My old high school is the home of the Vikings. Thousand Island High School is smack dab between Clayton, my hometown and Cape Vincent. My class was the first graduating class to leave Clayton Central School and go to TI High. This was a long time ago and I expected things to look a little different when I entered that school for the first time since I was seventeen years old in order to work for twelve days with the senior class on telling stories from their lives for their year end portfolios. But, nothing had changed. Kids were still learning French in the same room, having food fights in the same cafeteria and checking out books in the same library that I had. And, like me, they all had a story to tell.
When we hear the word storyteller we most often think of a literacy or dramatic arts program for young children. This fall however, I worked with seniors at Thousand Island High School to help them write, perform and record an eight minute story for their year-end final portfolio review. For twelve days students heard, wrote, spoke and drew stories of where they’ve been, where they want to go and the experiences and people that have instructed, affected and inspired them along the way. This creative process involved a great deal of trust, hard work and unconventional teaching strategies that pushed students to engage with one another outside of their established social groups and comfort zone.
Requiring students to tell a personal story without notes in front of their peers can be daunting for both teacher and student. Students are fraught with anxiety about speaking in front of one another about anything personal. Most people, regardless of age, are petrified of talking in front of groups. We are afraid that our listeners will criticize, ridicule or dismiss us. In order for students to feel comfortable sharing personal stories I had to share stories from my life. I am a firm believer that a teacher should be willing to do what s/he asks the students to do. If I want the students to tell a story I need to do it too. Students heard personal stories that ranged from accidentally knocking my father out with a karate chop to my experience with severe mental illness. As we came together in a listening and story-rich community we developed a trusting and risk-taking atmosphere. The idea of “do as I do, not as I say,” is at the center of this teaching philosophy. When I shared my personal experiences of the highs and lows of high school and complicated family dynamics students became more willing to open up about their experiences. The progression of stories moved from light hearted and fun to more serious and revealing. This modeled for them choices they could use about the stories they might tell. The inclusion of stories, told live and in person, was the first step in creating the kind of atmosphere necessary for students to openly share their experiences.
Getting students to see that their life is a story is the first hurdle to overcome. Here, the use of prompts is very important. The first story prompt I used with this age group was, “Have you ever done something stupid?” We all have. This simple and non-threatening prompt garnered stories that included tipping over a lawn mower while riding it, ironing a shirt while wearing it, and super gluing a hand to someone’s bottom in the locker room. This prompt allowed students to laugh with one another and drop their defenses, an important hurdle to overcome in order to create a unified group. As we talked, drew and asked questions of one another, stories began to emerge that surprised and delighted us.
Additionally , non-traditional teaching methods including graphic organizers, open-ended questioning in partners, visual representation of stories, and memories and sensory information helped break us out of the traditional teacher-student paradigm. Peer coaching was crucial toward establishing the classroom atmosphere were students felt empowered and accountable to one another, not the teacher. In the end nearly every student recorded their story.
Many of these stories were shared for the first time. Comments such as, “I’ve known you since we were little and I didn’t know that about you.” Storytelling with older students is a powerful and positive tool to help each student see their life as something worth sharing. It also allows them to see themselves and their peers from a different perspective. Perhaps they, like me, will return to their home town and be able to say, “Let me tell you a story about when I was your age.”