Why I Begin With Stories

Ice breakers. Cold starters to awkwardly edge a group of strangers toward conversation with the eventual goal of building a semblance of community of learners and collaborators. As educators we’ve all been subjected to our fair share of ice breakers during numerous kickoffs of a variety of professional development workshops, and we’ve subjected our students to them time and time again, for no better reason than “that’s just the way things are done.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of the same criminal activity—very, very guilty. And I will say this in defense of ice breakers: the tone of the classroom is markedly different when you don’t use them; they certainly have their place and can be useful for initiating interaction among strangers and can, in fact, lead to classrooms that become tight-knit communities—even if they are cringe-worthy and hokey. BUT, I started thinking, what if there’s a better way? What if I can effectively “break the ice” without the goofy, eye-roll-inducing activity that everyone begrudgingly takes part in?

Now, admittedly, I didn’t jump straight from traditional-style ice breakers to just telling stories; there was a half step I took (and clung to for a few semesters) that combined ice breakers and storytelling, which you can read about here: https://wvcte.com/2018/08/13/film-cannister-ice-breaker/. This is still a great activity, and will work wonders for anyone in need of that half step, like I was.

This semester, though, I thought, what would happen if I ditched the activity portion and just went straight to telling stories? I mean, what could be the worst thing that could happen, really? Turns out, actually, something pretty amazing happened, and it has forever changed my first-day-of-class routine.

I begin with stories because it is familiar territory for students; it’s a text they are the sole author of—they are the authority. The story and its telling belong to the student. Telling personal stories blurs the line between “student” and “person,” bringing the reality of the student into the classroom. More than that, the teacher is inviting the person into the room, encouraging students to share who they truly are with the teacher. And in doing so, it dissolves the barrier between the classroom and the real world. It says to students: your life, your experiences, your home, your culture—everything about you and what makes you you is important, valid, interesting, worthwhile, a resource even—a place to begin, to expand on. It is the teacher telling the student I see you and you are important; you have a place in this classroom and in the curriculum, and your voice has a space here; you have stories worth telling and worth listening to.

In short, it makes students realize they are more than a student to us; they are people. And people we care about. It creates a stronger bond with teachers and a sense of trust that comes with allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to share and be received. Together, we learn to listen to one another; to see each other in deeper, more genuine ways; to laugh with one another; to ask hard, important, probing questions in order to challenge one another to go further and do better; to care for and support those who unburden themselves of the darker, heavier stories they’ve carried through the door. We cross back over the threshold closer than when we arrived.

Stories open doors for us to build relationships. And relationships are absolutely crucial to powerful and impassioned writing. Relationships encourage us to take risks, leaps of faith. As adults, when we feel comfortable and safe sharing our work, we are more likely to experiment, to try new things, get weird, get funky, get into territory we don’t know yet. The same is true for the young minds that fill the chairs in our classrooms. We have to create and nurture an environment that makes stepping into the unknown safe, an environment in which it is ok to try and fail, as long as you keep on trying. Telling stories and building relationships through storytelling allows us to do that.

Stories also help to humanize teachers, to lower us from the pedestal of the ivory tower and place us among our students, where we find solidarity in our humanity as “just people.” Because I don’t just listen, I tell too. I write with my students and share stories—each time I ask them to reveal part of themselves, I am revealing too. I take the same risks I’m asking them to take. I get funky, and I get weird. I tell them about the time I accidentally locked my brother in the trunk of a car (which started out as a practical joke he was complicit in) and thought he was going to suffocate and I would go to jail for murder. And the time I was in first grade and stole an obscene amount of books from a scholastic book fair, because I just had to have them but was too poor to buy anything. And plenty of others. I sit on level with them in a circle, and we become “just storytellers.”

Before I began starting the semester with telling stories, when it came time to write, students would dutifully churn our the obligatory response to an assignment. It was there, and the writing wasn’t even bad, really, but it wasn’t genuine either. It lacked voice and personality and passion, and it fell flat. It felt like something essential was missing. Because it was.

Now, though, things are much different. We don’t just use stories in place of ice breakers, we collect them, spending weeks pouring out all our stories and harvesting them as potential writing material. With our notebooks fat with stories and a close-knit community of storytellers turned writers, we enter into our first project-based writing cycle. Projects are more authentic, more varied and unique. You can sense the essence of the student in the piece, hear their voice. Products are just as varied and authentic as the content taken up: blogs and vlogs, narratives, graphic novels, argumentative essays, video series, digital artwork, etc. Students delve into their passions, into what interests them, and they do so with little reserve, excited to share with the class community and beyond.

But none of this would be possible—the depth, sincerity, authenticity of these projects—without first beginning with stories, from which all things flow.

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