Narrative Environment

The narrative environment consists of the narratives that act upon us, but also the audiences we perceive and sense for the narratives that we create, both in words and by actions.



Leading students into engagement

Schools cannot be made great by great teacher performances. They will only be made great by great student performances.

Phillip C. Schlechty, Working on the Work

Phillip Schlechty suggests that the primary role of teachers is leader rather than of facilitator, as favored by constructionists, or coach, as favored by the Coalition of Essential Schools.

I think this is right. A high school teacher’s main problem in this age of mass education is a lack of authentic engagement by students. Once students are engaged, both coaching and facilitating—not to mention lecturing and assigning—can be quite effective.

To get what Schlechty calls “authentic engagement” teachers need to lead. He points out that the work of teachers has more in common with the work of other leadership professionals such as business executives, clergy, and military officers than it does with the work of diagnosticians or physicians. This is helpful to keep in mind as the medicalization of education continues apace.

The real work for teachers comes into focus when we consider the five patterns of engagement that Schlechty describes:

Authentic engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

“Authentic” comes to our lips so easily these days that thoughtful people will hesitate before uttering it, but Schlechty’s list is useful nonetheless. Many teachers, even those in very good schools, are content with passive compliance and ritual engagement. On some days, any teacher would be thankful to achieve a class that was ritually engaged. In countless well-managed classrooms most students are well-behaved and busy with productive work with few or no students authentically engaged. Indeed, honor students can learn quite a lot and do quite well on tests with these levels of engagement.

On some days or for some classes, this is no doubt enough. Our world puts lots of demands on us to learn things, and it’s only sane to comply and to get the rituals down. In the last week I needed to learn the controls of an unfamiliar digital camera, figure out how to use a new preloaded syringe to give myself medical injections, gather background on a political leader that circumstances have dictated I will be working with in the near future, and figure out why my website was taking visitors to random pages after they submitted an email form to us. None of this was done with great passion. I complied with my plight and went through the familiar rituals. It’s how we live now.

But as schools trend toward being ritual centers, they anaesthesize those within them. If young people hit the books only because they want to get into good colleges and get high-paying jobs, they may be deaf to the highest ideals of our culture. If students study only to register higher scores on competitive tests, they may be sleepwalking through the sublime realities less distracted travelers encounter in science and literature. And if we--the leaders--spend valuable class time coaching kids to score better on tests and writing assessments, we are contributing to a phony culture where trophies trump accomplishments. We are saying quite clearly that scores matter more than deep learning.

To get kids engaged in real work is a leadership challenge. In fact, getting good performances from others—helping them find their voices--is nearly always a leader’s most important work. Leaders inspire, coach, share information, ensure emotional support, arrange opportunities and resources, provide scaffolding for aspects of the performance that are still too difficult, facilitate associations with peers and mentors, and arrange recognition for accomplishments.

There’s nothing new about any of this, of course. It’s what good teachers have always done.

But we all know that it isn’t always done. We wouldn’t have to visit many classes in a typical high school to see lots of passive compliance.

What intrigues me about heritage teachers who consistently get high quality intellectual products from students is the skill with which they put before students work that engages them. I’ve noted several factors about that place-based research that students have said are important:

1. It is real work. The projects are organized with a final public exhibition as a mission. The need to have a complex finished product by a specified deadline gives the work shape and energizes the participants.

2. The work is important. Students believe they are preserving history that will otherwise be lost, or giving voice to people who would otherwise be silent. They believe this because their teachers and others aren’t shy about telling them what they are doing is important.

3. The work is social. Students get to be part of a team that has a mission—getting ready for a public performance. This gives them a reason for being together and things worth talking about. Since they are dependent on each other for how well things work out, what they do matters. Also, community mentors, parents and grandparents, and outside experts get involved with the work. People like being involved in things that lots of other people are involved in

We know that what students learn is affected by the effort they put into the work at least as much as it is by their intellectual ability. A great deal of attention should be paid to the quality of work that teachers provide. I believe that place-based research projects provide one of the most straightforward ways to engage students in real work—work that is inherently important, work that is inherently social, and work that has natural audiences beyond the classroom—and that heritage projects should be a part of the curriculum in every school.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/31 at 10:56 AM
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©2008 Montana Heritage Project


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


Listening as placemaking

When we rehearse in our minds a conversation we think we might have tomorrow or remember an episode from yesterday, the quality of our thought depends to some extent on the quality of the audience that we imagine. If we imagine we will be with dull-witted thugs, the character of our thought is quite different than if we believe we will be in the company of attentive and thoughtful listeners.

Furthermore, the quality of the audience we imagine depends to a great extent on the quality of the audiences we have experienced. Seeing this we can see that better audiences make the world better--not in a mystical way but quite directly. They change the narrative environment in ways that improve our thinking.

Most of us, including our students, would become better thinkers if we had had better audiences, and becoming better thinkers is an important step on the way to becoming better people.

It’s safe to assume that our successes or failures as listeners may have a profound influence on the narrative environment--as much as the words we speak. We spend much of our time as audience for someone or for something, and how we listen is an important part of our narrative intelligence. What we attend to, what makes us smile, what we hear, what we ignore, what makes us linger, what we construe and what we don’t--these are not small matters. Good or bad audiences can change a person’s life.

Listening is also an important part of placemaking. A place is a geographic location associated with human meaning--a space in which people have made something--sometimes a city but sometimes only a memory. When some ancient fisherman in the Columbia Basin, pondering the fish he had burned his fingers trying to cook the night before, shared his idea of a stone fireplace and saw his friend’s raised eyebrows and approving nod, they were well on their way to transforming their piece of the world. They gathered the rocks and before the sun set they had created the memory of a shared dinner of grilled trout. They had made their spot along the river into a place.

It became a place by becoming a feature of the two characters’ story worlds. The built environment and most of history takes form first in story worlds we construct out of memory and imagination. If the friend had answered in such a way that made it clear he hadn’t really been listening at all but was instead caught up in his own worries, quite likely world history would have been one barbeque poorer. His listening was part of creation.

Interestingly, if he had listened to his friend carefully in the past, he may not have needed to be present at all to have done his part. His friend could have imagined him, based on memory.

Listening is so important that it has become a major preoccupation of the most powerful creatures on earth--vast mercantile creatures--business corporations are the most common form, but these are being joined by large universities and other cultural organizations, by mega-churches, by large-scale criminal gangs and by nations and former nations.

Oh do they listen. They conduct polls, they do market surveys, they find ingenious ways to track our movements and purchases, they organize focus groups, they test market--they do everything they can to keep us under their surveillance. They are obsessed with hearing from us.

They listen with passion but it’s a disciplined and focused passion that doesn’t include us, necessarily. Mostly they want to know just what it is that we, in turn, will listen to. Their listening is a strategy to find the ways to be sure we hear them. They have figured out the world of humans is, more than anything, a competition between stories. And it’s a competition they want to win.

They specialize in strange types of storytelling. One of these they call “branding.” Old-style advertisements tended to give information: buy our shaving lotion because it has lanolin and it will soothe your skin.

But brandmakers tend to provide images--visions of a world as, they hope, you want it. Their stories often give no information at all. Their plots are more like dreams than like arguments. If I argue with you, I wake up parts of your mind that might listen to other voices than mine. So I might offer you a vision of a Sunday afternoon in the summer, and you are free, driving fast along a highway that swoops along the edge of a vast ocean. You have nothing to worry about. Eagles soar overhead. Pulses of music pierce you, shafts of sun through white clouds. You go faster, a beautiful stranger beside you. Nothing can hurt you. And faster. The music pounds. And faster.

Are you listening?

If not, there are other stories, some far better and some far, far worse.

The ones that get listened to win, and out of them empires grow. They get larger and more powerful month by month, the managers deciding, by watching what works, what to make with their vast resources. On the Internet the pattern is already clear: computers never stop tabulating your mouse clicks and monitoring how long you look at which pages. What you ignore shuts down and goes away. What you look at gets replicated and developed. What you click on gets more powerful.

You are free to look at whatever you want. And as our choices multiply, we are more and more free not to look at or listen to what we do not want. And so, less and less are we all in the same empire. Some of us are so far away we can’t hear each other, really. Each of us moves farther and farther into story worlds built especially for people just like us. We are separating into empires that get stronger by our very listening.

Already we have branded housing developments such as retirement communities with just the amenities and architecture we dreamed of. It may not be long till whole towns are built and people move into cities that were imagined, designed, constructed, scripted and sold--people will move into them and they will be real. It may be our destiny to live in worlds whose qualities--ugliness or beauty, superficiality or depth, depravity or goodness--are precise renderings of the quality of our listening.

And the rest will be forgotten.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/26 at 06:14 AM
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©2007 Montana Heritage Project
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