Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tell a Story!

Some years ago I was sent to help a newly-minted upper grade teacher who was struggling to take command of her classroom. Although she was conscientious and industrious, her students tuned her out. She stuck closely to the curriculum just as she had been told.

She bored her students.

In the thousands of ways students can, they let her know how bored they felt, mostly through audible sighing, rolled eyes, and passive-aggressive resistance to everything she wished them to do. Her attempts to coerce her students produced rarefied rebellion, keenly felt and subtly expressed.

Then something happened in the middle of a social studies lesson she had been presenting to the class. She had been reading from a script in the teacher's manual. It had been painful and hard to endure, as if we were all under water, drowning in ennui, gasping for air, and barely able to move through dense space more viscous than water.

Something in the lesson reminded her of an incident from her childhood and she did something for the first time: She told a story from her childhood.

It was an interesting story. Someone had capsized a canoe and almost drowned. In a small way, she had helped in the rescue, even though she had been only a child. Here, at last, she brought something of vital interest to her students. They were transfixed. For the first time in weeks, there was no sign of rebellion, no sighs, no averted eyes. The magic of the moment was obvious, but our poor teacher missed it.

She finished her story with an unnecessary apology, "Well, I know I'm not supposed to go on a tangent like that. Let's get back to work." How sad! She had taken to heart a wrong-headed view that teaching is about sticking to the script in teacher manuals. She had missed a vital reality: teaching is the heart-to-heart transmission of human culture.

She may not have learned from this incident, but I did. From that day I began to tell my kindergarteners stories from my childhood. It's certain to interest the class. Telling genuine stories from your childhood is a good idea not only for teachers, but also for parents.

Tonight's homework is to tell a story from your childhood, partly to honor Mr. Rogers, who were he still with us, would have celebrated his 80th birthday today.

Here is a quotation from this book:

Have you noticed how delighted young children are to hear their parents tell stories of things they did when they were little? Part of that delight comes from shared moments of closeness with a person you love, and part of it comes from hearing that someone you love had the same kinds of feelings you now have, did some of the same things, got dirty, got in trouble, laughed and cried and felt afraid. I’ve heard children say, “Grandpa got mad at Daddy just the way Daddy gets mad at me sometimes.”

Stories of our childhoods tell our children something else: They let our children know, without our even having to put it in words, that being little and vulnerable doesn’t last forever. Just as we grew from babies to children to who we are today, so will they.

—Mister Rogers

Happy Birthday, Mr. Rogers, wherever you are.


James Gurney said...

What a wonderful lesson this is, Dan, about the power of stories. I remember the story of how you encouraged me when I was just eight years old to ride my bike all the way from Los Altos to the Palo Alto boat club, and then showed me how to skipper a sailboat all by myself. It gave me courage to try new things, and I can see that you're giving that gift of encouragement to all your students--and to other teachers as well.

Culmom37 said...

I loved hearing stories about my dad because it always made me feel closer to him. I was so intrigued to learn about the things he did (and didn't do!) and how it made him who he is today. I have to say, however, I was never more captivated than when my grandma and grandpa (dad's parents) would tell their stories. Due to where they lived I was not able to see them as often as I would have liked, but when I was lucky enough to be with them I never wanted to leave.

As a young child I can remember sitting in their Italian retauarant for hours listening to them tell stories. At such a young age I found myself bored and tired of sitting for such long periods of time, but as an adult I cherish what they gave me. I wish I could go back in time and relive every single moment I had with them. dad's stories are the greatest because I not only get to learn more about him, but they always bring me back to my grandparents and I miss them dearly.

Dan Gurney, Mr. Kindergarten said...

Thanks, Jim! I've come to feel that the most powerful teaching of all comes in story form.

And Culmom37, you state so eloquently the power of stories to reach across generations and connect families.