Working to Change the Narrative- An Inquiry Into Story

Working to Change the Narrative: An Inquiry Into Story

When I first made the decision to tell my students that I am gay, part of what motivated me was a desire to change the narrative that my students had of people who were gay. For some of my students, the only things they had heard about gay people were the stereotypes they had been fed by television and movies.  For other students, the only things they knew were the awful things they were told by others who were fearful or intolerant or ignorant.

So when I made the decision to come out to my students, my hope was that when my students thought of someone who was gay, they would not think about some caricature or television character or some stereotype or about something awful that someone once described to them. Instead, they would think about their fifth grade teacher. They would think about the teacher who loved them and was (mostly) patient with them and who maybe even helped them to learn something about themselves and this world we live in. I wanted to change the narrative.  I wanted to add to the story that they knew about people who are gay.

As teachers, we make choices all the time about which stories we bring into our classrooms and which stories we leave out of our classrooms.  We choose which stories to read all together and which stories to quietly leave in a corner of our classroom libraries. We make choices about which stories are given voice and space in our classrooms and which ones are silenced. That is a lot of power and I think we need to start to do more with it.

With all that is going on in this world, with all of the hate, with all of the violence, I have been thinking so much recently about stories. The stories we know. The stories we don’t know. The ones that are told. The ones that are hidden. The sensational ones that are fed to us by all sorts of media because they are the ones that will make someone money. And the quieter stories that are often kept hidden for fear that they will not bring viewers or clicks or dollars.

I have been thinking about the stories that play in our heads when we walk down the streets. When we encounter a person. When we encounter a person and immediately try to place them in a preexisting box that we know and are comfortable with because we know a certain story about the kind of person who fits in that box and that makes us feel like we know the actual person.  And somehow we are comforted by that kind of knowing.

But that kind of knowing is killing us.

Deciding that we know a person because of the stories we have been told. The stories that are far too often, far too incomplete.  We make judgements based on what we think we know. We make decisions based on who we think a person is. We take actions based on the stories that we believe we understand.

And for too many people, the stories that we think we know are inadequate and they are dangerous.

So when I return to my classroom in the fall, we will begin our year with an inquiry into story. I do not have it all planned yet and I know that I won’t be able to have it all planned until I am sitting there with my students.  But I know that it is where I need to begin.

I want to help my students to change the incomplete narratives that so many of them have for so many people in this world. My students are not an extremely diverse group when it comes to races and religions and ethnicities. So much of the knowledge that they have about people in this world comes not from their own experiences, but from the stories that they have been told by others. And I believe that we can work to change the limited narratives that they hold about others. The ones that can be damaging. We can work to dig deeper into the stories of others and to learn to ask questions of the stories that we think we know in order to gain a more full, a more complex, a more complete understanding of someone’s story.

I want to have my students look at stories that are told in which they can see themselves reflected. To think about how the stories of others can be our mirrors and how seeing ourselves within these stories can help us feel less alone in this world.

And then I want them to look at the stories of others in which they cannot see themselves, but through which they can see into the lives of others. I want to help them to use these  stories as windows to look into the lives of others and learn about the lives of others. But I do not want to stop there. I want to help them to learn to ask questions that will lead them to further inquiry in order to uncover the more complete stories that are waiting to be told.

I hope the examine stories that are told in many different ways. Stories that are captured in photographs, in photo essays, in projects like Humans of New York, or StoryCorps, stories that are told through Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and stories told through memoirs and short stories and picture books and blog posts. I want them to read these stories and learn to ask questions that will help them to understand more than simply what they are given or what they find when they do a single Google search. I want them to learn to want to know more than what is nestled in the first story that they read.

We will watch The Danger of a Single Story and work to understand the powerful words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so that we go do better than just stopping at a single story. We will choose stories that we want to learn more about and we will push ourselves to change our existing narratives.

And at the same time, I want to help my students to take control of the narrative that is being told about them. I want them to think about the following questions:

What do others believe about you?

What do you believe about yourself?

And then I want them to take time to think about the stories that they can tell from their own lives in order to disprove or to prove that those things are or are not true. I want us to learn from the mentor texts that we will study as we read the stories of others and I want them to learn that they, too, have stories to share with the world. And I want them to find ways to tell these stories that make sense to them. Perhaps it will be through written word, perhaps through digital story telling, perhaps through a speech or through a picture books. But they must find a way to take control of the narrative being told about who they are.

There is a lot that I am not sure of right now. But I know that this is where I need to go with my students.  I know that there is work to be done. I know that we have the power to change some of the destructive narratives that have been kept alive for far too long in this country. I am not sure how to do it, but as I just read today in this article with the brilliant Chris Lehmann who runs the Science Leadership Academy, “Inquiry means living in the soup. Inquiry means living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.”

So I am uncomfortable with all that I do not know and I am also incredibly excited at the work that lies ahead.  Should you have any ideas that can help my students and I along our way, please feel free to leave them below.

 

 

 

Sharing storiesis something we all can do

Sharing Stories Is Something We Can Do

Philando Castile.

Alton Sterling.

Two more names added to a list that is far too long. It’s length isn’t what troubles me the most. What troubles me the most is the fact that such a list exists. That is what breaks my heart and makes me want to scream and has had me crying in bursts for the past two days. There is a list of the number of people killed in this country by police officers.  A big list. A list that has the names of more black people than white people. Far more.

And each time a new name is added to this list, a new hashtag is started. Each time we again shake our heads and say we feel helpless and say that we don’t know what we are supposed to do to fix any of this.  Each time we have to listen to people tell us that racism ISN’T the issue here, that racism is not the reason this is happening, that racism is not what caused the death of these beautiful humans. We have to watch people we respect and admire say that if only these people would have done what they are supposed to do, then they would not be dead.

And then we ask, “What on earth are people supposed to do?” It’s been said so many times. It does not matter what people do. People are being shot and killed because of the fear that white people have of black people. White people who have guns and who have been shown time and time again that they have permission to kill black people and not get in trouble for it.  How is that not about racism?

Today my Facebook page is filled with people saying that they don’t know what to do. That they are angry and sad and heartbroken, but they don’t know what to do.  And, of course, none of us can do one thing, in one day, and make racism go away. It obviously doesn’t work like that.

But we who educate children, we have NO RIGHT to say that we don’t know what to do. Because we do. We might be scared to do it. We might be uncertain of how to do it. We might feel uncomfortable doing it. But we know what we can do.

We can do better. We can teach our children to do better. We can have conversations about race. We can share stories of others who have experienced racism. We can stop pretending that these are not our issues to discuss. Because we can sit around and wait for the politicians to fix things, but I sense that will lead us only to frustration. We can sit around and wait for the media to do a better job. We can sit around and wait for the publishing world to do a better job. We can sit around and wait for humans in general to do a better job.

Or. We, the educators of children, we can simply start to do a better job. Because as the country began to expose the obvious racism that exists here today, too many of our classrooms stayed silent on any issue of race. As protestors and activists bravely fought  in the streets of our country, too many of us stayed silent on any issue of race. Because as writers of color began to expose the many, complicated issues of race that infect our country and the people living in it, too many of the stories we shared with children left all of that out.

So today, I will stop saying that I do not know what to do and instead I will start to say what I do know how to do and that is to share the stories of others.  One simple thing that I can do is to read and listen to and seek out the stories of others who have experienced racism in this country and then share those with my students. Because if we do that, then our students will not grow up believing that race doesn’t matter or that there is not racism left here in America. Our students will not be the ones saying that none of this has to do with race. Because they will know. They will know because they will have learned from the stories of others.

So many people of color are generously making themselves vulnerable in order to share their stories so that they can be heard. So many people of color are shouting their heartbreaking stories into the world so that we will hear them and learn from them. So many people of color are willing to tell their darkest moments so that those of us who claim we didn’t know how bad it was can finally start to see the truth.

Those stories are a gift.

And sharing stories is something we all can do.

Here are some stories that I will begin with:

The story of #ITooAmHarvard

Traffic Stop from Story Corps

Your Stories of Racism from The Atlantic

Alton Sterling and Facts a blog post from Matthew R. Morris

Being 12: Kids Talk About Race

Color Blind or Color Brave? TED Talk from Melody Hobson

How to Raise a Black Son in America: TED Talk from Clint Smith

If you know of other stories, written or spoken, please share them with me in the comments below. The more stories we can share with our students, the more hope we can have that they are going to be the ones to do something to make the world a better place.