Clowns, Clotheslines, and Stories


Celebrating my Pap-Pap’s 91st birthday at an Altoona steakhouse.

While I was driving back across the state this evening, I listened to this Moth story by comedian Anthony Griffith, and it just about broke my heart.  In the story, Griffith gets a coveted comedy spot on The Tonight Show – just as his toddler daughter is re-diagnosed with cancer.  He finds himself having to maintain a steady, applause-driven clown image at his work, while his world is collapsing around him.  He breaks down, completely, while telling the story – and behind the wheel of my car, so did I.

So many parallels to teaching and learning.  We learn that in order to be an effective teacher, we should keep our personal stories out of the classroom and stay focused on delivering content.  Our students, too, learn that their stories are not welcome – until there is a crisis of some sort that forces subject-based learning to take a back seat.  But meanwhile, the most important stories of our lives – family, health, relationships, connections – go on, too often in the opposite direction of what constitutes our definition of ‘learning.’

There was a tremendous story on narrative in last week’s NYTimes Magazine.  This blog isn’t the place for politics – but I’ll grant myself an allowance tonight, because who is talking about anything else two days before a presidential election?  The essay centers around the importance of narrative in politics and the presidency.  The thesis is that Obama has made many effective policy decisions and changes in his past four years, but these realities don’t amount to much clout or influence without a contagious narrative.  Author Matt Bai cites a metaphor of a clothesline from which a presidential administration should hang its policies – and notes that this administration is missing such a connecting narrative.  He makes the bold assertion:  “Once you’re in office, the story you tell about and to the country isn’t some barely tolerable performance that distracts you from the job of being president. It is, to a large extent, the presidency itself.”

If creating a narrative to which people can connect is a job that is so, so very important…. why is it such a such a side note in education?  What if, instead of being pushed aside, stories become central to teaching and learning?  Helping people learn to share stories effectively; exploring how stories connect us; using storytelling as a foundation for authentic problem-solving; intertwining content and narrative, as Robert Krulwich suggests to CalTech’s graduating class in 2008:

You know, you know that when you receive your degree today, you are part of and you’re celebrating something very rare, and very precious, and very fragile in our world. This place celebrates freedom and because you are now free men and women, you have to protect what you’ve been given by helping others who haven’t been here, who are never coming here to understand the value of what you do and what your teachers do, and what their predecessors have done, which is why an hour or so from now when your brother, or your aunt or your mom asks you ‘So what have you been up to while you’ve been here?’, take a chance, find the words, find the metaphor, share the beauty, and tell them what’s on your mind. Tell them a story.

I think the Moth story I heard tonight hit me so hard because this is now my sixth year in one place.  It’s the longest I’ve stayed at any job – and the more connected one gets to a community, the more real the stories become.  Sometimes stories just come through the grapevine of a community, whether you’re seeking them or not.   As I’m building connections with alumni, I’m beginning to understand more and more of the stories that run parallel to what a school purports itself to be about.  It’s also true that the nature of what I teach is social.  Students practice in the studio, and as they practice, they talk.  I ask for a lot of reflection, and they tell stories there.  And then this year there’s this whole little (huge) side project of moderating a newspaper….

Sometimes those stories are heartbreaking, sometimes they are hopeful, sometimes they are frustrating or frightening.  But never do they detract from the substance of teaching and learning.  Knowing stories helps me to connect with students, and to adjust and tailor content, and all of that is helpful.  But I think the real potential of story and narrative in education in under-tapped.

Maybe stories are sort of like green energy — this untapped, powerful resource that we’re a little scared of exploring, because starting to depend on narrative – or wind energy, or solar power – would be a profound (necessary?) systemic change.


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