The Power of Telling Your Own Story

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” These words are spoken by the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her extremely powerful and popular TED talk titled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” 

I have watched this TED talk multiple times. The first time I watched it, I was simply in awe of the revelations that it led me to and the thinking that it caused me to do about my own perceptions of the world and why they existed in the way that they did. The next few times that I watched it, I was struck by its implications for the work that my students and I did with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the need for diverse characters and books in general. But the most recent time that I watched it, I was taken by the way this brilliant writer viewed stories and how she viewed writing as a powerful act. It made me think about the power of our own stories. The power of writing our own stories. How empowering writing can be.

And that made me think, “How come my students don’t see writing their own stories that way?” How come my students see the writing of their own stories as little more than a school assignment? How come my students don’t see writing their own stories as a brave and bold act? How come my students don’t see their own stories as powerful?

And then I realized. It is because I have never taught them to view stories in that way. I have not taught them the power of a story. I have not shared with them that writing their stories can be powerful. You see, I get so caught up in teaching my students how to be good writers, that sometimes I forget to take the time to help them to see why we are writing in the first place.

Yes, when I teach persuasive writing or how to write op-eds, I explicitly teach my students how writing can be an act of defiance. How writing can give you a voice to make positive social change. How writing can draw people’s attention to what is wrong in the world and provide ideas on how to change it.

But I have never taught them that stories have that same kind of power. I have never showed them how people’s stories have helped change my own thinking about the world and have moved me to want to make changes. I have never shared with them the stories that I have heard and read that have made me want to do better and be better. I have never modeled for them how I have been able to tell my own story in order to help people better understand me and people who are like me.  I have never shared with them the power of telling your own story.

So I need to change that.

And this year, I plan on doing that through our first writing unit on memoirs.  By the time my students reach me in fifth grade, they have written dozens of small moment stories. And so, when I introduce our first writing unit on personal narratives and memoirs, my students automatically assume that they will be writing another small moment story. That is when our work as fifth grade teachers begin. We show them that this year, they are going to use all that they have learned while writing small moment stories and now they are going to write about the big moments in their lives. The moments that have taught them something or helped them to realize something or showed them something important about the world. We show them that a memoir includes not only the telling of the story, but then the author’s reflection on why that story mattered in his or her own life.

But this year, I want to change that just a little bit.  This year, I want to help my students to see that a story can do more than just share what the author learned or realized. A story, more importantly, has the power to teach others something important. A story, told well, has the power to teach readers about the lives of other people that are vastly different than their own. A story, told well, has the power to connect readers to a shared experience and make people feel less alone in the world. A story, told well, has the power to build empathy and understanding and thereby make others want to do better and be better. This is the power of telling your own story.

In order to start building this understanding with my students, I want to share with them the stories that I have read and listened to this summer that have helped me to better understand the complex issues of race that are so important to be understood. I want to share the stories of Clint Smith and Mellody Hobson and even of kids who are nearly the same age as my students and I want to talk with my students about what these stories help us to understand and why it is important that these brave individuals are sharing their stories.

And if I am brave enough (which I am not yet sure that I will be) I will show my students how this blog has given me a space to share my own stories with others. I will show how others have been able to learn about what it is like to be an LGBT teacher. I will show how sharing my story of coming out has allowed me to connect with other LGBT educators. I will show how sharing my story of what it is like to be gay has allowed others to think differently about privilege. It is hard for me to admit that my stories have power, but I know that if I am going to ask my students to believe this, then I must begin to believe it myself.

And then we will have the hard task in front of us of finding stories from our own lives that have the power to teach others something or to help others feel less alone. And I know this will be hard. The truth is that my students have only been alive for ten short years. Many of my students have had lives that are pretty easy. Many of my students don’t know what it is really like to struggle. But I don’t think that is the point. The point is that we all have something to teach other people and we all have stories in our lives that reflect those lessons. Our job, as writers, will be to find those stories and then work to share them with others in effective ways.  I will ask them to think about the following questions: What do I know that other people might not know? What have I realized about this world that might be able to help others? What do I want people to know about what it is like to be me? What have I gone through that I wish other people understood? What stories from my life can show those things to my readers?

I have no idea how all of this work will really unfold because I know that my students are going to have a lot to teach me. I know that I will have to model for them the way that stories can teach and inspire and connect. I know that I will have to model for them how I can find stories in my own life that can teach and inspire and connect others. I know that I will have to provide many opportunities for students to talk to each other about the stories from their own lives. I know many students will struggle and will instantly go to the, “But I don’t have any stories that are important in my own life.” And that struggle is kind of exciting to me. Because then this work becomes about way more than writing. Then this work becomes the work of helping students see that their lives are all important. That they all have stories to tell. That they all have the ability to teach and inspire and connect others through their writing. Then this work becomes about empowering our students and helping them to see how important their voices are to this world. Then this work becomes about helping each and every single child believe that his or her life and his or her stories have value and worth and the power to affect others.

And then, maybe, my students just might begin to see the power of telling their own stories.

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4 thoughts on “The Power of Telling Your Own Story

  1. Excellent questions to ask students to get them writing. I find it also helps to let students know that sometimes we have to tell the same stories over and over and over until we find out what they really are about and what they mean and say about us.

  2. Pingback: Merging Our Reading and Writing Instruction | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  3. Pingback: What My Students Taught Me About Writing Fiction | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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