washroom. I heard the senior student ask after me. After I’d washed, after the flow of those fifteen seconds had passed, some 30 minutes later, I returned to the gymnasium to reassure him. I understood he had not caused me intentional harm. I needed to tell him I was okay. I knew he needed me to tell him I was okay – I knew he needed this from me because I have spent years attending to his stories.

I have lived alongside hundreds of students. “I’ve heard worse stories,” (King, 2003, p. 8). I know you have as well. I know you hang around after school because some of your students have no one there for them at the end of the day. I know that some of your students go home to parents who ignore them, or harm them. I know that your story too might be filled with details that reach deep, deep and will never leave. There are details that may be storying every relationship now, every moment of your life.

So how is my story special?

What makes my story different or needed?

Absolutely nothing…I tell the stories not to play on your sympathies but to suggest how stories can control our lives, for there is part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be chained to these stories as long as I live. (King, 2003, p. 9)

When I completed the first draft of my thesis, I sent this story to my Mom. I’d never shared the stories of abuse with her. These are stories my Mom and I have kept silent; these are stories my daughter and I puzzle through. Storying is difficult.

Teaching and learning is messy.

Life is messy.

I wonder at the insistence in schooling spaces to choose only to listen to the easy, accessible and gentle stories?

The Gifts of Her Space

The best part of my world is being able to share this space with Jessy Lee, my daughter. She amazes me. She is my best support andjess and me cabin my loudest advocate. She is almost 16 years old, an avid reader and a published author. These last few months I’ve watched her craft her first novelette. Okay, not her first long text, but her first fully researched well thought-out and stressed-over text. Watching her live this process I’ve come to remember a few things: she’s passionate, she’s resilient and she’s the best teacher I know.

This past summer while I crammed my-brain-full-of-often-regurgitated-goodness-don’t-think-for-yourself-articles, my daughter was living her craft. She attended Sage Hill Teen Writing experience for young writers where she learned that often the best things to write about are the farcical events from personal experience. At the end of that week Jess, my sister and I attended Saskatchewan Festival of Words. While each of us had full passes and we all snuck off on our own during the day to savour our favourite authors and genres, we met up during larger sessions. While the three of us ate lunch that Friday in July, my sister and I were quite downcast, missing Don Kerr’s noon reading from the previous year that reminded us of our spunky Nana; my sister and I simply braved Douglas Gibson, a publisher. But Jess was riveted. She stayed afterwards and chatted. She nabbed the book I’d purchased – of course I’d purchased Gibson’s book. He’s Munro’s publisher, and all things Munro must come home, to be read dozens of times and alter my perspectives of self, of relationship, of faith and of conformity – and Jess had Gibson sign the book.

“That’s so me. If he can do that, so can I.” Jess stood fierce. Her soccer nickname is Shin-Kicker and the glaze of her eyes as she then gathered Maureen Jennings’ books deposited them in front of me and strode out the door to Jennings’ session had nothing on any game play. She’d simply made up her mind.

By late August the characters had come together. The plot was beginning to form. We’d go for long car rides, her forgoing the chance to soak-up time behind the wheel prior to her driver’s test to hold me captive to discuss characterization – Can you envision them being friends? Would you do this? – and setting – What do you mean this feels like Alberta? Well that’s just wrong. How? Oh, okay, so the river needs to run nearer town; I’ve the town mapped out. This doesn’t make sense if the rail line came through Saskatchewan only a few years before the murder – and then we’d make yet another pass through The Avenues.

I began receiving texts on Fridays last Fall:

Take your time, I want to write.

Why not go out for supper with friends, there’s some research I need to do.

In her clothing class she longed for a research project in the time period of her story. Dinner became filled with lengthy stories dancing between friends, soccer and detailed descriptions of 1910 footwear.

Do you know?books

She read all Jennings work. We watched the Murdock Mysteries over and over and over.

And she wrote. I’ve never seen anyone so focused.

This summer at the Festival she had listened to Terry Fallis share how he had published his novel online with much success chapter by chapter before the novel had been picked up by a publisher. This had happened before Fallis had submitted his work for the Leacock and had won.

Though Jess has been published traditionally, she wanted to try publishing her own story online. Last summer she expressed that if Fallis could do it, so could she. Not much daunts Jess.

And she understood she needed this online perspective. After all, she’s going to open her own publishing house. Ask her, she’ll tell you.

Watch. She’ll show you.printed

So, by last November the novelette was crafted, printed and we were back to driving around. The jaunts became longer. Much coffee was consumed. We visited many small towns hours away.

All of this and she plays competitive soccer five nights a week, writes to perform spoken word and there is school too.

The point? She is living it!

I’ve heard writers, friends, family and educators say that the difference between good writers and great writers is that they write. But I am beginning to wonder if the difference between writers (all of us) and those (kids) who grow up to publish great Jess reading 2writers is that they have been taught the skills to create with minimal support, they seek critical feedback without pause, they envision themselves as becoming successful and, most importantly, they find great personal joy in the process.

Now, imagine if all our learning spaces might be like this…

Cinema Stories

It’s nearing close on winter break. I have been reading my twitter feed. Often, this time of year I have read about peoples’ tensions Dadabout businesses staying open. But it was open movie cinemas and late-night coffee shops that were family to my Dad while he was in his teens. It was these places that mattered during the long days of the holiday season when my Dad’s friends had family and warm homes, and what my Dad had were the folks in the stores and the warmth of coffee shops. I’ve written about this before.

This Fall two of my Dad’s sisters died. The August before my Dad’s grade eight year, he walked away from the family farm choosing to make a life of his own. (There is more to his story. Come for coffee, a campfire, a hike. In time, if you’re lucky, my Dad will share the details.) For years my Dad lived in an abandoned car on the outskirts of town and when the weather was poor he took comfort with caring families and in the church basement. My Dad was homeless throughout his high school years; he was homeless here, in a small city in our idyllic Saskatchewan where people just don’t allow things like this to happen, where people take care of each other… But people knew, his family knew and my dad kept telling his story.

Today, these similar stories still stay silenced.  

My Dad put himself through school. More than that though, he stepped away from his abusive family and began to tell a new story.   

Dad values love, family and learning. He walked away from his family so he would have a shot at these things. Dad knew he wanted these things at the age of 14. He was courageous enough to seek them then too. Dad is my hero. But not just for his past. Dad is a listening parent and the best, kindest teacher. I know, I have spent time with his students.

When I was a girl, my friends were often the kids on my Dad’s school teams. The boys on his teams were my brothers, his school kids were the kids I hiked the Qu’Appelle alongside, pulling wood-ticks off each other and the kids I played basketball with on Saturdays on the crumbling courts outside our schools. Today, when people my age get a far-away look about them, stare at me a bit too long, I usually know what will follow, “Is your Dad Al Saas?”

This holiday break, I was sitting on bleachers watching my daughter play soccer. A colleague stood beside me resting her back, her body swollen with pregnancy. She shared how she had wanted to take her kids cross-country skiing, but was just too tired. That she had learned to love skiing because she had a teacher in grade six who would load the class into his big blue station wagon, on top of the skis and take kids skiing, not returning until well after dark. She chuckled. When I told her that was my Dad, she pulled herself up onto the bleachers and sat with our shoulders touching. Later, at supper, my Dad told us stories about her skiing adventures and how she was a great storyteller; he remembers all kids.  

I love that when I began coaching junior basketball, my Dad was there. It had been years since I’d played ball, I knew I needed help. That first year not only did the wee junior boys’ team make it to districts, we made it to conference. My Dad was at every game. Before the final game when Dad walked into the gymnasium the boys stopped warming up, walked over to Dad and shook his hand. He mattered. It is my Dad’s stories that the senior kids now share with the younger kids. It is my Dad’s ways of living and being with our own stories that the kids and I have come to understand is how we are curriculum makers in our learning-space.

This Fall, my Dad lost two of his sisters. Their loss resonates. These past few years, Dad’s heath continues to be fragile. Last year was the last time Dad was able to attend of our class’s Outdoor Education/Adventure Education field trips. In the classroom learning space, we leave nothing unsaid. Learning is messy, relational narrative work; life is messy; we leave nothing unsaid. My Dad is the kindest and best of men. Every decision he has made has been to put others before him.

Before you judge that in my Dad, pause  – when he was 14 years old, more than 60 years ago, that same young man sat in a cinema for many years on Christmas Eves alone and held true to the that dream. My Dad has spent his life honouring stories, listening to stories, honouring his family, honouring kids’ voice, honouring me. And he did this with kindness.

Leave nothing unsaid. Listen. Respond with kindness.

#alberttruthsThe Farm

When my Dad walked away all those years ago his actions gave voice to the silenced family stories in his home. His life as the kind of father and the kind of educator he has been has continued to give voice to silenced stories. After my Dad left home, my two aunts remained connected with my Dad. They loved him, and understood the need to retell his story.  

Leave nothing unsaid. Listen to stories. If there is no space for your stories to be honoured, create one. Find a key person in your world, find a teacher, find someone you can trust and allow your stories to be heard. If not, find a cinema or a coffee shop and know, there is someone, this time of year, as always, who has a story. Leave nothing unsaid, lean over and begin.

Listen.Dad & Me

Remember, that someone was my Dad. That someone is me. That someone is you.

Leave nothing unsaid.

This is our new year.