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.”

#aCommentofPower

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?

#thisisaBeautifulSpace

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.

#Why

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?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Indifference to Stories

  1. Messy stories only emerge when cultures of trust and care have been established. Whether that’s between two people or in community, trust is where stories can get messy and good. Messy can be both in tension and content but also in delivery. The best storytellers practice telling those same stories over and over. It’s funny when my youngest daughter gets brave enough to share a story with her older siblings, they’ll often suggest it needs editing. I usually give her credit for giving it a shot and let her know there’s some good stuff in there.

    I know for you, you want those stories to be chances to grow and heal and you certainly model that. So you’re doing exactly what needs to be done.

    FYI, I don’t always comment but read everything you write. Also thanks for using “wack sack”. 😉

  2. One of my favorite writers/storytellers is Steven Johnson. His works are rife with stories. He values stories to the max. I honor my students’ stories by insisting that they tell them in their own writing regardless–narrative, argumentative, fictional, poetic. Stories have no value? My imagination fails in answering this question. Anti-stories? Yeah, they are called high stakes tests.

  3. John T. Spencer

    I loved this post. It has me thinking for sure.

    I think vulnerable stories can only happen in spaces that are relational. Trusted space. Safe places. When that happens, the vulnerability in the story-telling creates intimacy (a word often not thrown around in education circles) that leads to more trust and safety.

    It’s risky. People are scared. Folks in power will try and push the stories away. But they are vital.

  4. This is an excellent, heartfelt post, one who’s story is well worth sharing and reflecting upon. Stories are everything.

    Working with at-risk populations in residential, wilderness, home, and now public school settings has taught me they are primary to connecting to, understanding, and supporting those whose messy, often tragic, always complicated stories are the narratives that drive their every thought, action, and their inaction.

    As a former family counselor we followed a narrative therapy model to help kids and their families understand and redefine their narrative for improved growth and success.

    Recently we were sharing best practices in a PLC-type group, and my focus was on asking why? when students are struggling, taking a moment to ask why they didn’t get the work done, why they are not smiling, why they don’t like school or that class. My point was that while holding high and reasonable standards we can’t always excuse shortcomings, if we can understand where students are coming from, their stories, we can have more compassion and establish a more trusting relationship to support them, as opposed to writing them off as “lazy”, “unmotivated”, etc.

    Stories are everything, especially the messy ones.

    I am really glad to come across this post today. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Pingback: Our stories, past and present » explorations

  6. Pingback: Stories | Learning, Thoughts, Experiences and Reflections

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