A narrative approach to teaching

Thinking in terms of narrative intelligence, narrative identity and narrative environment can go a long way toward helping teachers stay alert to some of the teaching opportunities that arise serendipitously once classroom learning becomes a story.

By the simple expedient of conceiving of teaching units as projects that students accomplish, learning becomes a story. This means that students become characters with goals who must respond to what they encounter, using what they already know to solve problems, stretching and rearranging what they already know to accommodate new information, and then pulling everything together by articulating a coherent version of what has happened for an audience that matters to them.

We have designed the ALERT processes to guide teachers in giving their units a narrative structure by leading students through research projects. The processes lend themselves to the most important research-based instructional strategies.

Using the ALERT framework helps avoid the characteristic danger of project-based instruction: it easily degenerates into a more or less arbitrary sequence of activites. It’s not unusual for inexperienced teachers embarked on high-interest projects to lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish. Seeing that students seem energetic and engaged, even happy, it’s easy to rationalize away nagging memories that once there was a curriculum or to take comfort in vague standards. One of the writing standards for Montana states that “students write for a variety of purposes and audiences.” What activity, however poorly conceived, would not meet that standard, so long as it included jotting of some sort?

To avoid this, projects should culminate in student work that is carefully assessed to be sure that it meets real standards. If students embark on local history research projects, for example, they should expect to finish essays that cite multiple sources, that are written in standard English with few surface errors, that demonstrate enough complexity in syntax and thought to provide real insight into the topic, and that display some of the grace and style that delights readers.

All that’s true, as far as it goes. But lately (the last couple of decades or so) what has interested me more has been what lies beyond teaching skills and information, crucial though these are. If school lasted only an hour or so a day, it would be fine if classes aimed only at transferring some information from text to student. Here are some basic facts about American history. Here’s an introduction to human anatomy. Here are the thereoms of Euclidian geometry. And so on.

But because school goes on more or less forever, especially for high school students involved in activities, an informational curriculum isn’t enough. Kids have other work to do besides gathering facts. Adolescents are in the midst of identity formation, which means they are drawing on their narrative intelligence to establish what their deepest beliefs are going to be, what values they are going to use as guides, what they are going to take as life goals, and how they are going to present themselves to others. Nearly all of them need quite a lot of help in doing this, and some of them, especially those from disordered families, need such help desperately.

A narrative approach to teaching allows teachers to present oodles of information, but it also allows young people many chances to develop the narrative intelligence they need to live, as poet William Stafford put it, in “all the little ways that encourage good fortune.”

When teachers engage students in difficult projects to accomplish work of real value to their communities, several things are bound to happen. Students are going to experience frustration, they are going to encounter obstacles, and they are going to run into trouble. If they persist and endure, they are going accomplish something significant, even if the stated goal of their quest isn’t completely met.  If the project and its final product are public, they are going to see themselves reflected in the eyes of an audience, which is going to influence their sense of identity. And if they have identified at the outset a group of people who will benefit from their work, they are going to encounter gratitude and fondness for being the kind of people who help.

When teachers head into a project knowing that these things are going to happen, and that they are happening by intent and design, they will know what to say to a kid who has just spent hours going through the 1916 “archived coroner’s reports, confined prisoners registers, the sheriff’s day book, the judge’s docket, and judge’s report” at the county courthouse looking for information that, she now knows, isn’t there. The teacher knows what to do. It’s a teaching moment. The information that might have been in the courthouse was never of paramount importance. What is important is that the young woman learn cheefulness and optimism, being helped to see that a dead end isn’t at all a failure but merely a step in the process of being thorough, and it should be followed not by giving up but by a new plan and a feeling of satisfaction that one more chore is in the past and therefore the future is brighter than ever. The story of how diligently she pursued every possibility, many of which didn’t pan out, will be an important possession when the project is over.

Experienced heritage teachers know how proud students become of their “failures,” once they have persevered and had some measure of success in spite of them. People with lots of narrative intelligence know how the stories of lives unfold, and they make good choices when faced with plot complications.

There are many such understandings, which take the form of stories, that teachers who undertake difficult projects will have chances to teach, both through example and exhortation:

  1. Good news often looks like bad news when we first catch a glimpse of it on the horizon. If we react out of fear or anger, our fears and anger get justified. But if we concentrate on what else we can do, serendipity occurs. Things look dark before the dawn, but you can get through such times. Each student will have a chance to see himself or herself as a person who undertook a difficult task, overcame obstacles, and persevered to success.
  2. You can’t accomplish much by yourself, but when you work as part of a team huge things can be done without anyone having to do more than they have strength to do. Pulling off a large-scale research project and sharing it with the community through digital storytelling at a heritage event is a big deal, and when it is over students will have worked with interviewees, community mentors, staff, and each other. Independent students may learn to be patient with students who need more time and support to get things done. Irresponsible students may learn that they let the whole group down when they flub things.
  3. You can get people to care about you by putting your talents and time at the service of work that benefits the community. The combination of creativity and care opens lots of doors to us. Our opportunties increase. We have more and more moments of intimacy and a stronger sense of our power to affect those things that affect us.
  4. Critical thinking about traditional values is seldom as important as learning from them. Academic standards are one example of traditional values. They are useful guides that can help us learn more about truth, beauty and justice, if we will submit ourselves to them. A well-crafted essay, for example, will have accurate and telling insights, it will unfold gracefully, it will be fair to the people it talks about (whether they are living or dead), and it will give credit where credit is due. These are not trivial or schoolish concerns--you could build a civilization on them. To learn to write such essays, we need to work constantly on our character, overcoming our natural tendencies to cheat or take shortcuts, to follow well-trod paths even when they angle in the wrong direction, or to puff ourselves up by putting others down or by stealing credit for others’ accomplishments.
  5. Some processes take not just effort and passion and force but time, so you have to be patient.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/27 at 06:14 AM
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©2007 Montana Heritage Project

The death of heroes, the recovery of the heroic

David Hein:

. ..DEEPER FACTORS are also at work in the demise of the hero, The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has compared the post-Enlightenment West to the heroic societies of ancient times (repredented, for example, in the epic poems of Homer) and found them to be separated by fundamentally different understandings of the self and of moral conduct. Heroes, he believes, do no flourish outside of a network of relations in which personal identity is inseparable from one’s social role and in which such comcepts as honor, duty and shame are deeply meaningful. Other commentators have also pointed to our culture’s inhospitableness to heroes. Even more than the surrogate-hero Don Quixote, we find outselves tilting not at giants but at unromantic mechanical contraptions. Our age is much more ready to believe in the antihero than the hero, and to cast a wary eye on any soul addled by quixotic longings.

The death of the hero is further advanced bacause we recognize that Thomas Carlyle was seriously off the mark in believing that the history of the world is the history of great individuals like Moses, Muhammad, Cromwell and Catherifne the Great. History, we know, is shaped by forces far more complex, and we have learned to pay attention to the diverse contributions of workers, minorities and immigrants. They, their families and their communities used to be deemed inarticulate and irrelevant; they are now recognized as important actors in the historical drama. Moreover, an important trend in historical writing of recent decades has been the “personalization” of nonhuman entities. Historians look at the influence of large structures and processes--demography, ecology, economics, geography. While all sorts of history are still being written, there is a clear movement away from focusing on the great man and the big event. And these changes have affected education down to the earliest grades. No longer is the history of the nation represented to the young in terms of the exploits of its great individuals, as it was 50 years ago.

Finally, the demise of the hero can be seen as the inevitable result of a democratic society. Democratic heroes from the very beginning were different. Americans liked military victors if they acted like Cincinnatus and relinquished their military careers to return to civilian life. We suspected the strong man and loved the good loser, like Lee; we required our rulers to be subject to the will of the people. Sidney Hook aptly pointed out that if the hero is someone who changes the course of history, then it follows that a democratic community must be ever on guarf against such a person.

The contemporary observer could well be ambivalent about this whole phenomenon of the death of heroes.

. . .Religious-studies scholar Conrad Hyers has proposed replacing the perspective of “tragic heroism” with the outlook of “the comic hero” precisely because the latter view recognizes our fallenness and opposes all forms of dualistic thinking, and is thus much more congruent with Christian faith and the reality of the human condition. Tragic heroism, Hyers says, involves absolute dedication to causes and the clash of contending forces: good vs. evil, truth against error. It embraces the warrior virtues of courage, duty and honor. It is consonant with unquestioning obedience, the fight to the death, and kudos for the champion.

The comic vision, on the other hand, is intolerant of pride and pretension, of self-righteousness, of all finite claims to the infinite; it endorses humor, humility, child-likeness and the willingness to negotiate and settle differences. It is deeply suspicious of dividing the human family into the lowly and the lofty, the unrighteous and the righteous, the cowardly and the courageous. Its loyalty to the ultimate prompts the rejection of all human professions of goodness and claims to greatness as vanity, and enjoins acknowledgment of the dignity and worth each creature before God.

. . .We can acquiesce in the cultural process that has eventuated in the death of heroes. What we cannot accept is the loss of the heroic. The hero is an extraordinary being possessed of superior powers; the heroic is a potential attribute of ordinary men and women, as well as of children (as children learn from fairy tales). The heroic is consistent with democracy, the hero a possible threat. The hero has been honored with monuments everywhere; the shrine of the heoric is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The concept of the heroic bridges the gap between the tragic and the comic. It accepts the fragmentyary character of our knowledge, our virtue and our power (to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr), while holding fast to the old-fashioned “warrier virtues” of courage, honor and loyalty. It sees that, pace hyers, steadfastness may or may not mean a fight to the death, obedience need not be unquestioning, and the desire for kudos may be replaced by the will to act for others and for the glory of God. The traditional hero was chosen by fate or the gods to undertake a journey into the unknown; heroic thinking and doing is part of the vocation that God lays on us all as we venture unrehearsed into the terra incognita of our everyday lives.

THE “HEROIC” POINTS to certain positive features of flawed human beings who are in fact a mixture of virtues, vices and motives. The heroic vision accepts the fact that, as Plato makes clear in his Republic, the heroic by itself is not enough. England’s King Henry V and his “happy few” were heroic in their victory at Agincourt, but the point of their endeavor, the conquest of France, was less praiseworthy.

. . .Joseph Campbell has said that the hero of myth is a being who does what no one else can or will do. Today we must distinguish the heroic from the hero and say that the heroic is what all of us can and must undertake. The most important occasions of heroic striving lie pretty close to home: the efforts of the young to achieve independence and a sense of purpose, the commitment of responsible selves to marry and raise families, the work of parents in setting their children free and then in renewing their own lives. The Aztecs, who had a notion of multiple heavens, were wise to believe that women who died in childbirth went to the same heroic heaven as warriors who were killed in battle. The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has rightly pointed out that while ethics courses tend to focus on big social questions like capital punishment, censorship and the policies of hospitals and corporations, students also need to think carefully about the virtues and vices of everyday life: compassion, self-respect, courage, honor, genorosity, jealousy, narcissism and self-deception.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/19 at 06:14 AM
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©2007 Montana Heritage Project

Why teach writing in school

In 1991, a young English teacher (Sarah Reeve) at the school where I was principal asked me to write an essay for a book that she was publishing. It was a collection of poems by her middle school students. Earlier this year while I was visiting his classroom in Simms, Larry Singleton mentioned that essay to me. I don’t know where he had come across a copy of Spirit Whispers. I had forgotten the book and the essay, but mention of it reminded me of a particularly warm and hopeful period of my life, and I dug the book out of a box of things that for various reasons I hadn’t thrown out. I decided not to throw it out again.

I’ve divided my life equally between sitting alone struggling with words as a writer and standing publicly before classes struggling with words as a teacher. Words. We live with them the way goldfish live in water. Do you think goldfish ever notice the water?

The work of writing is the work of learning to pay close, even passionate, attention to what is always before us. To make what has become invisible through familiarity strange and wild again, so that we can see it.

The strangeness of being talking creatures is stranger even than the howling of wolves. Why do they howl? Because they are lonely? Because they need to hear other voices out there, throughout the wilderness?

And why do we talk? Because we, like the wolves, are incomplete in ourselves and need words to make the connections that make us whole? Humans are the most social of creatures; they become what they are by being caught up in talk, and they live, for better or worse, by talking. We can judge the quality of our lives by the quality of the talk that engages us.

Writing is an advanced form of talk that lets us make deeper and farther connections than we could if we were limited to our voices. Some of the most important conversations I’ve had in my life were possible because humans have been given the gift of writing. When I was nineteen years old, lost and confused in a world at war, where none of the people I met each day had answers to the questions that haunted me, I found a little book by Thoreau. He talked about his own solitude in the woods over a hundred years before I was born, about being free in spite of living in a society of slaves. He was for me a sane voice in an insane time, and he helped me make it back home.

After the war there were many other writers that helped me make my way; Homer talked to me about the necessity one faces to string his own bow and fight for his place if he wants to reclaim it from those who take what they do not intend to care for, Plato talked to me about his faith that beneath the world of appearances where things to wrong and people get hurt is a purer and more durable world that we can learn to see if we want to badly enough, Rilke talked to me about the difficult labor of finding out who he really was and staying true to it in a world that wanted him to be all sorts of other things.

There are many reasons to encourage young people to struggle at learning to write. It’s true that millions of dollars are lost to business each year because of unclear communications and that many employers are willing to pay good money to people who can commit thoughts to paper clearly. It’s true that it’s nearly impossible for humans to think long and complicated thoughts clearly without the aid of writing, of revising and polishing and expanding. And it’s true that we cannot live freely unless we can think freely, and that we cannot think freely unless we spend the necessary hours practicing. It’s true that the survivial of our democracy depends on our young people struggling for hours to get words right, to learn what words can and cannot do, to become familiar enough with the ways of words to recognize when words are being used to control and manipulate them, so they can stay free.

But there’s another reason for learning to write that’s closer to the reason that Homer and Plato and Rilke wrote and to why wolves howl. It has to do with the predicament every human finds himself or herself in at some time in life: a feeling of incompleteness.

As we are growing up, we are immersed in human talk: our parents, our teachers, our church leaders, our friends. Later, more and more talk surrounds us: advertisements, politicians, bosses, newspapers, television, billboards, radios, classmates. We are awash in oceans of words. In all of it, who are we, or even where are we? If we never take the time to answer seriously those questions, in a very real sense we are not really living our own lives. We are carried here and there by images from commercials or movies, by offhand comments of other students or teachers. And we are likely to feel somewhat empty.

The real work of writing is getting in touch with that voice within each of us that is really ours. When a person sits down with pencil or paper or in front of a word processor, the words that float to the top of the mind first are not usually the real words. They are the voices that others have filled us with. We are prone to speak in other people’s voices: the voice of the teacher (we know what he or she wants to hear, we think); the voice of our friends (we know what would make the right impression on them, we think); the voice of the church (we know what we are supposed to be thinking, we think); and so on endlessly.

But beneath all these voices, so quiet we sometimes don’t hear it at all, is a voice saying what it thinks, what it feels. Maybe what it’s saying would be unpopular. Maybe it doesn’t sound smart and sophisticated. Maybe some people would disapprove of it. We have a tendency to hide it, to avoid it. If we do, we are missing the chance to develop the only acquaintance that we will always be able to turn to no matter how things go in the world. Marvin Bell has commented that his progress as a writer is a matter of becoming less and less ashamed of more and more. That is, we grow as writers by becoming more and more honest about what we really do think and what we really do feel.

Each of us has a unique experience in this world. No one else has grown up in the same family (even your brothers and sisters live in a different family, since they are not their own brother or sister), no one else has seen what you saw at breakfast this morning, or heard what you heard after supper last night. The real work of learning to write is the work of learning to find the meaning of the life that has been given to you and to nobody else.

The more we get in touch with that life through writing, the more secure we become in the world. Many things that people want from life, when they get them, they find that they aren’t nearly enough. Money, fame, clothes, cars--all these things can leave us too empty to bear. Our popular media are full of stories of people who got all these things and yet found life not worth living. But if what we learn to want from life is to experience it, and to understand it, by spending some time each day writing about our experiences and what we feel about them, we begin to find riches that will never abandon us. A few of us might leave words such as Homer’s or Plato’s or Rilke’s that help thousands of others understand their experiences, but most of us won’t.

Each of us can, however, make a real contact with our true selves. Only when we have done that can we begin the work of making real contact with other people. And there is nothing more wonderful or more worth our time in this life than these two things.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/30 at 06:47 PM
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