Stories as Community

I come from a long line of great storytellers. It started with my grandfather. Some of the best stories he actually wrote to me in letters while I was at camp.  Stories about the snake that had invaded our play schoolhouse in his yard and how he had tricked it with magic snake dust and was laughing hysterically as he watched that snake cough it’s way down the street never to return.  I still smile at this image.

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A letter from Grandpa

Then there is my father.  I remember it was as if everything in the room would just stop should he begin to tell a story.  You see he doled these stories out like little crumbs.  They were told so infrequently that when they did come you knew it was time to stop and listen.  He tells stories with the greatest sense of anticipation.  It is like he takes you on this wonderful ride and you go through every up and down and turn with him word by word.   It’s funny, but now that he has gotten older, he falls into his storytelling mode daily.  He loves telling them and although you may have just heard it the day before, you still want to listen as it is in the telling that you find great joy.  And he knows this and so he prefaces each story with, “I may have already told you this but…” and he tells it again.

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Dad

Then there is my sister.  She can take any mundane daily activity, like feeding her chickens and turn it into a tale.  Honestly, I am always amazed at how she can take anything and make it fascinating.  I always think she is truly living life like nobody else I know for in the retelling of her days there are countless short stories and anecdotes.  And I wonder, is she crafting these stories as she is living them or does that come after the fact?  Imagine living as if each move that you make is one to be retold in a story later.  Everybody loves to be with Lisa because of her great energy and ability to find the humor is EVERYthing!

There are days she and I will be out in the woods hiking or on the ski lift and her narratives unwind one after the other.  Even better is after she has a couple glasses of wine and the stories flow right along with it.  Together we often rebound off of each other with our stories and we entertain ourselves endlessly.  My Dad always says we sound like a bunch of old hens cackling away.  We tickle ourselves with our tales and then go on to the next one.  We amuse each other.

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Tomasen and Lisa Hiking

Then there are the family legends.  You know, those stories that start out simply and then grow and grow with each telling.  One of the classics is from the summer of 1978, a brutally hot summer when my parents decided we would take one of our only family vacations.  Visions of amusement parks, Disney and swimming pools danced in our heads as we all went running to our rooms to get ready  for the 3 am departure to none other than, Newfoundland.  Yes, 3 kids under the age of 15 all crammed into the green, side paneled Pontiac station wagon for a two week, 4,000-mile road trip to Newfoundland and yes, even a lovely Atlantic crossing over to Labrador.  There are so many stories from this one vacation from it being the first time I ever hearing my Dad “swear” telling us kids in the back that all we did was eat, fight and fart, to the hotel room with the one bare light bulb, bed bugs, drunkards wandering around and the beach front where we played amongst the jellyfish and broken glass for hours.

Then there is my brother who is also a master of words.  He can spin a yarn and sell anyone just about anything.  He is masterful with his superlatives and relentless in his enthusiasm.  His stories are often filled with small bits of information that nobody knows.  As my Dad says, he knows more about everything than I know about even one thing.  He too can keep you entertained and on the edge of your seat for hours.

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Tomasen and Jamie

Stories provide us with a sense of belonging to something that is bigger than ourselves and each time one of these comes up there is an energy that surrounds them.  We all laugh as the telling begins and those who have married into the family often find the need to leave as once we get going there is no stopping us.  They exit the room saying, “Here we go again, the one bare light bulb and the drunks in Labrador stories…”

Then there are the stories that were told at Jimmy’s celebration of life last weekend.  Jimmy, 23 years old passed away from Ewing’s Sarcoma on March 16th.  (See previous post)  In lieu of a funeral his family organized a service of stories.  One after the other were people who took the stage and told of a boy, a man, a son, a brother with the biggest heart of anyone I have ever known.  It was not just a rambling of how wonderful Jimmy was…you know the words that anyone could say about anyone, but detailed stories that I find I play over and over in my mind.  Stories that punctuated who he was and what he believed in.

And then I meet with a group of teachers and they tell me that they do not have room in their schedules for read aloud anymore.  And my heart sinks and aches for all of those stories that will not be told, read, discussed and written.  For some kids these will be the only stories they will hear. There is scientific research in the area of stories and how those enrich and actually activate our brains in ways that we don’t even know.”

See here for Your Brain on Fiction, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html?pagewanted=all%3Fsrc%3Dtp&smid=fb-share&_r=0It states, “By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains”

See Vicki Vinton’s latest post here to see what is happening and the kinds of texts 3rd graders are being asked to navigate independently, and all this without daily practice with stories. http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/.  This post speaks about what so many of us are so heartbroken over.

And in the end, I ask, what stories will be told after we are gone?  They will not be stories of the scores we got on what tests, or the achievements we made or the trophies we accumulated.   They will be the stories of connection and what made us unique and individual, the stories that demonstrate how we were part of something larger in this world, how we touched others, the humorous stories, and how we integrated ourselves independently into a larger sense of the world.  Those are the stories that will live on.

So how do we change the narratives that are being played out in our schools?  In another article, The Stories That Bind Us, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0,

Bruce Fieler states,

“The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.”  He goes on to say, “ The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”

And this idea of narrative is taken even further as corporations work to develop community.  Developing community is one of the hallmarks  of a great teacher.  Time in the beginning of each year used to be devoted to creating these communities and creating the narratives where each student became a part of a larger story.  These days, there is no time to create community because there is testing in October so often Community building is replaced with test prep.

We are only as good as our stories and I am finding myself feeling almost embarrassed on some level to claim that I am in education, that I believe in the right to a fair and equal public educational system for all when this system has taken on a life of its own and missing is any sense of story that I would ever want to be a part of.  It is the story of money and corporate power.  And so we must work together to re-write this narrative into one where each character matters and has a part in the larger story, because the alternative is a sterile ground with words on a page that nobody wants to read.

And it begins like this…Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to go to school everyday to see classmates, to discover new ideas, to create, to sing, to play, to explore, to inquire, to wonder, to read and write and be a part of her larger school community…

One story at a time…

16 thoughts on “Stories as Community

  1. Tomasen,
    Where to start!
    First of all, this was so beautifully written, so much in your own storytelling style! I could truly hear your voice. I am the daughter of a storyteller and I married one, I so completely appreciate this perspective.
    “Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to go to school everyday to see classmates, to discover new ideas, to create, to sing, to play, to explore, to inquire, to wonder, to read and write and be a part of her larger school community…”

    This is an awesome beginning, and I actually gained a visualization of many of my own students…it also caused me to think of Tony’s recent post http://tonybaldasaro.com/2013/03/25/curating-for-the-new-elite/ (off of Seth Godin’s recent post)…

    Regardless, I think the biggest problem with this new story is that the wrong people are writing it! If you don’t like an author- of novels, non-fiction articles, movie scripts…do you keep choosing to read that author? NO! So why do the “powers that be” keep trying to author this story! They are not good at it- we know it and so many know it, but they cannot accept it. They will make money whether they do it well or not, so why not give it a try, they must think?

    I will never understand why teachers aren’t writing this story. Maybe it’s because of time or the fear of going to the other side, “the dark side”. And I am so motivated by the ideas floating around of “teacher-preneurs” who are half in classrooms half out, working to write policy. Unfortunately, people are so high-strung about how teachers “should” spend their time that they aren’t willing to try.

    While it may mean leaving the classroom, more teachers possibly need to take a deep breath and take the plunge to “the other side”. It’s possibly the only way that this story will be well-written.

  2. Thank you for this!! And your comment, Jaclyn. We definitely need to tell the stories. If you see this Thomasen, comments for your new post are not working. I loved it!!! Oh yes to POETRY and puppets and joy!!! Do you follow any of the Kidslitosphere blogs for National Poetry Month? Have you been to Renee’s NoWaterRiver or A Penny and her Jots or Laura Purdie Salas? I bet you would love them. There are more great resources for teachers out there for poetry especially. Like Linda at Teacher Dance. Do you know Janet Wong’s and Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry Friday Anthology books? They are terrific. Love that you are spreading your ideas to teachers!! Lucky them and so glad I found you through Amy LV’s blog!!

  3. Thanks for writing this! I wish I could have been with you all telling stories, but I am glad not to have traveled 4,000 with 3 kids!! I did travel with my parents down the Al-Can highway from Anchorage, Alaska to South Carolina. This was in the 1950’s…before it was paved!! I was trapped in the front seat next to my mother, and I did not want to leave Alaska. I was not the most pleasant traveling companion! But it was a great story for Memoir Class!!

  4. I left reading this post with a lump in my throat. I’m also sad about the narrative I find myself in after decades of teaching. I feel like an outlier in an educational system that I don’t recognize anymore. How did we get here? How do we challenge the academic routines that have become so strong because leaders are scared- scared of losing funding, scared of being taken to task by (sometimes uninformed) school boards wielding budgets that are underfunded? I ache for kids. They need stories. Thanks for sharing the research to back this idea up. Thanks to all who continue to tell, write, read, and share stories.

    • I hear you and completely agree. I also think this pandemic, this pause in education will allow us openings for a reset. We are going to HAVE to take care of our kids and teachers if they return to school and that means honoring and hearing their stories. We are ripe for change and this is the time!
      I read an article today about reopening schools (you can find it on our FB page) by the Atlantic and what is never addressed is the anxiety, fear and trauma those will have to deal with as they return. Once again, the perfect space for change.

  5. This post gave me goosebumps at the end! I loved reading it for so many reasons. Your family stories made me think of my family stories. Memories of, Barney, the hiker my mother picked up on the side of the road and brought home for the night. She “felt sorry for him” because it was raining out.” Just imagine doing that today, with three young girls in the house! That was my mother! She felt sorry for everyone and was a helper and a fixer. How about the time my brother was peeing out his upstairs bedroom window because he was too lazy to walk across the hall to the bathroom!? My mother was leaning out the laundry room window hanging clothes on the pulley line when she felt the first drops on her head and then the rush of warm liquid! Needless to say, my brother didn’t try that again! These are just a taste of our family stories; I too, could go on and on. I don’t know what I would do without them. My stories are who I am.

    In kindergarten our writing experiences begin right away. Children bring in treasured family photos for our Family Board. We all bring in “All About Me” bags to help us tell the story if us. Students bring in pictures of their pets, family, mementos and more to tell us all about themselves. After this we create heart maps and then use them to tell more stories about us. By the time children first begin to put the pen to paper, they have had lots of practice telling the stories in their head. After all, that’s what writing is! Putting the stories, we already have in our head on paper.

    I am also saddened that as children move into the higher grades, they don’t have as much time for read aloud. Reading Dr. Oatley’s article about what happens to our brains on fiction only reinforced how important it is for me to read to my students daily. These stories help us understand how to get along in the world, how to make meaning of what we see and what we hear and how to solve the complexities of life. I would invite anyone to come into our classroom and listen to the conversations we have after a great read aloud. Five and six-year-old children have a lot to say as they talk about life and how to navigate our world!

    • Francesca,
      I love what you do with your kindergarteners! I think it’s so important to celebrate students in the classroom, and identity work is a wonderful way to create a sense of community for students!!

  6. The line that reads, “what stories will be told after we are gone?” hit me the hardest. I often think about stories when I think about wedding vows and eulogies (deeply different but somewhat similar, if you think about it). And I don’t say that to criticize the words shared at ether event, because obviously, each are complicated and heart-wrenching in their own right. What I mean is that I think about how many spouses have vowed to “be loyal and supportive,” but don’t tell stories about times their partner has shown that unconditional level of love; I think about how many people who have passed on, and how they were praised for their ability to light up a room, but a story isn’t always shared about what that looked like for that person. It’s about the specific examples, isn’t it? (Which is something any student of mine will roll their eyes at because I’ve said it so many times). It’s about the story. It’s about realizing how your partner might massage your back even when theirs is just as sore, and centering a story around moments like that to showcase their fierce love for you. For me, it’s about remembering how my grandfather would always pat my shoulder lovingly, and how I later realized that my father actually does the same thing, but that I never really noticed until my grandfather had passed away; it’s about telling stories that intertwine both of those sentiments to illustrate how people in my family show their love. Kids, of all ages, need to hear stories so that they can prioritize them in their own lives, and imagine the ones they want to tell, the ones they want to be remembered for. I teach high school, and I’ll never stop telling my kids that no one is too old for story time. (I should also note that I say this in a sing-song voice, sometimes as I do a quick dance move, so hopefully when they tell the story of having me as a teacher, they’ll have plenty of specific-to-me details to include).

  7. I loved hearing your family stories and making connections to my own family narrative as well–especially the part where the married-in newcomers are like, “here we go again!” I can definitely relate. When you question what stories will not be told, I think of the fact that we simply cannot share every story worth sharing with our students because there is simply not enough time. I am reminded of the line from Hamilton: “But when you’re gone who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame, Who tells your story?” You’re right–the stories that live on won’t be about test scores or trophies, unless those moments happen to be permeated by something that was worth remembering (like the time a rat ran right through my classroom during a high school biology final and distracted everyone to the point where my teacher just ended the test then!) And there are also the stories that do not get told because we filter them out for whatever reason that may be. I had read a story by David Sedaris where he talks of being at a friend’s house for Easter dinner, and when he excuses himself to use the restroom, he finds that the person before him did not flush…and then it wouldn’t flush. He spends the whole story trying to get out of this predicament. In short, it is a bathroom humor story. But I thought it was hilarious and also full of such great writing moves that I wanted to share it with my students. And for a while, I didn’t. I was afraid it would be inappropriate or that they would think I’m unprofessional. I also didn’t want students going home to their parents and sharing what we read that day… And then I did something bold–I shared it. I couldn’t bring myself to read it aloud, but I left them to quietly read it on their own. A few moments in, the uncertain giggles began. Quietly at first, and then louder and more frequently. Kids looked around who hadn’t gotten to the funny parts yet wondering what was in store. By the end, the entire class was laughing. They couldn’t believe that I had shared that story with them, and they also couldn’t believe that someone was allowed to write such a thing. At the end of the year, many of them remember that experience as not only a great story, a great writing lesson, but also a moment of classroom community. We were building our own “family narrative.”

    • Melissa—- I love the Guys Write for Guys Read books!! Such great stories for students to hear! I have read the same from David Sedaris in my classroom before, and the kids love it every time! This ties in well to the blog post we read about bringing humor to the classroom. I think this is a great way to build your classroom community/narrative.

  8. Tomasen, what a powerful piece of writing this is! I loved hearing all about your family stories and trying to remember stories that my family has told as well. I’m struck by the fact that your family members all tell great stories, but they are different kinds of story tellers.

    When you mentioned teachers saying they don’t have time for read aloud in their classroom, I thought of my own experiences as a child. My most vivid memories of stories involve my mom and I curled up in bed as she read aloud to me. It upsets me that read aloud is often the first to go in middle and high school classrooms. Kids need to hear stories read aloud. They also need us to tell our own stories so they see us as people (and not just their crazy teachers who have no lives and live at school).

    I remember as a student being told never to use “I” in a persuasive essay. Students need to have a personal connection to their writing pieces! I think about Tom Newkirk’s Minds Made for Stories. Narrative is at the core of every type of writing.

    As I go back into my classroom this fall, I need to remember how much value there is in devoting lots of time to sharing stories (even when it feels like there are more “important” things to do).

  9. When we’re gone, people will tell “stories of connection and what made us unique and individual, the stories that demonstrate how we were part of something larger in this world, how we touched others, the humorous stories, and how we integrated ourselves independently into a larger sense of the world. Those are the stories that will live on.”

    Yes. Yes. 1000% Yes. This is the truth. Connection is what we live for in this world.

    My heart also breaks for the kiddos who haven’t had that chance to create that connection with their families through stories. I, like Kim, am also impressed how each of your family members has a knack for narrative! That’s so wonderful to be surrounded by stories!

    As for stories in the classroom, I feel fortunate. I start the year with personal narratives. We read so many 1-2 page personal memoirs from the Guys Write for Guys Read series, as well as a selection from various sources, and then we practice telling our own stories to each other. After students have polished a personal narrative in writing, we take at least three full class periods for each student to read them aloud to the class.

    We also use class time to share weekend stories, and we now create Flipgrid check-ins and perform our poetry online since we’ve been apart during quarantine. To be honest, I don’t have time for test prep! But it is the truth that it is rare for teachers to have this freedom (I think especially elementary teachers who are forced to run specific reading and writing programs in their classrooms). I’m am lucky to be have the flexibility to approach the standards however I like… and sometimes… I don’t even get to them all. Every class– every student— needs that connection. And THAT is my priority.

    I’m not sure if learning can really happen without it…

  10. The picture you painted of your family of storytellers easily lured me into a false sense of security. You wrapped me in a cozy blanket of memories only to rip it off and slap me with cold reality. Why? Lol.
    While you were describing yours, I couldn’t help but think about MY family and our family stories. Images of my family sitting around the table went through my mind and I could hear the distinct laughter of my dad and his sister. I am certainly missing family this summer.
    The power of storytelling is undeniable. And there is no refuting your claim of the injustice of denying children their right to the cognitive benefits and endless pleasures of story.
    I connect with your sense of embarrassment of being in education. I have been thinking more and more about how the institution of education is oppressive and harmful to children and my role in perpetuating it. I don’t have any answers, but I do want to keep these tensions and their roots at the forefront of my thoughts and the decisions I make in my classroom and at my school, and critically examine the power and influence I have.

    • You say, “I do want to keep these tensions and their roots at the forefront of my thoughts and the decisions I make in my classroom and at my school, and critically examine the power and influence I have.” and I hope this makes it onto your intentions page. I am right there with you! Have you read We Got This by Cornelius Minor? Definitely worth the time if you can spare it. He digs into the colonization of education and how we are part and parcel of that system.
      I know it is SUCH a different summer. Loved seeing your waterside Image dreaming of summers past. SO glad you are “here” with us! Thank you for your thoughtful response!

  11. Community, community, community! This is a HUGE part of cultivating classroom energy and I think you bring really great ideas to the table about telling stories to create that community. In my own work in undergrad, a lot of my focus in research was about how to create a classroom community and something that sticks out to me is bringing in your own personal life and stories into the classroom. Stories can really help kids engage and want to listen and this is a great strategy to build community even though we are remote. Creating a community is STILL possible even during a pandemic and I think that is really powerful.

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