A few days ago while scrolling through a social media site, I noticed that a student I teach had posted a photo with, what I consider to be, an offensive … Continue reading Language of Hope
Since I started teaching throughout each term and at the end of the year I’ve been asking students to think about and to share their ‘take aways.’ A take away is a complex notion. It is more than the one thing a student has learned; it is more than the one thing that will resonate with a student tomorrow, in a few months, or in five years. A take away is all of that and more. It is a knowing students and I search for and want to come to understand. Perhaps a take away is that care-forward piece or the restorying of our experiences piece that a student might come to be able to understand. A take away is our way of naming the experience of our story. It’s tricky. It’s different for each one of us. It’s messy. And it’s beautiful too.
For several years I’ve made certain to share my take aways with students.
This year, I asked my online learning network to share their takeaways. I had four responses.
I admit, naming the resonance of experience is akin to #lifemaking
Okay, here’s what I tweeted:
|2014-06-30, 10:41 AMMy Take Away from this year: #compassion I learned to listen, to attend with my heart, to listen to the story I am retelling, gently.|
When it comes to compassion don’t all of us educators feel, in some way, that when it comes to our bucket of character traits, this one overflows?
And that’s a beautiful thing, right? We are in a caring profession.
Three years ago while working with a group of grade 9 & 10 students I had my first real glimmer of true compassion. Then, with that group, I learned to respond with kindness. We had been faced with a sticky sort of change to our classroom family. The change was made to our family. The decision was made, hidden behind closed door educational discussions and off-campus narratives. The change led to silence and the silence brought confusion and pain. Silence was not the way we were used to doing things. We were used to sharing our stories of experience. As a unit we felt like we were the very bits inside a snow globe, swirling away, and that everyone outside our classroom space were the forces shaking us.
We were tired. We were silenced and we were sad.
I spoke to this group about those months, and the experience of this story at their grad this June. I shared how one of them, one day during a silent, silent reading, just tossed her journal on my desk and said, “Enough. We will respond with kindness.” And as a family we did. We pulled together, found our voice and healed.
And kindness is a starting point. It became the switch that each of us needed to bring our snow globes to rest. But kindness isn’t compassion.
In many of those moments years ago, though we forged ahead, we had simply silenced too the stories swirling around us.
And lately I’ve been thinking about trees.
Tall trees. There are tall pine trees that line my home in the Avenues. The pines are 110 ten years old. 14 years ago, during one of the most swirling snowy moments of my life, after looking at 28 houses, I stood in the back yard of this place. The wind played with the pines. The pines sang to me. There are five giant pine that reach towards the moon. They are taller than any house on the street; they nestle me into this tiny yard and wrap me safely here. The trees sang and I was home.
Sometimes I feel love can changed the world.
Recently I heard Gabor Mate say we need to ask ourselves how it is we feel about the person we are working with when we think of what we believe possible for that person.
This spring the kids and I were sitting in our sharing circle. We were sharing in that back-n-forth beautiful way. The kids were sharing about the connectedness they have with people in their lives. I shared the connectedness I felt with my Dad. Two of the boys in the circle asked about my connection. The others listened. I remember the conversation clearly. I remember feeling tired and being abrupt with the boys. I remember asking them if their others would be there if they got sick. I mean not just visit, I mean care for them. One boy answered no. One boy met my eyes, smiled at me, stood up and tossed his journal rather too forcefully into the bucket.
I can not say if the words were like me or not. I do not care for comparisons. I am blunt, though. And I sure do care about kids; I really care about the kids that sat around the table that day. I was “Imagaining what it is like where … they become gradually conscious of what it means to make connections in experience” (M. Greene, 1995, p. 55).
At the moment I am writing a letter to the boy who met my eyes. He is in custody. We’ve been writing letters for a while.
March 26 my Dad had a stroke. And I’ve been thinking a lot about trees.
I missed some school those first few days after Dad’s stroke.
When I returned, every day, every single day, the student who met my eyes would ask about Dad. Then, he would ask me how I was doing. Most days we’d have heart to hearts about ‘family,’ commitment, friendship, loyalty, and love.
Those were long weeks. You know that line ‘when you’re in the room, be in the room?” Those two months after my Dad’s stroke, I wasn’t in the room. Well, not when I was at school. I was tired and sad and I think I cried a few times, sitting on the piano bench while he worked the heavy bag, or did arm curls. I liked our chats though. And I think he did too.
He asked many questions and shared many stories. I did too. I was tired. So was he. We’d both had had a long spring.
He asked about Dad every day, first thing. Did I mention this? Every day as I said goodbye, I told him how much it meant that he had asked. So many people are afraid of crisis, pain, grief, sadness… Oh, how he honoured me by hearing my story.
When Dad had his stroke Mom who lives more than an hour from the city moved temporality into my house to live with Jess & me. Mom hadn’t been to my house, not more than to sit in their van as Dad ran in, in three years. We had squabbled over my trees – out of kindness one day she had had Dad trim them – though the squabble ran deeper and taller than trees.
Its roots reverberate every time I returned to circle with students; I am a teenager again, unable to find a way to communicate with my Mom. And I so want to share the stories of my experiences with my Mom.
“We inform our encounters by means of activities later obscured by the sediments of rationality… We can only become present to them by reflecting on them” (M. Greene, 1995, p. 73).
I am so similar to both my parents. Navigating a connection with my Mom though has never been easy. As an adult, I hid behind the guise of ‘caring’ for myself, and allowing the space between us to carry forward and the years to tip toe by.
Valleys are real though.
In the evenings as I would return from the hospital my Mom, having spent every day – and every, every day since with Dad – and I would curl up on the end of her bed, sometimes Jess, my daughter, would join us and here, my Mom and I would share stories.
There was hope in the late night shadowy moments on the futon. The compassion I found that was most profoundly needed was for a sense of rootedness, with my Mom, with my family and within me.
In June Dad moved into long term care, closer to Mom, but an hour away, and Mom moved back home.
I took time one afternoon to work in my yard. I discovered that sometime during the previous two months the neighbours had cut down one of my pine trees.
Sigh. I stood on my back deck a long time. I felt betrayed. I felt lost.
Then I asked “How important is it?” & “How do I feel about me?”
I still live here. And Here is Home.
Then, I mowed our front boulevard.
When the student who smiled at me was charged and sentenced, I shared with staff the stories of compassion that I had felt from him: asking after my Dad, attending to my stories, the hugs and tears when he had returned to us months before.
And this is what I am writing to him now. Oh, and that I miss him.
And maybe this too; when I was his age and I had gotten into trouble, my Dad would take me for long walks. He would stop at every plant and share stories. I’d taste rose hips and smell sage. I would sit for long moments on the prairie, listening to the wind. I used to find this mind-numbing. Now I know that I’ve taken every group of kids I’ve ever taught hiking, listing to wind.
My Dad would say there’s a teaching there. If I’m really listening, if I’m really attending, so would my Mom. Or maybe, it’s the trees.
This week I’ve been taking my ELA accreditation. I came in expecting to be challenged. I also came in uncertain what we’d actually be doing.
I’m moving schools in the fall. This week, Miranda, the senior Math/Science teacher, is taking her accreditation as well. This morning we had an activity to plan an inquiry unit – Yah, I know. The idea is a bit ridiculous since we don’t have learners with which to pull the big idea, ask them what is important to them, wonder about what they might want to discover – that took us an hour. Miranda and I went together deliberately. We aren’t just colleagues, we are friends. We have had every prep together over the past two years and often we’d meet and game-plan how best to meet the needs of our students. What these meetings were was a support session to get us on the same page as the high school team. What these meetings were not was a gossip and pity party session where we said negative things about kids and families.
With my move, Miranda and I are saddened and stressed over how we will do-what-we-do without being able to have our weekly check-ins for kids, for our methodological, our pedigocial and our philisophical needs, and for the climate of care in our spaces.
So today, we chatted with the two other educators in our group during the planned activity as we talked through an interdisciplinary inquiry piece.
And it was fun!
I liked that in forty minutes we had something that each one of us wanted to do, and to learn about. Right then! One member of our group said, “I’m so glad we did this. It’s just simple, and maybe it’s not true inquiry but I finally know where to begin.”
That’s big stuff. Important stuff for kids.
How come we don’t do often do activities like this at division PD meetings?
Afterwards it was lunch. Miranda and I sat in the sun and, just as we had done almost every time we are together, talked about teaching and learning. Though today, we talked about ‘what if?’
And interdisciplinary inquiry based learning.
Miranda and I loathe the winter concert. We are required to have our kids participate. On the positive side, it is a month when we work together, though not really team teaching. We lose almost a month of learning; we lose a month of engagement. Let’s be honest, this is true.
In the end, the product is beautiful but the process is painful. Arg! This is the exact opposite of everything I believe and hope for learning to be.
Heck, I don’t even care about a product.
I just want to know that the kids are learning and wondering and discovering and thinking of news ways to learn and to wonder and to discover with their learning. Product is an end. Learning isn’t finite.
At some point, Miranda and I asked ourselves why we didn’t try teaching collaboratively last year. We could have chunked inquiry units into three hour blocks – she’s Math and Science in the time table, and I’ve ELA. The kids could have transitioned between us, deciding where they wanted to be. Deciding just as they do most mornings. They do this anyway. This is why Miranda and I check in; some kids work best with me, others with her. It’s just the way.
Then we began to go back to the inquiry unit from the morning. We began to invision our kids living that inquiry process in our school space, in our common classroom spaces. We kept talking about kids. And then I said, “What if we had done this with the 9s & 10s too? What is it about inquiry that really pushes us? Challenges?”
We’d possibly need time for the division mandated initiatives. Between us, we’d need time for assessment. Easy. We could send a message to the other person to arrange a time to keep a specific group(s) of kids in a space for specific work. We could work in teams with sets of kids. If I or the kids need or want whole group read alouds, for example, we can just set that up. Be flexible. We just kept thinking it could not be more planning than what we did last year.
So why didn’t we change our instruction with the high school kids towards using a team interdisciplinary inquiry model?
Miranda admitted she had been worried about the departmental exams, about covering content. Won’t it be nice to be able to discover the content in a meaningful way, in ways that fit the needs of our kids because that horrid unrelated assessment won’t be looming at the end? Is it possible not to teach, in some way, to that kind of assessment? (If you missed my sarcasm that was redundant)
I didn’t approach Miranda because I was busy, ‘in closed-door-mode’ with a mammoth near yearlong inquiry project with the 6, 7 & 8 students. And I was busy with grad classes too.
We both agreed. The reason we didn’t change, we just didn’t think to ask.
In many of our undergrad courses, we would take three months to plan units that never saw the light of day in our living learning spaces. Today, sitting in circle, in 40 minutes, the four of us as learners, storied our ways of knowing into a beautiful interdisciplinary discovery unit.
Much has changed.
And we need to be reminded to keep it simple.
We need to remember that we are good educators. We need to remember we are busy educators.
So what now?
I can’t go back to my former school. And I like my new school. Change is difficult. I need to begin with big ideas. I need to sit down with my new colleagues and say, “I have this idea. I’d like to try to team teach using an inquiry based learning.”
I don’t know where we are going. I don’t know how we’ll assess it. But I trust my staff and my administrators.
I trust the process. I trust it will be messy and take time.
I trust that we’ll figure it out.
Miranda looked at me, ‘Do you think the new teacher will want to team teach?”
What a great question!
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).
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.
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?”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?