I would like to start the year reminding us all about the importance of stories in our everyday lives. Spring is approaching with its emphasis on SBA testing and graduation rates and it's easy to get caught up in the high stakes game of meeting AYP, but before we get bogged down with test reviews and benchmarks, let's explore why we still need to remember the story.
Robert McKee, screenwriter, author, and lecturer, serves as a consultant to film studios and teaches writing seminars. In his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, he discusses how story is not just the most prolific art form, but rivals all other activities for the amount of time we spend on them. He reminds the reader of the endless hours so many people spend watching television, but then goes on to discusses how we tell stories to our co-workers at the water cooler, to our neighbors over the fence, engage in internet gossip with our friends, and share bedtime stories with our children. Even when we sleep we dream. He states that humans have an endless need for stories because, "Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?" He says stories help us discover the answer to this age old question and find order in the chaos of our lives.
As a speech-language pathologist, I often analyze a student's ability to retell a story and to produce original oral narratives as part of an overall process to determine if they have a language disorder. The ability to construct a story says a lot about overall language abilities and it is a skill important to everyday life. Natalie L. Hedberg, Ph.D., and Carole E. Westby, Ph.D., two noted speech-language pathologists discuss this importance in Analyzing Storytelling Skills: Theory to Practice. They list several ways that we all use storytelling in our everyday lives.
"We tell stories to entertain, to explain where we have come from and where we are going, and to reflect on our own experiences and the experiences of others. We come to know ourselves and others through the stories we tell. We tell one another stories about ourselves, and we live by the stories we tell. Narrative is a primary mode of thought that plays a major role in both our waking and sleeping lives" (Hedberg & Westby).
They go on to discuss how the ability to create stories requires not only linguistic skill, but also the understanding of the world and of people. It reflects conceptual knowledge, such as social problem solving and the understanding of cause and effect, the ability to take another person's point of view and to understand why people act the way that they do. They report that the ability to retell a well organized story based on a picture stimuli at first grade is a strong predictor of later reading success and overall school success.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., Jungian analyst and storyteller, explores female archetypcal motifs in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. She uses the archetypes found in multicultural myths, fairy tales, and folk tales to help women explore their unconscious motivations and sharpen their insights. She uses stories as her medium partly because, "Stories are embedded with instructions which guide us about the complexities of life."
As we share stories with students, we should ask ourselves if the tales we choose for them are helping them to find meaning in their lives, to discover metaphors and archetypes to help them understand themselves, and those around them, and to structure their personal experiences. Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, discusses the importance of stories to help find the meaning in life, but warns that, "The acquisition of skills, including the ability to read, becomes devalued when what one has learned to read adds nothing of importance to one's life."
He lists several things a story must to do hold a child's attention. Besides entertaining him, it must arouse curiosity, develop intellect, and clarify emotions. He states that stories that are meaningful and memorable will be sensitive to a child's anxieties and aspirations while recognizing his difficulties and providing solutions to the problems that baffle him. This is not to imply that young people should be spoon fed didactic morality tales or that we should only teach the classics because we think those are the stories of established worth. In fact, the best stories don't state overt messages, but through the experience of compelling characters and the choices they make, the reader learns what choices might be available to him. We must strive to see the importance in the stories that students find meaningful, whether or not we appreciate their intrinsic value. We can learn as much about life through farce as through drama and a child who discovers the joy of reading through Captain Underpants has found a great treasure.
I recently had a student spend all winter break reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars by Max Brooks. The book tells the story of a world wide battle against zombies in a series of interviews conducted by "the author." To my knowledge, my student had never read a book for leisure. I'd never even seen him crack open a textbook. But over winter break, of his own free will, he completed this 432 page novel. I was able to connect with him on the subject of zombies, in which he gave an excellent summary of the events of the story. He now considers himself a good reader and is looking forward to the Zombie Survival Guide.
This was not a book that I necessarily would have recommended for him, but I have learned the importance of taking a student's interest in zombies, or football, or historical battles, or comic strips, or manga and using that as a springboard to talk about stories and to instill a love for reading. It reminds me that one of our greatest jobs as parents, educators, and authors is to help get the right book to the right student, whatever that book may be.
Carolee Dean has made numerous appearances as a guest poet/author at schools, libraries, poetry events, and teacher/library conferences. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and a master's degree in communicative disorders, and she has spent over a decade working in the public schools as a
speech-language pathologist. Her first novel, Comfort,was nominated as a Best Book for Young Adults, was named the Best YA Novel of 2002 by the Texas Institute of Letters, and was on the TAYSHAS (Texas Library Association) reading list. She conducts teacher trainings on inspiring reluctant writers including "The Secret Language of Stories" and "Random
Acts of Haiku."
To find teacher's guides, writing activities, and information about author visits, go to my website.
Kimberley Griffiths Little is the recipient of the Southwest Book Award, The Whitney Award for Best Youth Novel of 2010, and the author of the highly acclaimed, The Healing Spell and Circle of Secrets, published by Scholastic Press. Look for her books at the Scholastic Book Fairs, as well as two more forthcoming novels in 2012 and 2013. She lives on a dirt road in a small town by the Rio Grande with her husband, a robotics engineer and their three sons. Kimberley is a favorite speaker at schools around the country, presenting "The Creative Diary", a highly successful writing workshop and has been a speaker at many conferences. Please visit her website to download free Teacher's Guides and Book Club Guides.
Caroline Starr Rose spent her childhood in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and New Mexico, camping at the Red Sea in one and eating red chile in the other. She's taught English and social studies to upper elementary and middle-school students in New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana. Back in New
Mexico, Caroline now writes middle-grade novels and picture books full time.