Monthly Archives: February 2013

Listening with Story

I am a storyteller. I love listening to stories.Coldwell

When I was a young girl I’d follow my Dad and my sister on treks as they talked plant botany, Dad pausing every once in a while to turn and change the science into narrative, “Wolf willow has an interesting story.” He’d stand feet planted shoulder-width apart, take off his well-warn Tilly hat with the Russian thistle tucked into its fold, wipe his brow with his forearm, look off over the prairie and something magical would happen. He’d listen for story to come.

Often, my sister, then three big long years older, would fill in these stories. How had she heard them? I’d sometimes remember to wonder, but then, too often I’d be too busy to notice. I’d have fallen behind, playing in brome grass, savouring rose hips, snoozing among sagebrush, until Dad paused. Yet eventually, I’d know.

Dad taught me to listen. He taught me to follow.

What I found difficult was leading with story.

A while back another adult told me to “pretend” that I’ did not hear a student’s personal story. When I’d heard “pretend” I was stunned. My first thought was that I had misunderstood the adult’s words. I asked the person to clarify.  

Pretend not to have heard.

I remember how I felt.

Had this person not noticed the way I interact with student? Kids are often stopping by our classroom space for hugs, or to hang out, to chat.  The comforting space that lives between students and myself doesn’t only happen in our classroom, it travels with us, wherever we are. Often this confuses people, the ease the students and I have with each other.

How could anyone not understand the way I live among kids and their stories?

So I asked for clarification a third time.

I had not been listing to a student’s easy story. I had been listening to a difficult story. These are the silenced stories that school spaces often keep hidden behind principals’ closed doors, around staffroom tables and in documents filled out and filed in cabinets, silenced by folks who spend little time actually attending to people/kids.

When I was in elementary school I failed a grade. It took me decades to be able to share that story.  When I failed grade five in French Immersion and moved into the English program, you bet I pretended for a long long while. I told counterstories about why I was at a different school in my own neighbourhood. Clandinin et al explain counterstories; “These stories are rooted temporally as individual stories shift and change in response to changing events and circumstances” (2006).

I pretended.

Today I knowingly try not to craft counterstories about my elementary years. I share these stories because often, I’ll sit next to a student, who like me then, sees letters and words both forwards and backwards. Who understands words’ meaning but has difficulty expressing these meanings or can, but only through the glint in her eyes. Sometimes, when I share my-grade-five cori-who-spent-days-bouncing-a-rubber-ball-in-resource-story, kids are better able to tell stories to live by

All those years ago, did I want to tell my story? No. Did everyone who lived alongside me know my story? Yes.

Now I’m not saying I should be running around telling others’ stories.

I’m saying – I’m not pretending not to hear.

What if the story is a suicide-story? An abuse-story?

Because this was the reality, the story I was told to ignore. And then it’s not possible to pretend anyway. Thomas King tells us that when we have heard a story we are forever part of that story, our perspective is forever changed. Story cannot be unheard. (2003).

I will never pretend.

I will try to attend to story, I try to live alongside story and seek spaces that allow story to come.

My Dad taught me that.

Maybe the person who asked hadn’t spent enough time around our story spaces. Maybe this person really didn’t know I believe we are connected through story.

Mostly, I think this is my fault. I think I fell behind. Far behind.

I forgot to lead with story, even the difficult and silencing story.

I forgot, but I’m listing again.

My daughter taught me this.

Friday the high school student hosted an Open Mic. A grade twelve student shared his story.

Later, one of the much younger students messaged me, saying she never knew how strong he was until he shared. She never knew.

We must lead through story.

Story teaches us this.

Stories are, after all, all that we are. (King, 2003).

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Verb? Chatting with Zac

Stories are complex; “They are beautiful” (Lugones, 1987).

Recently I was chatting with Zac Chase. During our conversation for #LearningGrounds he asked a few questions. I stammered while I answered some questions, yet others I answered well enough. However, when we were done chatting, I had the feeling that I had sounded like a text book. I don’t like jargon, but sadly I often use it. I prefer clarity. As I write this now, I know I am also not keen on regret. Besides I liked sharing and I liked that Zac had asked about stories. I liked that he had asked about what is important to me. I felt honoured. Next time, I’d like to listen to Zac’s stories.

Zac asked me to elaborate on why I use the word story as a verb: to story and storying. I don’t think I answered his question.

I story. I say and write and do and live storying often.

Interestingly, Zac also paused to wonder about the citations popping up in my posts. There is no separation between the two questions Zac posed.

The first time someone said these words to me or, said them so that I heard them, I was 29 years old. I was standing near a doorframe on the second floor of the university. Though I don’t think I was near a corner, I felt pushed that way. I had been explaining why I needed to separate my personal narratives from my teaching philosophy and practice. I was storying a narrow dominate narrative. Kumashiro helps us understand dominate narratives as oppressive stories and practices, “masked by or couched in concepts that make us think this is the way things ought to be” (2009). I remember feeling the ‘there is no separation’ lighting bolt and being so affronted by the assumption in its meaning. “What gall to imply there is no separating between past, present and future? What gall to imply that all that I have tried to keep hidden is actually visible, connected among us?” There was no one actually speaking then. It was terrifying. It was messy. It was beautiful. It was a retelling. Sean Lessard calls this a teaching. (2011).

To try to add some clarity to the first question, I’ll begin with Zac’s second question. Citations are easy. I adore what I am reading. I enjoy what others are writing. Why wouldn’t I share? I share with the students I live alongside. I share fiction. When Munro wallops me with crude truths so that I interrupt classroom silent reading by tossing a novel across a table and onto the floor, you bet I share. Why wouldn’t I share all literary treasures? There’s another reason too. I am selfish. I want to share the beauty that students and I find in honouring our narratives.

As well, Zac asked me, and perhaps a bit hesitantly and too happily, if I worry that others view this work as lesser work, easier work? Heck, even my own family has been known to refer to narrative inquiry as navel gazing. My mentor/instructor at the university where I am doing my graduate work, a colleague to many instructors who discount NI says she receives at minimum of two emails a week challenging the authenticity of narrative inquiry; my mentor is a tenured doctor at the university specializing in narrative inquiry. Questioning is part of story.

I am deliberate. I need to be.

I’m not so naïve as to assume narrative inquiry fits everyone, nor can it be understood comfortably by everyone. Stories are messy. Yet more difficulty to understand is that storying (openly attending to narrative) is even messier. My grad writing group meets every second Tuesday. One of our common bonds is our research methodology – narrative inquiry – we are storytellers. Last Tuesday after I shared from my work-in-progress, one of the group members leaned over, grabbed my hand, thanked me and said that no matter how much she wants to, she will never be able to share openly. And she is one of the few who invites storying into educational spaces. Storying is “the attitude that carries us through the activity, a playful attitude [that] turns the acidity into play” (Lugones, 1987). 

Storying is boundless and resonates with each telling, retelling and reliving of our narrative. Through our connected storying spaces, place is created. This connected way of living and being is the creative process of storying. This is the beauty of the complexity of stories. (Massumi, 2002).

Stories are beautiful. (Lugones, 1987).

I story because when stories are not honoured my narrative becomes someone else’s way for me to live and be in the world; I become someone else’s agenda. Not easily, but in time, if our narratives are silenced, we begin to tell a story to better match narratives others tell for us. Kumashiro writes, “What students learn depends significantly on the unique lenses they use to make sense of their experiences” (2009). Most of us have these told-for-us stories. The stories when family, community, friends or teachers have tried to or succeed in storying us. Often within school spaces, when students begin to tell, retell, and relive their own narratives they do “not identify” (Lugones, 1987) with dominate narratives. Often, students are “coaxed, seduced” (1987) through dominate practices to tell a dominate story. Students, marginalized by told stories often find a “profound desire to identify with” (1987) these dominate narratives.

The trick here is “to understand a loving way out of it” (1987).

Stories matter.

I need to be deliberate.

A few years ago I began to pay attention to online work. I began to note the work, not the authors, which gained notice. Certainly, but not exclusively, citations set many apart. Sometimes, even with citations, the work felt fantastical. However, folks seem to listen.

I’ve been researching narrative inquiry in my undergrad and graduate work for a long lime. I’ve lived in relational narrative spaces my whole live. I’ve learned to trust listening spaces. So I’ll cite some of my work so that you will be better able to live alongside narrative too, first here and later with student narrative. I can try.

I want this work to matter. I want this work to matter – without me.

The playfulness that gives meaning to our activity includes uncertainty, but in this case the uncertainty is an openness to surprise. This is a particular metaphysical attitude that does not expect the world to be neatly packaged, ruly. Rules may fail to explain what we are doing. We are not self-important, we are not fixed in particular constructions of ourselves, which is part of saying that we are open to self-construction. We may not have rules, and when we do have rules, there are no rules that are to us sacred. We are not worried about competence. We are not wedded to a particular way of doing things. While playful we have not abandoned ourselves to, nor are we stuck in, any particular “world.” We are there creatively. (Lugones, 1987).

Stories are all that we are. (Thomas King, 2003).

So I story. I create. And like Zac, I listen.

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Stories Need Attending

A month ago I wrote about a poem I had previously shared with my grad-writing group and had received little feedback. Later, an instructor, suggested, “It is an interrupted narrative that metacommunicates about its own limits and explodes conventions of pedagogy by falling silent at the very moment a conclusion is expected” (Ellsworth, 2005).

Though I feel she was being supportive, I pushed back against her feedback. Yes, I’d intentionally crafted the piece to pause, eventually to silence the reader/educator, but I’d also shared openly, not to oppress and certainly not to stop conversation. There’s a difference. Art is fluid. Narrative is fluid. Within the silence surrounding creation there is much I am sharing.

 The profound pedagogical achievement of the refusals of narrative closure that lead up to this silence is that this final gesture of silence cannot be taken as, simply, silence. All that comes before the silence at the ‘end’ of the permanent exhibit frames it in a way that makes of it very particular silence. It is a silence that teaches what pedagogy can never speak. In that structuring of all that comes before this last element of the exhibit, it would be wilful “ignor-ance” to call this silence a form of nihilism. It cannot be read as a form of forgetting, nor can it be taken as melodramatic moment of overwhelming sentimentalism, nor is it the silent of self-reflection. Like the exhibit’s refusal of narrative continuity and clause, the silence with which the visitor is met at the end of the exhibit, a silence that asks to be met in turn by silence, is a communicative act after all. It is an act of metacommunication. This silence is a metacommunicative refusal of rules of narrative closure. It is self-referential refusal to offer and ending.

 This silence that metacommunicates marks the limits of pedagogy. It marks the limits of knowledge. It is the licence of “passing through our own answerlessness” (Felman, 1995, p. 53). It is the silence of the pedagogue who accepts that she or he does not, cannot, have the last word and who embraces the pedagogical power of not providing the last word. (Ellsworth, 2005).

When I pushed back and told my instructor that I was sitting around the table of grad study folks so they too could push back, I answered my own question. “Ok, I went in with expectations. But this is how I enter space, before I come to trust. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. I enter seeking to be heard.”

 She replied, “Why is it so important for you to attend to student narrative?”

 Why?

 Attending is messy work. Attending is not easy, comfortable work. Folks who come to attend to narrative don’t usually, in my opinion, have a gentle go of it. Why am I so focused on attending to narrative?

 Stories are complex. “We are suspicious of complexities, distrustful of contradictions, fearful of enigmas” (King, 2003).

 Why? I know how beautiful it feels when someone attends to my narratives.

 My parents listen well. Almost every day during the commute home from school I call my parents and share kids and school. My parents are both educators; they have advice to offer. However, most often during these trips with both of them and me on speaker, I share; they listen. The listening connects me to them. The listening is love. The love is profound. 

 I remember the first time I learned that I wasn’t attending to student narrative. 

 More than ten years ago, during my first pre-internship, I met Braedon (pseudonym). I taught Braedon a few classes a day. By the end of the two week block Braedon and I had formed a connection. We talked about Graffiti Art, family, and school. He was in grade ten. That last day, I told him I loved him and that I would never leave. He told me I was lying. What I had meant was that I would always remember him and that was true. Braedon understood another truth too. He understood that I was leaving. He knew that though we’d shared some stories, I wasn’t going to stay a physical presence in his life, and he called me on it. Braedon and I had needed time to live with each other’s stories. Then, it was Braedon who had attended to the narrative of our connection.

I attend to narrative because my daughter needs to me to listen. I listen because I make a choice to listen.

Listening to each other’s stories keep us well. Not always happy, but well.

My daughter, Jessy Lee, turned sixteen Saturday.

At lunch on Saturday she received an email from her long absent Dad. She skimmed through the email and shared bits of the message, the main points with her best friend and with me. The story didn’t end there. The birthday celebrations continued. That night, after a busy across town photo scavenger hunt, Jess, her friends and I went for supper.

Jess had invited a hodgepodge of friends to celebrate along with her. She had invited those who attend to her stories. One friend, Kate (pseudonym), was new to the group. At the end of the evening, while we were waiting for the girls’ rides, Kate asked me if I was going to cry.

“No.” As I looked towards Kate, a pause filled the foyer. Kate waited and I shared a story about Jess, eventually it was time for Kate to leave. As Kate pushed the door open she said, “Back to the crying, when I was little my Dad made a time-line and it had when I turned 16, and he cried and cried.”  Kate was smiling. She had waited and had wanted to share her story. Her story may not have seemed far from ordinary, yet all stories are. The week before Kate had shared her family-stories of the past year with Jess, the girls connecting over their Dad-silenced-stories and in finding stories to live by. The way Jess and I watched Kate, daisy tucked behind her ear, bound from the restaurant into her grandmother’s mini-van was different, I think, than the way the others were able to understand her going.

Later, much later that night, after the gaggle of girls in the living room had fallen asleep, Jess sent me a text message, “Check your email.”

She had forwarded her Dad’s email.

For an hour we messaged back and forth. I was almost glad she didn’t see my tears, though I told her about them. She told me about her tears too. In her poetic, truthful and blunt manner she shared. She shared that, all these years later, in reading his emails, she could no longer hear his voice. I replied that all these years later, I can hear only conjure his voice in a fog of him as only a very young man.

Stories need attending. If we don’t find attending spaces we create new stories to live by.

I know.  

“Yet this is the story I continue to tell, because it’s easy and contains all my anger, and besides, in all the years, in all the tellings, I’ve honed it sharp enough to cut bone” (King, 2003).

If your story is silenced, then what? If my daughter’s story is silenced, then what?

To silence story is to oppress. Narrative is ongoing, open.

Sure, there are easy stories and we share these, most often effortlessly. However, there are messy stories and if you listen, we effortlessly seek spaces and connected relationships with which to share these too… well, until we are silenced.

If you silence students’ stories you discount them. If you silence my story you discount me. 

Listen.

“We were called to attend to the multiple narrative unities of participants’ and our lives as a way to not hide, deny, or silence the multiplicity of participants’ and our life compositions or the shared narrative unities being co-authored between us” (Clandinin et al, 2006). Trust me. If you won’t allow me to share my narrative, I will find another story to live by, another place where my narrative is honoured, another place – another place that is not school or home or family – where stories bind me.

In some way, in some space, we story.

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Conversations: A Curriculum of Lives

Last week was exam week.

I teach students in the senior English Language Arts. I don’t assign traditional final exams.

Around here, we have conversations.

Don’t get me wrong. Students in my classes still learn the necessary skills. They know how to write essays, craft solid topic sentences and weave together persuasive arguments. These are skills. We practice skills often in class. In fact, sometimes, sometimes, we even practice the skill of beloved test-taking. However, I don’t torment kids by making them prove all their skills all at certain times when all of them are under pressure.

In fact, what I ask kids to do is become, along with me, “an integral part of the curricular process,” (Clandinin et al, 2006). The evaluation process around here is for the high school student, grades 9 to 12, to have conversations with a key stakeholder. Afterwards they have a conversation about that conversation with me. I’m doing graduate work, and the Student Led Conversation (SLC) is the most comprehensive final exams I’ve witnessed.

Each year, in September I introduce our final relational narrative assessments and the way in which the students and I will be using them in our classroom and throughout the term. The students and I capture most of our learning, or we try to, in two places, in paper portfolios and digital portfolios. As part of the student-led conversation at the end of the term, we reflect on our learning. There is a practice conversation mid-way through the term. The kids spend 20 minutes leading a conversation and sharing their learning with a key stakeholder – usually a parent or guardian (although about 15% of the kids choose our principal) – and then another 20 minutes in post-conversation with me.

Our SLCs have evolved over the years. I’ve blogged about them a few times, here and here. When I first began SLCs, I chatted, not really allowing the kids to lead, certain my voice was necessary. Now I sit on the periphery and take pages of notes, sometimes film, sometimes both.

In the beginning the students didn’t reference their formal curriculum either. A couple of years ago I spent a week in the summer, writing and prepping for classes. I was sharing SLCs with a former Director of Education. She calmly suggested that if she were my director, she’d insist that the students have the language – that simply celebrating their successes – though lovely – wasn’t enough. She was right. I wasn’t keen on the formal curriculum driving the conversations though; there had to be a middle space. Today’s students not only use the curricular language, but students are in conversation with their formal curriculum. Today’s students are curriculum makers in class where they, as Ellsworth states, “seek, in other words, new ways of knowing that also transform knowledge, self-experience, awareness, understanding, appreciation, memory, social relations and the future,” (2005).

Conversations are who we are, after all. (King, 2003).

The last day of exams, because of bitterly cold temperatures, the busses didn’t run. Many students, keenly responsible for and proud of their learning, messaged me and quickly rescheduled their SLCs. The next day was a teacher preparation day. A student, Trent (pseudonym), arrived for his rescheduled SLC at 9:00 am along with his mom.

Trent arrived dressed for his formal presentation. He is in grade ten. This is his second year doing SLCs. He arrived wearing his best black Stetson and his dress cowboy boots. His mom was beaming. He arrived prepared for his final.

When this student began sharing at SLCs a year and half ago, he read from the curriculum pages; his mom nearly fell asleep. Watching this early sharing was painful. Back then, we discussed the SLC at the post-conference and we talked about the process of prepping for his SLC and why thinking critically and creatively about our learning is important. When kids come to own their learning, to value what they do and how they create, and how they share, they become aware of the pedagogy of their place. This “is the force that created the experience of learning self,” (Ellsworth, 2005). Here, students begin to see the beauty in not only thinking critically about their lives, but also creatively. In this space students are able to understand they are their stories, this is their story to live by. Here, SLCs become ‘pivot places,’ and serve as a “vehicle through which we come to know differently,” (Ellsworth, 2005). 

Friday morning, at first glance, it appeared Trent began simply by sharing a product, a digital storytelling summative piece he’d created. However, Trent was gentle in sharing. He introduced the piece, the criteria and then expanded on how the piece fit the indicators. He then storied – his voice and reflection on his learning filling the room.

He didn’t stop there. He had crafted a 20 minute conversation with his Mom. He spoke often of the ways he’d failed during the past five months of his Language Learning course and what he’d learned from those experiences. He shared, responded to her comments and shared more of his work, weaving his curriculum into conversation and pulling his Mom into conversation with his learning, his successes, his failures, the formal curriculum, our lived curriculum and his learning journey.

His Mom had the language now too; she’s been at every SLC alongside Trent. She isn’t just a stakeholder in his life, but she is a curriculum-maker in our class too.

Our space is beautiful; “The experience of the work is critical to its understanding,” (Ellsworth, 2005). Clandinin et al ask us to rethink formal curriculum into a “curriculum of lives,” (2006), a curriculum that includes the voices of families and kids, that is led by real stakeholders, our students using their own narratives.

During post-conference, what did I ask Trent?

What went well? What would you like to change? Interestingly, the one area he missed, and a minor area too, was that he’d not introduced his Mom. Sure, some students find introductions redundant, even ridiculous. Trent reflected, “You know Ms. Saas, I forgot to introduce my Mom. I went right to the computer to set up. You know my Mom so well that the two of you started talking and I forgot. I was formal all other places, and I transitioned into the conversation and out of the conversation, but I forgot the introductions.”

And he did forget, in the moment.

Here’s the thing: he also didn’t forget. 

The beauty of narrative and reflection – no exam allows space for the “Oh, I wish I’d said that!”

Trusting spaces do. Conversations do. Trusting conversations are the “very expression of potential,” (Ellsworth, 2005).

At the end of every conversation with the stakeholder, the student usually asks if the stakeholder has any questions. The student ends by sharing the student’s course take-away.

At the end of the 20 minute post-conference I generally ask students to share yet another take-away, one a bit different, perhaps one about SLCs.

The weeks leading into and during finals are difficult. SLCs are not easy. Not all the kids have bought in. The in-class preparation is intense. The time spent with kids during exam week is intense; I spend 45 minutes with each high school student enrolled in ELA, and I teach grades 9 – 12.

I believe in a curriculum of lives.

A few kids showed up to SLCs unprepared, and felt they could ‘wing’ it. I know this isn’t unique to my courses. I know that down the hall in the Math and Science room, these same stories are told about the students’ lack of preparation for the traditional exams.

I remember that Director of Education saying to me those years ago, “Where is the evidence of their learning? Do their parents understand it and can the student explain it?”

Yes. I believe all the curriculum makers in the room can.

In our learning place an interesting thing happens; I learn too. And I can’t hide my growth; just as Trent cannot hide his. Often my principal is in the room. This is good. She sees the good and the bad and the beauty that exist in the middle. You know what? I feel it. In this post, I am trying to express it. I know students are beginning to share it.

I believe in a curriculum of lives.

Trent is in grade ten. One of the slides of this digital presentation was about SLCs, “Last year I would have never imagined sharing my school work with my Mom. Now I am able to read my poetry at 4H. Imagine what I’ll be able to do once I am in grade 12.”

Exactly.

A curriculum of lives.

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