What’s My Story?

img_20181108_144324

Helsinki Airport Baggage Claim. Surprise representation.

 

Truth: I’m at a 2-day seminar for women educators interested in leadership. It is being led by a dynamic current head of school who has made it her mission to help stock the pipeline with capable women who belong in international school leadership.

We’re talking about the power of storytelling. Strong stories, told well and with intent create connections. The premise makes sense. Neurological research suggests that our emotional responses to stories feed and change our social brain. Being inspired has physiological consequences.

Our stories matter. How we receive and process stories matter.

And I am stumped. Because I consider exactly this – storytelling – to be an area of weakness. It’s why I never try to retell a joke or describe a supposedly funny thing I did. I’m willing to read fiction but not create it. Even true stories from my life feel odd to relate. To think of a story that is of emotional heft for me that then bears out some truth about my larger message feels like a significant hurdle that shouldn’t be.

Which is why I have taken on the expense of coming here, of taking part, of learning from fresh voices. As I run through my mental files, searching for the story I might need or that might do the job, I keep coming up with a blank. Or with stories I can’t find a connecting thread to. This is the point: facing the challenge of not knowing, of feeling off-base. By tomorrow, something will emerge. And it will be the right thing because it will be what I have at the moment.

From there I can build.

Right this moment I don’t know what my story is. Or which story is mine. Tomorrow I’ll know. I can hardly wait.

Storytelling Thoughts

once-upon-a-time-719174_1920

News flash: Storytelling has been co-opted by your nearest marketing department. In several circles it has become the heavy lifting arm of branding responsible for all the necessary work of attracting audience, fostering loyalty and reaching users/customers/stakeholders on that crucial emotional level. Companies develop stories in order to connect with their target groups. Schools and school districts have begun to position their stories among legislatures and policy makers as a means of advocating for programs and funding.

But there is of course more, much more to storytelling than its business potential in a variety of markets. And the rise of social media and digital communication platforms seems to have complicated our understanding and also processing of stories for business, for community, for individual relief or any combination of those possibilities. As humans we are made of stories, regardless of whether we tell them to others or not.

On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mia Steinberg took to Twitter to share some vital thoughts about distinguishing storytelling from testimony.

What struck me about this absolutely instructional thread was how it nudged me to think about how stories work in my own life and whom they serve at any given time. It also made me think about which stories are mine to tell and which ones may not be.

I don’t see myself as much of a storyteller. I enjoy commenting on my observations and drawing connections between other people’s stories. In particular I appreciate the way others use stories to tell us more about ourselves.

My 10 year old and I just finished our read-aloud of RJ Palacio’s Wonder. He loved it! “That’s my favorite book so far,” he said. It surprised him because as he pointed out, “It’s really just about a kid who’s deformed and going to school, but he’s really just a normal kid.” That he found himself teary at the tough parts and jumping out off the sofa to do a victory dance at the happy parts was new for him. After 6 books of Harry Potter and 3 of The Land of Stories, Wonder was the one that took him for a ride he never expected.

My friend, Bill Fitzgerald offered a link to a story that I stopped to read right away and I was captivated. Jaice Singer DuMars describes his difficult childhood that didn’t start off that way and a recovery in high school that allowed him to emerge on the other side of his experiences as a thoughtful, reflective adult. His essay “I am an impostor” tells several stories to convey a message of remarkable humanity and kindness:

I share my story because in my work supporting open source community, I see many people hiding in the shadows of their fear just as I did. They do not want to step into the light because they are afraid they don’t have what it takes, or are not good enough

When our open source communities focus on technical meritocracy, we are inadvertently creating an environment that promotes exclusion. All of the amazing talents, ideas, and gifts people have to share must find a home, or we are limiting the potential of what we can collectively accomplish.

DuMars uses his own story to build bridges especially to those in the open source community who may know those feelings and circumstances of inadequacy that hold us back from attempting the possible.

Meanwhile, as we hook ourselves up to the steady drip of social media updates, I can imagine that our individual appetites for stories, perhaps even our story metabolisms are undergoing changes which are challenging to recognize, difficult to diagnose. This is where people who help me tune in to the larger narratives in which we all have more than a bit part prove essential. Audrey Watters’ academic background in folklore studies is absolutely integral to the way she shows us and illustrates the stories we are being told about technology and education. Journalist Jordan Shapiro wants to correct our consumption of two popular narratives about the internet being the great social equalizer and that our digital tools are rotting our brains.

And let us not forget the hundreds of stories shared in response to this question posed by Chris G at the close of 2017:

Chris’s tweet received nearly 5000 retweets and 480 direct replies, plus many more responses where his tweet was quoted. Which is to say, people had tons of stories to share about absurd and/or invasive tech platform and product practices.

Then there was this one short tweet reminding me that certain stories become a ticket that must be presented to satisfy the gatekeepers:

Meandering through these examples, I remember that I started with the idea of how stories carry the potential to tell us more about ourselves. Now I see that I’m also thinking about how stories are packaged and delivered; how they reach us and I’m wondering about how these ancillary factors figure in the mix.

From our story appetites to story diets to our story metabolism – that is, how we digest and process the stories we hear, respond to or even internalize –  this feels like something we should be looking at in our day-to-day studies of life in progress. Consider, too, the stories we literally are served via algorithms which always learn more about us in the process rather than less. These same algorithms also allow platforms and third party entities to create their own stories about us and our friends, interests, habits and plans – in order to lubricate the economy through piercingly targeted advertising which should lead us from thought bubble to checkout in the space of a few clicks and keystrokes.

Those of us deeply engaged in social media and immersed in digital spaces face enhanced challenges to our understanding and application of story (which sounds very clinical to my ears, but hey).  As we’ve learned, just about anything can be weaponized in the attention economy and narratives are no different. Part of me dreads the extra cognitive load of rethinking my story diet and metabolism – paying closer attention to my sources, balancing my intake, noticing immediate and latent effects. At the same time, remaining receptive to the magic that stories can give us – like my son responding to Wonder – that is worth working to preserve.

 

 

For Here or To Go?

"Yes, I'll have that lesson to go..."

“Yes, I’ll have that lesson to go…”

This morning I was out for a jog and something dawned on me: Great teaching is something that sticks with you. That was the start. Then the thought began to evolve.

Is it the teaching or is it the learning? I asked myself.

What great teaching am I carrying with me right now as I pick up the pace?

I began assembling my stories; stories of the great teachers, the great lessons, the deep learning I was sporting as I lengthened my stride.

  • Story #1: The speedskating race. I did my first long distance speed skating race on January 2nd. I completed 15 laps of a 2.1km course in a little less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. Throughout, I could hear my coach’s whisper at each step, “feet together, feet together.”
  • Story #2: Reading aloud. One of my greatest joys as a parent was and still is reading aloud to my sons (aged 20 and 7). My mother surely instilled and inspired this habit in me. Every time I hear myself read aloud with passion, I imagine my mother looking on with pride.
  • Story #3: Sticking with the run I was on. It would have been easy to stop and walk, especially as I was plodding uphill. And there I heard a variety of voices, including my own, reminding me that I could and would succeed because: I know how this goes, I’ve tackled this before, I set the pace, the choice is mine and look at the blessings that surround me.
  • Story #4: The will to keep writing. Several folks have had a hand in this one, yet my thoughts actually go back to two of my high school teachers, Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Nelson, who encouraged me to recognize my writing as a definitive strength and that I should therefore dare to be confident in doing it. That lesson took a long while to kick in (some 20 years, at least). If they only knew…

So as I continued to chew on this line of thinking, I arrived at this: Great teaching, which often goes hand in hand with great learning, becomes great because it has staying power. Great lessons stick with you, are portable and transferable. Over time these lessons can become so uniquely and intimately useful to you as to no one else. This is what makes the learning your own.

I hesitate to draw the connection to education or schooling, because we know teaching, learning and lessons to be so much more, so much broader than what we tend to stuff into our favorite labeled compartments of education and schooling.  So think big and broad with me here, let’s go deep and not linger on the surface. When you consider some of your own great teaching, learning and lessons, both in the past and to come, would you like that for here, or to go?

Personally, I’ll take all three to go with a big side of uncertainty because there’s the catch – we just can’t know or predict before hand exactly what will stick with whom and when. All the same, let’s have the “to go” model in mind when we are serving up our best fare to students, colleagues, and loved ones. They will thank us. Someday.