Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

As far back as I can remember, I have loved to lose myself in a story, to immerse myself so deeply in the world of the story that it seems as if I’m a participant in that world. Throughout my youth, reading was always one of my favorite ways to spend time, much to the chagrin of my two younger brothers. When they wanted to play baseball (or basketball, or football, or swim in the pool) and I wanted to read my book, they had to find a way to convince me to stop reading. They could never do that, though, so they put their heads together and devised a blunt, but effective plan. One would jump on me and knock the book away, then wrestle with me to keep me busy while the other took the book and hid it. At that point it was easiest for me to just give in and go play whatever they wanted to play.

Many of you, since you are reading this, are probably from the group that immediately relates, thinking to yourself, “I totally understand that.” As educators, especially as teachers of language arts, it is critically important to realize that we seem weird to substantial portions of the population. Those differing reactions, merely show that reading is not any different than throwing a baseball, playing the piano, or riding a skateboard. It’s simply a set of abilities that to some of us comes naturally, and to others is a challenging and difficult skill to master.

I am convinced that when reading doesn’t come naturally to to someone, if they have rarely or never gotten lost in the world of a story, the enthusiasms of those of us who love to read aren’t very compelling in motivating them to put more effort into reading. 

Consider chess for a moment. I have tried, without success to enjoy playing chess. I have never succeeded. I understand the rules, but I am handicapped by two limitations: I can’t see the board in terms of patterns, and I am unable to keep more than two future moves in my head at one time. Without those abilities, I’ve never been successful at chess and have never enjoyed it.

But reading is not like chess. I have lived my life successfully so far without mastering chess. Yet as an English teacher, I am tasked with the responsibility of getting students to read more maturely. Worse, I must endeavor to get them to read and analyze complex narratives and develop the ability to recognize not only the literal meaning on the surface of a story, but also the hazy figurative meanings lurking like sharks in the sub-currents below the surface. What’s worse, academic tradition has decreed that to be considered educated, one must have a passing familiarity with a canon of traditional literature, much of it written in an idiom that has long since passed and filled with references to other literature that the author assumes the reader is familiar with. Finally, there is no explicit connection between mastering this literature and succeeding in most careers. 

A slight digression: the last few decades have served to uncover a host of wonderful multi-cultural literary offerings that is only gaining more steam. The realization that great literature doesn’t all come from an island in the North Atlantic has tended to drive the final nails in the coffin of the established canon. Let’s let it go.

Despite the discouragement presented by all these headwinds, I am convinced that it is critically important for students to, if not master, at least develop a fair degree of skill with relatively complex narratives. 

Throughout human history we have been storytellers, because it turns out a narrative is one of the most effective means of learning how to behave appropriately. OnFiction, which bills itself as an online magazine on the psychology of fiction, puts it this way:  “Our explanation is that fiction is a set of simulations of goings on in the social world, so that people who spend time with fiction become more socially skilled just as people who spend time in a flight simulator become better pilots that those who do not.

It also turns out the fiction is more convincing than non-fiction. As English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, Jonathan Gottschall, points out, “Brains on fiction ‘catch’ the emotions enacted on the page or screen. When we watch Clint Eastwood get mad on film, our brains look angry too; when the scene is sad, our brains also look sad.” As has been commented on ad infinitum recently, positive portrayals of gay couples in many TV show and movies, such as Modern Family, have begun to shift public views of gay marriage.

The reason we have always been storytellers also seems to have something to do with the social skills that significantly enabled us to become the dominant species on earth. At Penn State, Joseph Carroll and others found that positive characters tend to be ones who reflect values that promote social interaction, where negative characters tend to project desires for dominance of wealth, power, and prestige. In other words, stories promote getting along with each other rather than fighting each other for advantage. 

Though stories originated in oral tradition, in music, and in art, technology has broadened the opportunities for story telling. Writing, though it probably originated as a practical means of keeping track of items grown or traded, was one of the first new story telling technologies. It’s origins go back beyond the reach of history. Using paper as the means to record a story was an innovation that followed the invention of writing. The use of woodblock printing techniques in China in the early 3rd century, followed by the printing press in the 15th century. 

Drama goes back at least to the 5th century BCE, and perhaps existed before that, in a less formal way, as an extension of oral storytelling around campfires. With the invention of the movie camera in the late 19th century, drama could be recorded, which then evolved into broadcast technologies, first radio and then television. Computers and the Internet have now enabled viewers to choose when they want to view a story, as well as providing the capability to read a story on a portable electronic device.
So stories exist in many forms, and it is important that though students may have some forms of stories that they prefer–comic books, say, or television–they need to become at least comfortable with other, socially significant forms. To put that another way, for the foreseeable future, reading as a means of interacting with a story is going to remain an important, though not the only, way to interact with a story.

Our emphasis in schools on the written form of narrative tends overlook other useful means of accessing narrative. We need to teach students how to unlock the values and ideals that underline the plots in narratives of all sorts, and we ought to be careful not to focus almost solely on what for many students is the least accessible form: books. The written narrative is still important and needs to be a significant portion of the curriculum, but it need not be the only format we use.

Some suggestions? First, recognize that not every student is going to be an English major in college. Some will, and AP Literature and AP Composition need to be in the schedule for them. Most students, however, need to learn to think critically using more accessible material. 

I like to begin with fairy tales. They are short, easy to read, and they contain narrative elements that form an effective basis for introducing literary concepts to even reluctant readers. I also find that there is a wealth of short videos available that offer the same opportunity to analyze narrative structure, technique, and purpose. Discuss popular movies and TV shows for the same reason.

If you want to expose your students to Shakespeare, great. But don’t waste hours of class time illuminating the text in a line-by-line explication. This is heresy, but start with watching the play rather than ending with viewing it. Rather than assessing students with a recall test, focus on significant themes. Ask students to do close reading of a segment of the play–it overloads their circuits to do the entire thing. For an example of a unit that uses this approach, go to Heroes and Villains on my web site.

Just like with Shakespeare, far too much class time is wasted on reading novels. As English teachers, we love novels, but we must face the fact it simply takes too long to slog through one in class. The only narrative element that can’t be taught using short stories is the idea of the great works that must be read. As I said above, whatever value that notion creates, is not worth the time it takes to teach a novel in class.

Finally, A better way to give students exposure to novels is to use one of the variations of Literature Circles as an independent reading activity which can be designed to have a much lower class-time profile. The version that I used, which I called Book Clubs, can be found on my web site.

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