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.
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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.