I’m Paula Davidoff and I have a school story to tell.
Every Thursday evening, I co-direct a troupe of teenage girls who tell their own stories through writing and performance. The troupe is called Girls Surviving, a named coined by one of our first troupe members as a comment on the one-day-at-a-time nature of a girl’s journey into womanhood. In our weekly workshops, the girls listen to traditional stories, read poems and plays, and talk about their own life experiences as a prerequisite to writing an original, multi-genre performance piece which they present to a community audience.
We always begin each session with a ‘check in’ – a time for each person to catch the rest of the troupe up on what’s happened to her since our last meeting. This week, one of girls, I’ll call her Tanya, told a story about her ongoing persecution by a teacher. Before she could finish, two of the other girls who were in the same class interrupted her.
“You should just keep your mouth shut in that class, girl!” said one.
“I don’t know why you talk to Ms. (teacher) like that,” added the other.
As the girls began to discuss the incident, it seemed clear that Tanya’s perception of what was happening with the teacher was in conflict with the perceptions of her classmates. When we completed the check-in, my co-director, Carolyn Hunt, who is a skilled director of Playback Theater, suggested that the girls act out the scene between Tanya and the teacher. In accordance with Playback protocol, she asked Tanya to select actresses to represent herself, the teacher, and some other students in the class. Then, with Tanya’s help, Carolyn set up the scene and directed the actresses. As the scene played out, it became clear to the adults in the room that the real-life teacher had very little control of the class, that rather than being a model for how she wanted students to act, her behavior was a reaction to the way the students behaved. It seemed equally clear that the girls, those who had actually witnessed the events and those who had not, weren’t aware of this. The idea that an adult, especially one in a position of authority, might feel fragile or uncertain seemed alien to them. Tanya’s defensive and, frankly, obnoxious behavior toward the teacher was based on the assumption that the teacher was scheming to humiliate her when it seemed to us that the teacher was just trying to survive a class of bored and unruly students.
At this point, anyone reading this entry might comment extensively on what’s wrong with this classroom dynamic, including problems with the child’s home, the teacher’s training, and the school administration’s approach to discipline, but that’s not what I want to address. I want to think about communication, specifically communication in the classroom.
In many, if not most, of the communities in this country, our school populations have become more socially, ethnically, and economically diverse. This diversity is overlaid on the cultural differences we expect to find from one household to another, regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. These unique differences in our students, as well as the differences between students and teachers, create obstacles to communication. The obstacles may range from the obvious problems of the student who has the immense task of trying to communicate in a new language, to the hidden problems of the child who is trying to unravel the subtle differences between the expectations of his mother and his teacher. Students and teachers come to the classroom with widely different and disconnected bases of prior knowledge, as well as prejudices, fears, and misconceptions about each other that can make teaching and learning impossible. In order to engage in meaningful educational discourse, we need to find a non-threatening common ground for making the gaps in knowledge transparent, and for acknowledging and discussing fears and misconceptions. Storytelling can create this common ground, this “third space” to accommodate the culture of school and the diverse cultures of our homes and neighborhoods.
Storytelling offers an approach to text that is different from the more conventional classroom reading practices of silent reading, group reading, and teacher read-alouds. Like a read-aloud, storytelling is social, but because the teller is always in eye-contact with the audience, the interaction between the audience and the text is more immediate and intimate. Audience members respond to the teller’s facial expressions and gestures as well as to her words as she embodies characters, represents landscape, indicates the boundaries of the settings, and provides a visual association for the voice of the narrator. The audience reads the teller’s visual presentation as an integral part of the story’s meaning. These non-verbal indicators help to clarify meaning for students who may not know the meaning of a word or understand its connotation. They also add emotional resonance that aids comprehension.
The multi-modal aspect of storytelling bridges gaps in student knowledge as it sets parameters for acceptable verbal and non-verbal communication. The teller’s dynamic interaction with the audience lets her know immediately whether or not students are comprehending the text. When she sees a puzzled look, she can clarify for the listener on the spot, with a movement or reiteration. Because she is watching the students’ faces, she can also assess and monitor student engagement throughout the telling. The teacher-as-storyteller makes herself more accessible to students by stepping out of her teacher persona and embodying other, familiar characters: siblings, fools, and bullies; moms, queens, and witches; dads, kings, and giants. Children recognize the characters and events in stories and connect them to their own life experiences. In this way the stories provide the classroom community with common metaphors for the real conflicts and celebrations children experience, both in and out of school.
Stories lead to the kinds of conversations that engender learning because they give us glimpses into the inner and outer lives of people we, otherwise, see only in the context of the classroom. Stories lead to discussion by posing questions that leave children wondering. They also lead to other stories, the stories of the teacher’s and her students’ experiences. The information and insight we gain from these conversations reveal to us gaps in knowledge, make us aware of fears, and help us understand misconceptions, with respect to ourselves and our students.
It seems naïve to think that Tanya’s teacher could solve her classroom control problems by telling stories. After all, she has curriculum to cover, and she is, in fact, dealing with problems caused by ineffectual parenting, her own poor preparation, and unsupportive administration. However, she is also trying to teach a child whom she hasn’t made an effort to know. Tanya has been a strong, cooperative member of the Girls Surviving troupe for two years. She’s a risk taker, a problem solver, and a good collaborator. I doubt her teacher has ever seen that side of her. She probably has the same kind of misguided opinion about Tanya that Tanya has about her.
I think that sometimes we, as teachers, are so focused on covering curriculum that we spend our time in the classroom talking to students rather than with them. The irony, of course, is that it doesn’t matter how many pages we cover if students aren’t learning, and if students don’t find a reason to become engaged, can’t find some connection to the material or the presenter, they’re not learning. I think that finding time for telling and sharing stories, both personal and traditional, is an investment in student engagement. Stories can humanize the teacher in the eyes of his or her students. And, when we listen to our students’ stories, we began to learn what they know and how they see the world, a element crucial to our ability to teach them.