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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