story = narrative + informational + opinion

Yesterday I had the privilege to hear James Kofi Annan tell his story. He is a survivor of child slavery. After he escaped, he eventually became a business man. Then he left his promising career in order to fight for freedom for Ghana’s children. He started Challenging Heights as a place to protect and educate children.

I am moved by his story. It is one made up of nightmares and eventually overcoming them. It is a story of walking away from prestige and money. James’ story faces the horrors of this world, and compels me to do everything I can, in my corner of the world, to make it right.

Which makes me think about writing and teaching writers, since that’s what makes up much of my little corner of the world. This weekend I spent most of my reading time studying and highlighting and thinking about Common Core State Standards, as well as the PARCC Model Content Framework for ELA. It’s not the easiest thing for me to read. I have to drink lots of water and eat Saletine crackers to try to keep my stomach settled. (It doesn’t really work.) One of the things that is unsettling to me is the emphasis of nonfiction and opinion reading and writing at the sacrifice of narrative.

Story changes the world.

It is easy to get caught up in the push to prepare students for the big assessment. Our country is currently infatuated by standardized tests. I want students to meet high expectations. I want them to write concisely and conventionally. I want to teach effectively.  I’m on the playing field of public education, so I am compelled to play by the rules laid out by the Department of Education.

Then I am moved by a story like James’. And I remember it is story that will change the world.

It is my quest to make Mission: Story intersect with Common Core State Standards. I think it can be done. It’ll take strong shoulders and a little bit of courage. Narrative is the heart of making sense of the the world. Informational is the fodder for understanding the intricacies of the world. And opinion helps us move others into action. James Kofi Annan used all three modes. One is not more important than another. The stories that inspire us eloquently combine all three. Here’s to making our writing workshops do the same.

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  1. Today after school I will attend a meeting on the writing curriculum (or lack thereof) in our district. There is a push for textbooks–my push will be to just write. But I am not naive enough to think that is all we need, but I want them to know that writing every day and the telling of stories is important to the development of our students as writers. Thank for this. I will take it with me

  2. I spent some time this weekend reading SBAC documents.

    As I am thinking about the discussions about different genres, one aspect that I was glad to hear emphasized a few times in recent months is that when people talk about break-downs, such as using the NAEP framework to say 50/50, etc., it is throughout the whole day, not just in ELA.

    I think that we will need to keep bringing this idea up and work hard to foster collaborative relationships with colleagues in other content areas in order to make this happen.

  3. My husband used to work on Capitol Hill. He would always tell me that they could prepare dozens of reports full of facts and statistics and data of all sorts. And then, one person would get up there and share their story. And that one voice – and we know that voice represents so many – would have the biggest impact. We are human, and thus, innately moved by story…

    There is plenty of room for this – even in our “modern” educational system! Keep up the good fight!

  4. I spent some time diving in and immersing myself in the common core standards once again after school today. I have removed myself from the front lines of curriculum development. I can't say I miss the stress, but I do worry about the way our district will interpret what these documents mean for our students.

    Your mission is an important one. I think Mission:Story is the title of your next professional book. I devour your posts on this subject, and story is an idea I can't get enough of exploring.

    I have been working to teach my 8th graders the power of anecdotes in informational and argumentative texts. This is the first year I have really come to a deep enough understanding myself of this aspect of craft to make my teaching of it truly effective. I have to attribute that largely to you.

  5. It seems so clear to me that no matter what genre being written, it is telling a story. It needs to be good writing that is passionate and informed. I love all that the rest of you said, & especially Dahlia's example of story being so effective. Thanks Ruth, and all, for forging on.

  6. I love your determination to keep teaching the way you believe. Your dedication to your students is evident throughout your post. I agree that stories are so incredibly powerful, and it's sad that they are being portrayed as “less essential”, when really they can be the most effective way to move people's hearts and change their minds. Thanks for sharing your reflections on how narrative can be incorporated with the other types of writing (and reading)!

  7. Thank you for your heartfelt articulation of this challenge of teaching genres.

    At WriteSteps, we work at the K-5 level, and I've heard both parents and teachers bemoan the emphasis the Common Core gives to writing opinion pieces and using evidence. They are worried that children will be forced into “academic” writing too soon, that it will kill their creativity.

    Fortunately, at the elementary level, the Common Core still leaves plenty of room for narrative writing too. Still, I agree with what you, Linda, and Dahlia are saying: opinion writing and informational writing do not have to mean the end of storytelling. Expressing an opinion and giving evidence to back it up, as James Kofi Annan has done, can make for powerful storytelling. It can move us to take action such as supporting a cause, or it can be purely entertaining, transporting us to another time.

    One day last fall I was driving home after listening to some parents at a soccer game worry about the new emphasis on informational and opinion writing in elementary school. I turned on NPR and heard a marvelous piece called “Major League Longing: What Happens After Game 7,” in which the author, Glenn Stout, conveyed the emptiness he feels when baseball season ends every year. In a strict sense, this would be considered “narrative” writing. But what made it work was his use of detail (“evidence”) to put his audience smack in the middle of his experience. It was a short piece, but so poignant that I found myself missing baseball too! I was “persuaded” that baseball is valuable to its fans for reasons I had never considered. I was “informed” that it is like a companion in their lives. I enjoyed that little story immensely, and though it was written to entertain, one could argue that it was a mix of several genres.

    Good storytelling includes a variety of elements. Still, it's not a bad thing to introduce children to practicing these elements in their pure forms. I learned to write by the rules. Now I know when and how to break them for effect. We have to learn to walk before we can run. As long as we strive to really hear our students and celebrate their efforts (while we're teaching them to structure their ideas so their audience can “get” what they're saying), we'll give them something of value, no matter what genre we're teaching. They will start by walking, and then they'll run. Many will even fly.