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Educational Expression: Creating Connections Through Stories

| Elena Aguilar

There is the possibility of profound transformation in telling our stories and listening to the stories of other people. This belief is at the core of why I read and write, and why I'm passionate about developing a love for reading and writing in students. Stories reach across and through our racial, ethnic, economic, linguistic, gender, and religious constructs to connect us. With each story we spin, the web of interconnectedness grows, and perhaps, if that web gets strong enough, we -- as a species -- might just make it.

I am in the business of asking for, telling, and creating stories. This is what I do with my students. I ask for their stories. I give them tools to be more effective at this job. I offer them many ways to tell their stories: visually, photographically, musically, poetically, and so on. I ask and ask.

I share stories by other people and tug students' awareness to their own transformations after reading something such as Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise." And then I ask for their stories again.

I also guide students in creating new stories about who they are. I have always worked with low-income, urban students of color. The dominant and official "story" (and history) of these people is not always accurate or respectful. I help students deconstruct American and world history. I help them see the stories that don't get told or that -- on the few occasions that they are presented -- are distorted and inaccurate.

And then I ask my students again to tell their stories. I compel and command them to tell their stories. I give them more tools to do so. I help them refine their tools.

I create safe spaces in the classroom where they can share their stories with one another, and then I look for venues outside of our room, school, and city. When my students begin to learn that their lives and experiences are interesting to others, when they hear strangers say, "I have never seen seventh graders do such amazing work; I never knew middle school students were capable of this," then they produce more and the quality of their work soars.

Sometimes it feels so simple, this business of teaching. Everyone wants to be heard. Just ask for stories.

I also tell my own stories, selectively and thoughtfully, but honestly. I listen and then share the ones I know they'll connect with. Especially at the beginning of the year, I need to make connections with my students.

Making these connections is one reason I teach. In my next post, I'll tell you others and ask you to share your reasons.

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Comments (47)

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Dawn Bell (not verified)

Story Telling

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Thank you very much for sharing your story Elena. I live in Alaska where I have been teaching 3rd grade for the last 7 years. My students can come up with the most vivid stories orally, but when they are asked to write them down frustration sets in. This year I'm going to incorporate digital story telling into my lessons. I'm hoping this will trigger the creative side of my students and those wonderful stories will begin to flow.

Michelle Gentile (not verified)

Kindergarten Teacher

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Elena
I have just started teaching Kindergarten in an inner city school. I have found that the children love to listen to stories as much as I love reading to them. I've always been one of those teachers who utilizes "teachable moments" as much as I can. Today, I had some time after our math lesson, so I began making up a story. I introduced the story with just a few words, and then opened the class up to adding their own piece to the story. The children really enjoyed it, each putting their own twist into the story, yet never veering away from the subject. When everyone had something to add, I ended the story and did a quick synopsis from beginning to end. The children knew what part of the story they added, and were so proud of their part in making a delightful story. At the end of the story they cheered and clapped for each other. I told them we would create another story tomorrow, draw an illustration for their part of the story and create a book. It was one of those moments that I could inspire them to use their own creativity.

Erika Dauber (not verified)

Storytelling At Stanford

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Hi Elena, Thank you for your wonderful story! I would love to speak to you further about your storytelliing experiences with students. I am hoping to do my Master's project about digital storytelling and youth! Keep up the amazing work!!

Olivia (not verified)

Outside The Box

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I was inspired after reading your blog. I too have found it fascinating to see the results when students realte an assignment to their own life and their own experiences. They seem to take much more pride in what they are doing. Also, in the days of tests and procedures, it is a breath of fresh air to get outside the box and allow the creative juices to flow. Thank you for sharing.

Erin O'Brien (not verified)

Expression Through Story Telling

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I completely agree with both of you. I have found that students seem to act and think more like adults when they are treated as such. Not to mention, story telling helps you verbalize things as your are doing them or as how they happened, which is important in the development of spoken language and ordering thought processes especially in younger children. I also believe that it is important to keep in mind the point of the story so you do not constantly go on tangents (which some of my teachers had done). Sometimes tangents are necessary when having a conversation, but other times we need to make our point and move on. By not "sugar coating" things and telling it like it is, we open children's eyes to the real world and yet also let them know that we too are human beings (not just a teacher who eats and sleeps at school).

Melissa, Atlanta, Georgia (not verified)

Telling Stories

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I was inspired as I read your post. I teach high school English and find myself in the doldrums of irrelevant material and standardized testing. But, the simplicity of having children tell their stories is refeshing and compelling. My students are about to begin their study of poetry and I am rejuvinated by the idea of having their experiences with poetry focused on biography. In fact, I cannot wait to read their stories through poetry. I agree, getting children to write is easy when they are emotionally connected to that about which they are writing. I also was touched by your idea of deconstruction. Children believe untruths because they have not critically engaged with their world. Instead, they have simply been told "truths" and have made them their own stories. How many children really know why they are who they are? Deconstruction is one of our highest responsibilites as educators. Thank you for your insight!

Corey Boen (not verified)

Story telling

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Elena
I really liked this posting. I have been working with a man that teaches History to 7th graders for about 8 years now and he is a great story teller. I know your posting centered around getting your kids to tell stories, but in this case he uses some great stories to get his information across. His students are smiling, interacting, glued to his presentation as he moves around the room telling stories of how the African American and Native Americans were treated in the past. He doesn't sugar coat the content. He teaches the kids to respect the information.
I feel this works because it puts you out there as a real human being and not just some educator up in fromt of a class trying to cram information down our student's throats. They believe what you are telling them is real and that makes all the difference. Kids come out of his class really questioning what took place so many years ago. I believe this all stems from the comfort that story telling brings to a class room.

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Elena Aguilar Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California