Connecting Through Story

“Story is the basic unit of human understanding.”

– Drew Dudley, Day One Leadership.

We have been learning through story for thousands of years.  Our innate fascination for wanting to know what happens is an undeniable trait of humanity.

Yet, in spite of what we know about story as a fundamental building block for learning, we have all witnessed how the common core has advocated a narrower focus on story in general.  I can remember when drafts of the common core state standards began to surface, and there was much talk about the need for students and teachers to do less narrative writing.  In common core workshops, presenters lauded the notion that devaluing narrative writing was going to be the key to our students’ success.  “When do kids ever need to write narratives, anyway?” the presenters would rhetorically ask droves of nodding educators.  But just before, and certainly after, the standards were adopted, I also remember finding it strangely curious that in school staff rooms (even during the lunches of those very workshops I just mentioned!) teachers sat around mostly telling..well, stories; stories about their lives, their students, their families, their children, their experiences. About things that mattered to them.

Dr. Thomas Newkirk from the University of New Hampshire wrote an article in March 2012 entitled, “How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction” (if you have not read this, I highly recommend it).  In this article, Dr. Newkirk maintains that it is through narrative elements that we humans actually learn. In other words, it is within the context of story that we make sense of our world. And it was Lucy Calkins, Director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, who once said, “The stories we tell will have everything to do with how effectively we can convey what we want our kids to learn.  They make goals come alive.”

So, understanding the undeniable power of story, we writing workshop teachers might consider one place we can harness this power.  One of those places is the “Connection” in our minilesson.

During the Connection portion of the lesson, those initial few minutes after our students have settled into the meeting area, many of us of know that this is the time when we strive to accomplish a few important things: we work to situate today’s learning within the scope of the larger work of the unit.  We literally try to “connect” today’s writing strategy to yesterday’s work, as well as the spirit of all previous lessons from the current unit, and perhaps even to future lessons and writing work.  This is the few minutes we take, before the demonstration or inquiry we are about to set up for our young writers, to engage our learners.

While this is maybe the “official” role of the Connection, I also like to think of this precious time in a different, perhaps more three-dimensional way; while working to connect today’s lesson to other student learning, these few minutes are a time to create a connection with my students themselves.

And I do this through story.

The more you know someone, the more you are able to care about them.  So I use the Connection time of a minilesson to let kids know me more.  Because when kids care about you, their teacher, they try harder.  They bring more of who they are to their writing work.  They take more risks. They try stuff on.  They conceptualize things differently or in a new way. They give themselves permission to show more of who they are in their writing. My experience as a writing teacher has consistently shown this to be true.

When I think about what stories will be helpful in my teaching, I typically aim for stories that show something about who I am as a person.  Usually, these anecdotes about me are about times when I was around the age of my students (which is important), but not always.  Kids need to know that we adults struggle and have struggled in life, too.  Just like they do now.  Being human is not always easy, right?  And so, since I know as a reader it is often within the trouble or conflict of a story that a reader can detect a possible theme, I’ll often apply that concept to the teaching of writing.  I’ll share a struggle I have dealt with, or perhaps a time when I overcame something personally.  These stories are usually imbued with intentional meaning, and can oftentimes easily be connected with a teaching point.  For example, let’s say I am launching some informational writing with middle schoolers…

    • “Writers, one day when I was around your age, my friend Jason came over.  It was the first day of trout season, so he wanted to go fishing– fly fishing, in fact.  Now, I had never been fly fishing before.  But I used to go angling (a different kind of fishing) with my grandfather when I was in middle school, then later with my buddy Matt.  As Jason and I headed out to the river, I felt a little nervous.  Fly fishing had always looked difficult, and I wasn’t convinced I would be able to do it.  As we reached the bank of the river, I started trying this new way of fishing.  And I’ll tell you, at first it was not easy- even with help from my friend! But then, I suddenly thought back to the times- all the many times- I had gone fishing with a regular trout rod.  I remembered some of those techniques and skills I already knew…and I mentally brought everything I already knew about fishing to this new type of fishing.  I’m telling you this because writers do this, too.  As we sit down to write- perhaps something that feels new- we often bring everything we already know with us to the paper (or computer).  Often, it pays off to begin writing what we know.  So, today I want to teach you that to generate possible ideas for information writing, writers often begin with what we know, and we bring everything we know about good writing with us as we get started.  Let me show you what I mean…

I know the stories I tell help to bring me closer to students.  And those stories become touchstones we can then all lean on as a writing community, much the way read aloud texts function in the reading workshop.

If you are reading this in May, you know very well the end of the year is close.  So let’s consider ways we might gather fresh stories over the summer months.   Walk with a notebook.  Take it with you on vacation.  Keep it handy.  Don’t forget about yourself and your own teacher-as-writer life.  It’s important.  Your stories matter. They are how we connect to each other as humans. Remember, your stories will have everything to do with how effectively you connect with your students next year.

NOTE:  For supporting students in their summer writing lives, don’t forget to check out the TWT blog series, chock full of great ideas (click here).