Archives For storytelling

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Every November the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) gathers for an annual conference.

Last November (2016), emotions were tense…raw. Distressed elementary and intermediate grade teachers muttered about the language and actions of candidates, and how leaders were setting a bad example by engaging in behaviors that would not be tolerated in a classroom.

Frustrated middle and high school teachers grumbled about the inability of their students to judge facts for accuracy, completeness, timeliness, and relevance given the barrage of information coming from social media. College educators were stymied on what adjustments needed to be made to teacher preparation programs.

The 2016 conference was one of collective incredulity.  In response to the brutal political season that polarized the school year, what guidance would this national organization offer?

Sadly, the response from NCTE Conference was inaudible. Hushed.

In representing the profession, one that centers on the ability to confront all forms of text, the leadership provided few words. To be fair, the timing was perhaps too soon, and few in leadership could have anticipated the depth of polarization that had created the divides in schools and classrooms across the nation.

And so, at this year’s (2017) conference the leadership of NCTE needed to make some critical choices.

The name of the conference, “The First Chapter”, was one choice that promised a new beginning.

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Another choice was the location of this conference in St. Louis, Missouri, the city of Michael Brown and the 2014 riots. A city already dealing with large equity gaps in education. According to a study by Washington University in St. Louis, there has been a continued “disparity in St. Louis schools caused by an allocation of resources.”

An article in the WUPR newsletter by Victoria Johnson in March 2016 detailed the ratio of students attending unaccredited schools as 44% black students to 4% percent of white students. Her observation was that:

“Five miles is the difference between receiving one of the best educations in Missouri and attending one of the worst schools in the entire country.”

So far, this latest 2017 NCTE Conference had a promising title, “The First Chapter”.
So far, the conference had a significant setting, St. Louis.

So who would be the characters to move the plot?
Who would address the central conflict?

The writers.
Writers drove the plot of the 2017 conference.
Writers did what writers do best in responding to the rawness, the hurt, the confusion, the rifts, and the arrogance of the past…the past 12 months…still reverbing from the past 12 decades.

The writers speaking at NCTE confronted all conflicts head-on. They did not mince words. They used their outsider lenses that get to the inside of minds.

If they wrote books for students, they spoke about themselves as students.

“We don’t want to lose the boys. Don’t call them reluctant readers.”
Jon Scieszka (Knucklehead, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)

“The cornerstone of culture is language. Don’t tell me my culture is wrong.”
AND “Our fear of discomfort makes us less safe. We need to be less faithful to our fears and more faithful to our future.”

-Jason Reynolds (YA author Ghost, Long Way Down)

If they wrote books for teachers,  the writers spoke about themselves as teachers.

 “When you read fiction, you go into the author’s world. When you read nonfiction, it comes into your world, and you have to decide if you stand with it or stand against it.” AND  “The world is tough. No one taught you how to teach after a gunman has killed people in a church, school, concert…. but the kids are looking at you.”
Kylene Beers (Notice and Note, Reading Nonfiction)

“We aren’t here to raise a score, we are here to raise a human.”
~Lester Laminack (Writers are Readers)

“Community is about diversity. Let’s make listening instruction something that brings people together.”
Lucy Calkins (Reading Units of Study, Writing Units of Study, Pathways to the Common Core)

“We say we teach all children, but do we teach all stories?”
Pernille Ripp (Passionate Readers)


And as storytellers, they chastised teachers into action:

“Now more than ever we live in a time when resistance matters….Teaching to resist. Writing to resist.”
-Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, Locomotion, Another Brooklyn)

“In my book, I don’t shy away from racism and language because that’s what our young people are dealing with. And teachers, I need you not to shy away from it either.”
Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give)

The writers came to the NCTE to share with educators their  process, their craft, and their message that stories teach students to:

Read. Write. Think.*

The writers whispered, they cajoled, they teased, they argued, they humored, and they demanded. They sounded their “barbaric yawp”:

In separate and in panel sessions, the writers inspired…their words both provoked and soothed.

Then we all went back home…to our schools and classrooms…to our students.

So now what?
The NCTE 2017 in St. Louis was “The First Chapter,” and as readers, we already know that a first chapter can deceive. We may not have gotten to the page (as in page 17) when the real reason for the story is revealed.  Moreover, a happy ending is not yet in sight; education is complicated and messy with plot twists.

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For the next chapter (2018), NCTE leadership has selected the title “Raising Student Voice”  and placed the setting in Houston, Texas. Given the havoc created by Hurricane Harvey, this may prove a significant choice as well.
The writers have spoken. Now, let us see what that first chapter really began.
Get ready for the students!

Continue Reading…

College Application Essay topics for 2013-2014 have been posted, and SURPRISE! Every prompt requires a narrative!

storyA recent news release by the Common Application, a non-profit widely used for college admissions by high school seniors at nearly 500 colleges and universities, explains the changes in essay prompts for 2013-14. The option to write about a topic of “your choice” has been dropped; the essay topics are:

  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The irony of this decision should not be lost on anyone who remembers a blunt statement made by David Coleman, the current President of the College Board. In April of 2011 at a NY State Department of Education presentation on the Common Core, Coleman said, “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.”

Well, apparently the College Application Board does care. Their prompts specifically ask college bound students what they feel or what they think. In fact, the College Application Board cares so much that they will allow students to expand their storytelling by an additional 150 words, increasing the word count from 500 to 650.

The decision by the College Application Board really is not that surprising.  on the Buffer blog called attention to research on reaction of the  the human brain to stories. He summarized a number of brain studies that indicate that the best learning comes from storytelling. One study by Uri Hasson from Princeton was published in an article titled “Speaker–Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article discussed how subjects under study create empathetic bonds with listeners by using stories:

“When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized.  When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

College bound seniors should take note of this research when they write; apparently a compelling story can be quite convincing. Luckily, they will have  plenty of practice with the narrative writing genre which is now back in favor with the adoption of the Common Core Literacy Standards. Anchor Writing Standard #3 for grades K-12 reads:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Curiously enough, one of the architects of the Common Core Literacy Standards was David Coleman before he took his position at the College Board.

Now the revised College Application Board form for 2013-14 states: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story”

A word of caution, though. Don’t expect College Board President Coleman to care.