Cultural Selection and Personal Geography

On April 18, 2009, Walter Dean Myers delivered the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, “The Geography of the Heart.” In his speech, which may be read in “Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children” Volume 7, Number 3, Myers walks back through the defining passages of his life. As he takes the reader back in time, Myers identifies various geographies that defined his life. These include the physical, cultural, societal, and personal geographies. When we take all of these into account, we are able to begin to view what shapes and defines us. Myers explains:

The new geography defines our positions in the world not by the usual topographical references, but rather, by the socioeconomic factors which allow us or prevent us from recreating our particular social segments in a positive manner. To say we live in New York or San Francisco is no longer significant because those geographical references fail utterly to describe where we are in relationship to American culture. It is far more accurate to say that I am in a position that I cannot perpetuate my family history because there are no jobs available for me to build an economic base or that my family has become so dysfunctional that recreation cannot be positive.

Think of the community in which you live. Now, move closer in and look at the families and the children. What are the means available to them? What are their daily experiences? What are the choices they are making? Are they true believers in the education that is offered them? Are you? What do we need to do to improve their education so that they are able to participate in the American economy?

Myers vividly points out:

The opportunities of economic globalization in a world that is divided into the G20 entities and nations approaching stark desperation, is changing the world. We ship those jobs abroad, jobs which at one time represented the ladder poor Americans climbed. Globalization is irreversible and results, considering the world’s economic demography, in the very simple idea that to imply or train the full range of our American population, is not a sound economic concept when cheaper labor can be found overseas. The poorest children, often African American and Latino but increasingly Caucasian as well, are simply not needed under this scheme. This damning reality is the beast lurking in our streets, capturing the hearts of our young.

What can we do? Do we dare sit idly by watching and waiting for another shift or change to happen to us and our children? Or do we become leaders who are willing to continue learning and putting that learning into action that supports and uplifts our community? Again, look around you. There are so many areas in the community and in our schools where we may be effective. We must decide how we will accomplish this, and we do not have to do it alone.

In the library and in classrooms, we have opportunities to select materials for our readers that may shape and define their lives. Many times we look to the make-up of our communities to fill in the gaps by providing reading materials that will enrich culture and being. For young readers and those who have difficulty reading, books or other materials that are related to their culture are important to give readers a boost. Yet, Myers believes that additional reading materials are necessary. He said:

But I’m adamant in believing that we can’t restrict reading only to books that share a congruency with the reader’s immediate life. We have to stretch the boundaries and increase the reader’s cultural awareness.

Taking personal geography into account, Myers recommends that children should be given the opportunity to stretch their boundaries through reading, and as he stated later in the lecture, that takes them to a universal understanding of love and meaning that all people experience. This is something he does with his books, as do many other authors. Yet, in his lecture, Myers provides an excellent explanation and identification of where we should be headed as a whole.

Like Myers, let’s love what we do. Let’s reach out and discover who the children are and travel with them through their experiences in our classrooms and libraries. Let’s help to build strong, capable children who will be able to survive and succeed in the American economy.

Responsible Storytelling

Storytelling is a powerful tool. Through stories, we are able to:

  • Identify patterns
  • Make connections
  • Become empowered
  • Learn ways to handle problems
  • Identify or eliminate suspects through who, what, and when
  • Experience satisfaction
  • Test ideas
  • Identify and understand the forces empacting us

Cognitive psychologists claim that stories are a fundamental part of intelligence and imagination.

Stories and storytelling are major tools for shaping thought. If we are going to use them as tools, we should do so responsibly. This requires consideration of our intended audience and a definition of our goal(s).

Think of how powerful video vignettes that include people’s stories are, especially if they are showcased with related memorabilia. These stories have the strength to wrestle with conflicting opinions or information. Politicians and advertisers have made great use of them. For example, what was your opinion of Tiger Wood’s lifestyle prior to the Thanksgiving weekend incident? Tiger Woods did not create that image because apparently he was living in a far different way than most people expected or imagined.

There are positive and educational ways to use storytelling. Stories are able to encourage problem solutions, best practices, and lessons learned. The best way for this to occur is through a storytelling session where someone shares one of their stories with the audience, then discussion and information sharing follows.

Educators are able to use storytelling for leaps of understanding. By sharing a story that enables listeners to grasp how something may change, storytelling adds knowledge gains. This builds credibility. Powerful emotions may be released leading to bonding among the audience. Not only this, story gives permission for the exploration of controversial or uncomfortable topics. Responsibility that recognizes the diversity of the population will tread cautiously here because point of view may be swayed and move some towards change. We would not want to be held accountable for creating conflict through the stories that are shared when it comes to the relationships of students and their parents.

On the upside, storytelling is able to create heroes. Sharing stories that provide examples of character-building behavior lifts the spirits. Again, think of your former knowledge concerning the story of Tiger Woods prior to the events that unfolded leading to the tarnishing of his image.

Case studies that are reviewed by students create opportunities for learning. Students are able to succeed by absorbing facts and theories as they review a real problem. The case study may be analyzed with the educator guiding the way. Synthesis of conflicting data may occur. Points of view may be examined. Whatever the case study places in front of the students gives time for seizing an opportunity.

Storytelling is a powerful tool that requires the educator to practice responsibility when using it. Goals should be set that recognize the diversity of students. When done appropriately, storytelling is able to offer an excellent vehicle through which learning may occur.

Using Storytelling with Students as the Tellers

The first reaction that I receive from teachers when I talk to them about storytelling is that they think of themselves as the storyteller or students retelling a story that is memorized. What if the stories told are by the students only and these stories are their stories? I am sure we can easily imagine our time with our students running rampant with stories that engage other students, but not necessarily how we desire for everyone to interact.

It would be much better is we set the stage by utilizing these ideas:

  • Stories relate to a sense of community. Since our students belong to the class community, they build relationships with each other. There is also a culture that exists in this community that reflects the students.
  • We can use stories to talk about life experience. Students have stories that come from the events of their lives. They are natural born storytellers, especially if given the opportunity to share what they know. When they retell their stories, they may discover new insights or possibilities.
  • If we want to use storytelling with students, we must set the parameters for the best possible outcomes for learning.  To begin we must be clear about what is expected of them as they explore a topic and find their relational stories. Asking a question that sets the tone and acts as a prompt is an excellent way to do this.
  • Reminding them how to listen to others as they listen to stories is important as well. They should not interrupt the storyteller. Also, they should not think about their story while listening to someone’s story. Finally, they should try to think of a title that they would like to give to the person’s story that they are listening to. Active listening is engagement and helps to maintain community and adds to the culture of the group.
  • Ask yourself, how much time do you have to devote or allow for the storytelling process to occur during your lesson. Should you break students up into large or small groups? Should students work with only a partner? Do you want students to share a few stories with all of the students when you come back together? If so, how will you determine which stories are told. Remember that adults are able to listen to about 4-5 stories in a row. For children, the number will be less.
  • Ideally, the storytelling will help students to process what they know. Schedule time for students to talk about the stories they hear. The conversations will help solidify the theme that is being examined. New learning will become more apparent through the discussion making it easier for students to identify what they are studying.
  • Selecting topics for storytelling are best chosen when they represent successes or joy. The goal here is to encourage students to think about what we want them to focus on. If sad or depressing stories are the focus, we may offer opportunities for students to not experience success.
  • Storytelling works well with topics that require the building of knowledge. When students engage in telling stories that lead to them seeing how the puzzle pieces fit together, an excitement of understanding may break out. Synergy can be created leading to better understanding of the topic.

When storytelling is combined with students who are telling about what they know and the topic that we are attempting to help students understand, the resulting stories may enrich the learning and the community to which the students belong. A larger view of the world is embraced. Relationships grow. Storytelling may be the key to success for some topics that we teach where we have not experienced that success before with students.

Look Who’s Telling Stories!

I found an interesting read concerning storytelling and the business world. The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) surveyed 345 of its members to find out how business people use storytelling in their organizations to encourage employees. Since it is common for PowerPoint, newsletters and memos to be used for communicating information such as facts and statistics, storytelling may be incorporated to reach the intended audience.

Storytelling provides a way to share information in motivating ways. Stories bring forth emotions. They are less structured (unlike a bulleted list). They help listener’s connect through their prior experiences and make associations.

The largest obstacle found to using stories is lack of time to collect stories and resources from whom the stories may be derived.

The article was very interesting. It offered additional information as to how stories connect people and story strategies for the business world.

If we are teaching future children who will participate in the business community as adults, should we not also teach them the importance of storytelling? Allowing them to share true stories that are discovered through interviewing someone would be a good experience for students’ preparation and participation in good communication practices.

Reference:

Ioffreda, A., & Gargiulo, T. (2008). Who’s telling stories? Communication World, 25(1), 37-39.