Things I Know 321 of 365: Orson Scott Card has some fine words on storytelling

From Orson Scott Card’s introduction to Ender’s Game:

All these uses are valid: all these readings of the book are “correct.” For all these readers have placed themselves inside this story, not as spectators, but as participants, and so have looked at the world of Ender’s Game, not with my eyes only, but also with their own.

This is the essence of the transaction between storyteller and audience. The “true” story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. The story in my mind is nothing but a hope; the text of the story is the tool I created in order to try to make that hope a reality. The story itself, the true story, is the one that the audience members create in their minds, guided and shaped by my text, but then transformed, elucidated, expanded, edited, and clarified by their own experiences, their own desires, their own hopes and fears.

Ironically, Card writes, that he would not only understand if the reader skipped the introduction and went straight to the story, he would agree with the reader. I’m glad I didn’t. I would have missed this reminder of the relationship of story.

Things I Know 264 of 365: Some stories keep going

The process of putting your life into order with a beginning, middle, and end forces you to see cause and effect.

– Catherine Burns

Thursday, I got just about one of the best message I’ve ever received from a student. Freda was in my senior Storytelling class last year. Along with the rest of the class, she participated in our weekly story slams where students were randomly selected to tell a story in front of the rest of the class without notes. The stories had to be true and in the first person.

For one of her stories, Freda told us about the one and only time she’d bullied another student.

Here’s the story. Freda’s starts around 5:50:
Ralen and Freda by MrChase

I remember thinking at the time how amazing it was any time a student felt free to open up and share part of themselves that might not otherwise be revealed. Those were the moments where I felt like I’d stumbled on something right.

Freda’s note today gave me that feeling again and reminded me those moments in the classroom were ripples that are still moving across my kids’ lives though we aren’t with each other everyday.

Here is Freda’s note in all its informal online missive parlance:

Mr. Chase. I have to tell you something. Remember Jermy? The kid I did my story slam about? He friend requested me. I apologized. He said he had wanted to send me a request for years and was worried I’d forgotten about him. I can’t believe it, how could I forget that? I told him that I’d never forgot it and regretted it for like… my whole life, and how I did a school project thingy on it and so, he asked for my number, and he called me up and he was crying, and I was crying and like… I’m just… I’m glad we had that assignment, and I feel so… lucky that I had a chance to tell everyone in class, and even more lucky that I was given a second chance to apologize… and… I guess… I never believed in fate before… but I might now… sounds corny but whatever… So yeah, I just felt compelled to tell you, right now. Thank you for being a great teacher, I love you.

In moments like these, it’s hard not to miss the classroom terribly.

Things I Know 150 of 365: There’s comedy in truth

It is easy to become deluded by the audience, because they laugh. Don’t let them make you buy the lie that what you’re doing is for the laughter. Is what we’re doing comedy? Probably not. Is it funny? Probably yes. Where do the really best laughs come from? Terrific connections made intellectually, or terrific revelations made emotionally.

– Del Close

The school year’s winding down at SLA. Courses are drawing to a close.

For my senior Storytelling class, Friday marked the final class story slam of the year.

Amid all the stress and work of closing out the school year, the slam reminded me of something I’ve known since I was a little kid – it’s important to laugh.

Four of the stories Friday reminded me of the humor possible in the mundane.

Christine told the story of how a childhood affliction frequently led to quarantine.

Then Talib recounted how a trip to the bathroom when a bit off course.

Andrew gave us the choice between a story of a trigger happy 7 year old and stealing from his father.

Finally, Narcissa copped to her paranoia brought about by marathoning television.

The theme for the day was “Prohibit,” and each of the kids presented their own unique take on it.

I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.

There is truth in comedy.

The story each kid told wasn’t necessarily anything supernatural. Each was a moment that could have happened in anyone’s life. The key to the stories and to the class was to find a way to explode the moment so that its sharing seems at once interesting and personal for the audience.

Each student exploded the moment, and we were better for it.

If we built community within the classroom and had a good time along the way, well, then so be it.


Four stories inspired by “prohibit” by MrChase

Things I Know 74 of 365: Story is currency

On the day when man told the story of his life to man, history was born.

– Alfred de Vigny

Stories have always fascinated me. My family trades stories like currency. From the garbled message from my cousin Milo explaining why the book I sent him was so important to my great-grandparents’ and now grandparents’ recollections of where we come from, stories matter in my family.

When I interviewed to teach at SLA, I was asked to describe my dream class. I was nervous and unprepared. I have no idea what I described. Now, though, I am teaching it. Second semester, for two years now, I teach a class called Storytelling to SLA seniors.

As I’ve explained before, Tuesday afternoons, I set up the class like a performance space, heat a percolator of coffee and one of hot water for tea. I set out cream and sugar and cookies. Beside them, I have a tip jar.

At the front of the room is a microphone. Beside it is a table with a small sound board and a laptop.

For two hours at the end of my Tuesday, I sit at that table and listen as my students share and explode moments of their lives in our weekly class story slams. Built around the rules of Philadelphia’s First Person Arts Story Slams, the rules are simple.

Three random audience judges scoring on content and presentation.

Five random storytellers.

No more than 5 minutes.

No notes.

True stories.

Tuesday, I woke up with a Daylight Saving Time hangover. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to leave their bed. I dragged through much of the day. Then, during lunch, I remembered – slams.

I set up the room, bought the supplies and greeted the students as they filed in.

Describing the stories would fall short. There’s something at once vulnerable and empowered as my students stand behind the mic and share parts of their lives the people in the room have usually never been privy to.

I’ll stop here and let you listen to two selections from this week’s slam around Malice.

No matter the discipline, story should be the currency of our classrooms.
Ralen and Freda by MrChase

Writing out the window

The Gist:

  • My students are writing what they see.

The Whole Story:

They sit in windows with journals and pens and pencils in hand. Many of them plug out the sounds of the building with iPods.

They appear to be daydreaming. Really, they’re completing an assignment.

At this moment, my class is scattered around the building – writing.

At the top of the period, we walked en masse to the end of the third floor hallway.

I pointed across the street to one of the lofts whose windows give their inhabitants a kind of zoo-like aire.

“Who used to live over there?”

“Elliptical Guy.”

“Yes, Elliptical Guy. For two years, I watched Elliptical Guy work out whenever he was home. No matter the time of day. I don’t think I ever saw him eat or sit on his couch.”

Small giggles.

“Eventually, I started wondering who he was. Why was he so adamantly exercising? Why did it seem like he was never losing any weight?”

The odd, “Me too.”

“Then I started wondering whether he was working out for himself or someone else. Was there a guy or a girl he was trying to win over? Finally, I had to make Elliptical Guy a story. I had to make him into someone real in my life. It made the constant checking up less creepy; it made him a part of a story I was writing and reading all the time.”

Now, take your journals. Find a window. Look out. Find someone or something that tells you a story. Write that story.

As I’ve written this, they’ve started to file back in.

It’s time to find out what they’ve read in the world.

Could you do this? Making music tell a story

The Gist:

  • Students in my Storytelling class are now working with music.
  • What we’re doing isn’t explicitly stated in the state standards.
  • No part of me believes this project isn’t helping them to be better readers, writers and thinkers.

The Whole Story:

Looking at the syllabus for my Storytelling class, I noticed I’d planned for poetry to follow our short story unit. Taking the temperature of the students, I decided a course adjustment was in order.

Instead of poetry, we’re working with music-without words.

To start things out, I needed to stand their expectations on their ears.

Everything was to be cleared from their desks. I distributed blank paper.  Crayons, colored pencils and markers laid sprawled on a central table.

“I’m going to play 10 stories for you,” I said, “You need to draw or write the story as you see fit. You’ll have 30 seconds between each story to finish before we move on.”

Papers were folded, coloring utensils collected and chairs situated just so.

I pressed play.

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem wafted from the speakers.

“I’ll let you know when there’s one minute left of each story,” I said.

They started drawing and writing the stories they heard.

When all was done, we’d listened to:

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem

“Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland

The theme from the 60s BBC show The Avengers

Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida

“Heart String” by Earl Klugh

“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

The tango from Scent of a Woman

Apotheosis’ take on Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

The theme from The Rock by Hanz Zimmer

The theme from Pirates of the Carribean, also by Hanz Zimmer

Thirty seconds after the last story, I told the class the story of riding in the back of my mom’s Nissan Pulsar when I was in first grade and we lived in Kentucky. When we’d drive back to Illinois in the middle of the night for holidays, each song that was in heavy rotation on whatever light rock station she was listening to was burned into my memory.

I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and explained, for me, that song was about being 7 and riding from Kentucky to Illinois more than it could ever be about John Hughes’ 16 Candles.

Then came the assignment. They’re to re-tell the stories they wrote after the first day of class as a non-vocal musical track. They may compose something original or remix and mash up other tracks.

The only allowable vocals are unintelligible words like Orff’s Latin lyrics in “O Fortuna” or something along the lines of a doo-wop riff.

I’m excited to hear what they create. My hope is this assignment will stretch their thinking. I’ve tried it, it’s tricky.

Nowhere in the Pennsylvania English Curriculum does it direct students to be this kind of writers. Nowhere does it ask them to read texts as music. For that matter, the draft of the Common Core Standards doesn’t include anything like this.

I could massage a few of the standards into place, but either the assignment or the standard would end up inauthentic.

That said, I have no doubt what my students will be doing is a valid, challenging, authentic form of consumption and creation. They’re reading, writing and thinking in a way no test could measure or equal.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, frustrating and beautiful.

I can’t wait to hear what they create.

A Humbling Moment

The Whole Story:

This semester has afforded me the opportunity to teach a class I’ve always wanted to teach – Storytelling. Thus far, we’re still fumbling with the ideas of what makes a story and what stories tell us about who we are. We’re playing directly and academically with those ideas every day we meet.

Except one.

Each Tuesday is story slam day. A blend of the stylings of The Moth and Philadelphia’s own First Person Arts’ story slams, the slams in class have some simple rules:

Five storytellers are randomly selected for each slam.

Their stories must be inspired by the week’s theme.

The stories must be true.

No memorization / scripts.

After each story, three randomly selected audience judges score the storyteller on content and presentation on a scale of 1-10. All the SLAms are here and here.

The room is re-arranged and coffee and tea are served.

In general, it’s a light-hearted, informal experience.

This Tuesday, though, proved one of the most profound and humbling experiences I’ve had in a classroom from my first days in Kindergarten.

The theme was “Giving Up,” and Lewam took the stage.

(audio not available in feed readers)

I’ve been working to process the story from the moment she told it.

Here’s where my mind stands. I’m at once incredibly sad and incredibly proud.

No matter how much I’ve tried or organized or listened or worked, a student in my charge felt pain within my room and within my walls.

In talking to Chris about it, he gave me the words I think I needed. Pieces of what we do will always be invisible. Pieces of our students’ lives will always be invisible. Unless we want to suit up with full-on, both-end-of-candle-burning messiah complexes, we will never see all of the invisible pieces of each child’s life. I’m not so dense as to be ignorant of this fact.

When the fact stands at a microphone in front of 30 of its peers and pronounces itself, though, the effect is markedly different. It is strikingly visible.

She stood in front of the room and said that, to her, the care and culture and collaboration had, for much of her time, failed her.

So, what do stories tell us about ourselves?

What does this moment mean?

It is complex.

When her name was called, she did not hesitate to take the mic. She did not attempt to negotiate to tell her story later or go last. She spoke truth to the power of community because the community told her it was ok.

What do we do with that?

That is, of course, rhetorical. We must honor it. To maintain integrity, we honor it.

Ego is pushed aside, and the community must reflect.

She found her voice, but felt we did not honor it. I am saddened by this and feel I did the best I could by her. It would be easy to go to “My best wasn’t good enough.” Instead, I’m drawn to the idea that my best should have been different. I’m not the only player here. Her classmates, the faculty, Lewam – they’ve all played their parts. My part is to be responsible for what I do and what I can influence. For sure, I’ll be asking Lewam for advice for the future. I’ve already told her her words impacted me more than most anything I’ve experienced in the classroom.

The Gist:

Lewam likely couldn’t have told this story last year or the year before.

She told it though.

And the room listened.

The applause you hear were the longest and most sincere of any slam we’ve put on. Even the kids who tune out or make cute jibes were silent. They saw her, they connected.

Not altogether surprisingly, she received straight 10s from each judge.

Something sits and works at my brain. What do I do with the fact that her story points to the community’s failure, but her telling of the story leads me to believe the community had something to do with helping her find her voice?

What do stories tell us about who we are?

Wave in an English Classroom (beta)

The Gist:

  • Group work can be messy.
  • Collaboration is a key.
  • I’m playing with Google Wave to try to make these work together.

The Whole Story:

If you want to see a myriad of responses, tell a room of seniors at an inquiry-driven, project-based high school that they’ll be working in groups in their final semester. The kids who are aces roll their eyes. They don’t want to carry another group across another finish line.

The kids who don’t do much breathe a sigh of relief. (Thank you, aces.)

The kids who get lost are lost.

The teacher of these 32 crosses his fingers and rolls the dice.

Collaboration is one of SLA‘s core values. I attempt to build it into every primary and secondary element of my classroom. Collaboration in the form of group work in a more relaxed, mid- to long-term assignment gets messy.

Sometimes I manage to create mechanisms that hold group member individually accountable for their contributions to the final product.

My attempts to monitor contributions during the projects has often created a paperwork fiasco that tells me a lot of but doesn’t tell the kids much.

In my G12 storytelling class, we’re dealing with a unit around the question, “How do stories tell us who we are?”

I’m having kids read multiple works, take notes, share notes, have conversations in class, see what they can learn.

I decided to use Google Wave to manage the unit’s study. Here are the basics:

  • SLA has Google Apps (incl. Wave) installed so that every community member has an sign-in.
  • I created a wave and invited every student across both sections of the class as a participant.
  • One of the blips on the wave listed the 3-member groups (with sections intermingling across sections).
  • Each group was assigned to create their own new wave for the group adding me as a member.
  • I post the readings to the main class wave, students copy the assignment to a new blip in their group waves and take their notes.

The first reading went up last week.

This might come across as creepy, but I was able to watch students do their homework. I was able to poke, prod, question and suggest as they were working to head off problems before they became problems.

Before class, the day after the assignment, I knew who was prepared and who wasn’t. I was able to needle the kids who hadn’t done anything. I’d already helped the kids who didn’t get it.

The endgame of this assignment is for the students to create a product that answers the essential question as their knowledge stands.

With each successive reading, they’ll add blips and build their collective knowledge.

Ideally, they’ll begin poking, prodding, questioning and suggesting within their group waves prior to class. Ideally.

Here’s what was messy:

  1. Some of my kids were early attempters with wave and (not unlike many people I know) had decided wave wasn’t worth their time.
  2. It’s something new. As intuitive as much of wave is, there’s a learning curve.
  3. They didn’t realize #2 and signing up, adding contacts, etc. ate up a chunk of one class period.

I’m sure there will be more mess, but that’s learning.

My aces asked me, “What if I read my article, but my group members don’t read theirs?”

My answer, “I’ll know and work with them.”

In the end of the beginning: My aces were accountable for their work, and I was able to help them make it better as they did it. They only had to worry about carrying themselves across this finish line. The kids who don’t do much had done some more. Not all of them did something, but more than usual. The kids who get lost had been given re-direction as they cut their path into the unknown. Maybe they got lost once we got to class discussion, but they made it to class discussion.

I really like learning.