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better stories

The crowd sits in plush seats, clenching their tubs (since when did we start snacking with full-size tubs) of greasy pop corn and and their forty-four ounce Diet Coke – fitting fare for the artificial narrative.  Though based upon a “true story,” there is little truth compressed into the ninety minute format.  No skin.  No voice.  Just vapor and lights and surrounded sound creating a bread and circus that would make the Roman jealous.

For a moment, I am caught up in the frenzy pondering how exactly I could pull it off in my classroom.   Yet, it’s make-believe.  It straddles the line between fairy tale and legend.  The low-income students I teach are not scary.  Nor are the parents or the community or the staff members.  The change doesn’t happen overnight and the victories are often so subtle that one could miss it in pursuit of the silverscreen superteacher prototype.

Some might claim that the stories are simply an escape.  They are simply amusement and entertainment.  Yet, amuse originally meant “cause to ponder.”  If we aren’t pondering the narrative, we are letting it dictate our world view.  The reality is that these are our postmodern cathedrals and this is our shared pop culture mythology.  When we allow the “inspirational” teacher movies to dictate lies about our schools (teachers are lazy, change is fast, the best teachers work in isolation, students need rewards and punishments) we collectively fail to communicate accurately the reality of positive change in our schools.

*     *      *

So, I’m searching through teacher blogs one morning.  I’m not looking for a revolutionary idea.  It’s not a revolution I’m after, but sustainable change.  More than that, I’m lonely.  I’m wondering if there is anyone out there who thinks that there is a better way to treat a child than using bribes and extortion. I keep running across lists of resources and programs I should adopt.  It’s not that they are bad, but I fail to connect to them.

I end up stumbling upon an art teacher who speaks honestly about her interactions with students.   Later I would read from a science teacher who connects empirical teaching to clamming and a male kindergarten teacher who is unabashedly positive.  What I find is a connection, an informal community that develops when we share our stories.

There is something deeply human in the need to tell stories.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for persuasion and perhaps even polemic.  But narratives move people to change, not because they have been duped but because they can relate to character and conflict and plot and setting.

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Sadly, the traditional “back to basics” Arne Duncan styled propaganda artists have become adept at telling a story of change.  It’s one of quick-fixes and high data and silverscreen superteachers who fix broken schools.  It’s as authentic and nostalgic as mock apple pie and if there’s just the right Cold Play in the background it can even sound inspirational.

We need to tell better stories.  Humble stories.  Honest stories.  We need human narratives that delve deeper than the latest gadget or the newest list.  We need humor and satire regarding the sometimes insane hurdle teachers face every time they attempt authentic change.  We need celebrations of victory that demonstrate the humanizing effects of authentic learning.  We need humble reflections about failure.  We need conversations that reflect not simply the ideal “what if” but the reality of what it’s like on the inside.

I’m not saying those stories aren’t out there.  I know there are bloggers telling those stories.  But if collectively we share a story, my hope is that it’s better and that it’s a better story because it’s real.  The true stories are often so honest, so painful and so bizarre that they are difficult to tell.  Yet, if we want to see change, story-telling has to be a part of it.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


9 thoughts on “better stories

  1. Oh, my, yes! We need better stories. We need honest stories. Real stories.

    Our stories are what connect us. Narratives do move people to change.

    Beautifully, beautifully said, John.

    Posted by Anne Kemp | July 22, 2010, 9:53 am
    • Thanks. How we get the stories out there can be more difficult. I’m not sure what the solution is in that respect. I loath most marketing because it is inherently slick, but I wonder what role marketing place in this situation.

      Posted by johntspencer | July 22, 2010, 1:48 pm
  2. In all seriousness and a little bit of deserved self-mockery, from now on, whenever I post something that’s all theory or just a bunch of questions, somebody add a comment like, “Dude, where’s the narrative?”

    Thank you,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 22, 2010, 7:14 pm
  3. thank you John. so glad you are here.

    a dear friend wrote a great book.. the strategy of constant change… he says it’s a strategy that has people and story telling at its core.

    good advice for us – from both of you.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 23, 2010, 1:07 am
  4. One way to reach parents and educators and engage them is these stories. People want to know about the real education system and how they can be a part of the change. How do they know what needs to be changed if we don’t share our stories. I think educators need to be heard as well as their stories and social media has made this possible. We know have forums to tell our stories in ways we are comfortable and we can make these stories viral through platforms like Youtube or Facebook. Teens share their stories everyday on social media forums. This is a part of their culture, yet, educators are so shy when it comes to this.

    Posted by Shelly Terrell | July 23, 2010, 8:19 am
  5. Thank you for the reminder John. Stories are our most powerful vehicles to connect people to their emotions and thereby encourage them to change. Many times people get so caught up in the intellectual side of things: theory, arguing semantics of “change”, etc. that they forget that we are talking about kids, their kids, our kids, the ones who will be around long after us. You are so right about the need for a collective voice. Thank you.

    Posted by Joan Young | August 2, 2010, 12:36 pm


  1. Pingback: About a girl (part 1) « Teaching as a dynamic activity - July 22, 2010

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