Here is a short talk I gave this month for alumni of my alma mater, The City College of New York. I share my experience as a college student to make the case that investment in our young people’s education is both personally and socially transformative.
April 2017 archive
A good teacher is by nature a good storyteller. Short, resonant anecdotes bring abstract concepts to life; stories humanize teachers and capture kids’ imaginations. These are the things our students will remember long after the lesson is over.
My colleague Kevin Oliveau is a master storyteller.
Being in Dr. Oliveau’s World War I class is like reliving the plot of your favorite movie with someone who knows it inside-out: the history of its production, the science behind the special effects, the psychology of the characters, the philosophical implications of the unfolding events. These battles fought on distant shores a century ago are transformed into something like an epic film: vivid, engrossing, urgently relevant.
Here is what I mean: ten minutes into class, Dr. Oliveau riffs on a student’s comment about U-boats. He pulls up an image on the projector and describes what it might have been like to live inside one of these vessels:
You’re talking about cold, damp rooms where stuff drips on you all the time. And one bunk for eight people. So how do you do it? You need to sleep for 8 hours a day. It means also that if your fellow crewman has lice or nits or fleas, you have them as well. So when you climb into the bunk, it’s when someone has just climbed out of it. So these spaces are really cramped, really difficult.
[He’s gesturing at the image now.] And there’s the equivalent of an analog computer which guides the torpedo in a straight line at a fixed depth until it strikes the enemy vessel below the water line where it’s most vulnerable. And it doesn’t actually destroy the ship; it lets the sea into the ship and lets the sea do the work. Has anyone been in one of these?
As an English teacher, I’m sitting there appreciating his craft: he uses the second person to place each student in the story; he packs his description with unsettling and memorable sensory imagery; he asks well-placed questions that activate kids’ imaginations. Students’ hands shoot up to share their thoughts and questions, delving deeper into the content and relishing the opportunity to participate.
There are reasons that great teachers like Dr. Oliveau use narrative frequently: it works. Neuroscientist David Eagleman observes that stories facilitate the spread of ideas from person to person:
It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable potency of story.
The human need to tell and consume stories reveals a lot about how our brains work. Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga suggests that a major function of the brain’s left hemisphere is to organize our memories into plausible stories, filling in gaps when necessary. Gazzaniga’s research supports what teachers like Dr. Oliveau intuit: that stories are how we make sense of our world when our world doesn’t make sense on its own.
Psychologist Daniel T. Willingham concurs; he explains the educational benefits of narrative and suggests some ways teachers can incorporate story into their pedagogy, focusing on the “four Cs of narrative”: causality, conflicts, complications, and character. (Teachers should scroll to the bottom of that resource for helpful suggestions using each element across disciplines).
Dr. Oliveau’s lesson showed me three ways that great stories become opportunities for deeper and more joyful learning: they inspire active participation; they reveal what is possible, and they break through the boundaries of academic disciplines. Below, I explain how each takes shape in Dr. Oliveau’s instruction.
Great stories inspire active participation.
Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison explained her ideal relationship with her readers way back in 1984:
The text, if it is to take improvisation and audience participation into account, cannot be the authority – it should be the map. It should make a way for the reader (audience) to participate in the tale.
For Morrison, the best stories demand active participation; they map the territory and invite the audience to explore and discover. That’s just how Dr. Oliveau’s stories work: they build a highly detailed, multidimensional world around his students. It’s essentially a very low-tech version of virtual reality.
His class is a collaborative, sometimes raucous, call-and-response event. Kids chime in with details, jokes, questions, and exclamations, until the conflict-laden story reaches a fever pitch. Led by Dr. Oliveau’s prodding and momentous questions, the class delights in the process of retelling the key moments point by point, reliving their fascination by poring over each historical figure’s motivation, the details coming together to reveal a compelling portrait of history.
From the corner of the room, he shouts a question in the general direction of the back row:
Oliveau: What is the counter move the Germans fail to anticipate?
Keaton: Convoys. The Germans didn’t know that the British would use convoys.
Oliveau: Right. The Royal Navy and merchant ships don’t like this. It’s boring, not exciting. Instead of heroically charging out, it’s like, we’re going to put you on this dinky boat, and you’re going to go sail circles around these other boats, and with luck, nothing will happen. [Student laughter.] And by the way, your boat is so small that when there’s a storm at sea, everyone is going to get violently seasick. So there’s resistance. But how did convoys reduce losses?
Kids wave their hands to offer their hypotheses and help craft the story; and on and on, the process repeats.
Great stories reveal what is possible.
People who don’t geek out over history tend to think of it in the past tense: a collection of dusty artifacts and static, settled events. Why bother? But to experience history as a great story is to be reminded of the terrifying and exciting fact that many futures are possible, and we don’t ever quite know how things might turn out.
Dr. Oliveau structures his entire lesson around that insight. His essential question is: why does England’s attitude toward involvement in the war shift so dramatically? This question is great because it invites kids to examine the dramatic contingency of history: the outcome of a war is not a foregone conclusion leading inevitably toward our current geopolitical order. Things could be very different today. Dr. Oliveau’s rich and detailed stories transport his students from the comfortable hindsight of 2017 to the uncertain complexity of one hundred years prior.
As he moves through each phase of the war, Dr. Oliveau reenacts the concerns and desires of various nations’ military leaders as they would have experienced them in the moment. He explains Germany’s worries:
By 1918 they haven’t hit their goal. One of the things about war is, you’re not sure. Even if you sink the 3 million tons which they pretty much did in twice the time, it’s not enough. They didn’t think about what the British might do in response. They were sort of optimistic in their view. They didn’t think, we’re gonna try this but it probably won’t work. They needed something to work, and they convinced themselves it would. They managed to sink almost 3 million tons that year, but it wasn’t enough.
When events are narrated as if their outcomes are uncertain, it’s easy to appreciate how many things needed to go wrong (or right) to get us where we are today.
Great stories cross academic disciplines.
Students learn deeply when they understand the content’s relevance to their own lives. We educators are thankfully in a moment in which that insight is neither original nor controversial.
Stories are an effective way to bridge the relevance divide — to craft a pathway between a student’s passions and the day’s learning goal. This is because narrative weaves disparate elements into a coherent whole.
No matter what Dr. Oliveau’s students are interested in, it’s a safe bet that he at least tangentially connected it to his narrative of the first World War. In 90 minutes, Dr. Oliveau’s lesson drew together anecdotes about syphilis, trench warfare, Ernest Hemingway, the science and engineering of weaponry, behavioral economics concepts like the sunk cost fallacy, military strategy, the sociological implications of male soldiers’ absence from the workforce, and the legacy of imperialism. Students also had to perform some basic mathematical calculations to determine how far Germany was from achieving its goals in 1918. The high point, however, was easily his highly technical explanation of submarines’ limited offensive capacity:
Oliveau: Right, it’s a three dimensional problem. It’s what submariners call firing solution. You have to locate your enemy precisely enough to fire your weapon. This problem won’t be solved till the end of World War II. It gets very complicated because in the ocean there are temperature differences and salinity differences, which has the tendency to reflect sound waves in an arc. In the modern day, we have —
Will (interrupts): How do you know that?
Ben (to Will): ‘Veau knows everything.
Ben’s comment stood out to me as the moment of the class because it insightfully identifies exactly what Dr. Oliveau offers his students. Through storytelling, Dr. Oliveau becomes a sort of omniscient game master, constructing a detailed discursive world and organizing students’ play within that world, integrating each distinct part into an engaging and unified narrative. To borrow from John Keats, it is a thing of beauty.
“What does it mean to know mathematics?”
This question, posed by former National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) President Cathy Seeley, is really what we’re asking when we discuss the best way to make sure kids are proficiently numerate by graduation.
Seller’s answer is that to know mathematics is, ultimately, to be capable of working out the relationships between numbers in your head. She explains:
Problem solving continues to be a high priority in school mathematics. Some argue that it is the most important mathematical goal for our students. Mental math provides both tools for solving problems and filters for evaluating answers. When a student has strong mental math skills, he or she can quickly test different approaches to a problem and determine whether the resulting path will lead toward a viable solution. Estimation skills require both a sense of number and facility with mental computation and can provide a ballpark answer to a problem before the student attempts to solve it. They also offer a comparison point by which to judge whether a result is reasonable for the given situation. Estimation is an important skill for inclusion in students’ tool kits, whether they perform calculations with a pencil and paper or on a calculator.
Research suggests that teaching mental math builds numerical reasoning and supports computational accuracy, efficiency, and overall student confidence.
I was able to watch this in action in my colleague Rita Lahiri’s middle school math class (sixth and seventh graders). Her lesson invited students not only to master content, but to reason as mathematicians. They would multiply numbers by 11 to gather data on the pattern, and then come up with a theory explaining why that pattern happens. Her directions were concise, clear, and inspiring:
Whatever rule or strategy you come up with has to apply to every problem. Write it down, because there are some theories that when you write it down on paper, you own it. And if you own it, you can contribute to why it’s happening.
I was so struck by Ms. Lahiri’s words. You, quiet sixth grade girl in the back row, can contribute your theory to the conversation. That is an incredibly powerful invitation to offer to a young learner. You are part of the collaborative construction of knowledge, and you have something to say. It was also an immensely convincing argument for taking notes!
Ms. Lahiri began by grounding the lesson in real-world contexts. In what direction do you typically read words and numbers? (Left to right). In what direction do you typically calculate? (Right to left). Why is that? (Engaged silence!). What are some places where you or your parents might use mental math?
Then kids worked individually, computing and observing the data. Ms. Lahiri moved through the room, peppering kids with challenging questions to move them forward.
When she noticed one of the students had figured it out before everyone else, she honored the student’s abilities while still managing to keep her engaged:
We’re going to do our best not to say anything for five minutes. The goal is for all of us to come up with theories for why this happens. Another thing to consider while you wait is: how does this change when we multiply by three-digit numbers? If you’re extremely confident in what you are doing now, and you have written it all out, you can work on that next.
Those five minutes were difficult. Kids were brimming with excitement to share their theories.
By the last twenty minutes of the period, Ms. Lahiri placed students in the teacher’s role. Each student contributed a vital part to the theory, and each was responsible for holding the group’s ideas accountable to the standard Ms. Lahiri had set (does it work for every problem or just a few conveniently selected ones?)
While the work was rigorous and worthwhile, the biggest takeaway I had from sitting in this classroom was that every student was free to engage the content at his or her level of ability and interest, and Ms. Lahiri’s fundamental role was to methodically, humanely, and uncompromisingly push each kid a bit past where they were at the beginning of the period. No one was off the hook from having to contribute, and no one was left behind because of boredom or inability. There was a place for everyone in this work.
Ms. Lahiri’s parting words to the kids were:
Thank you to everyone for bringing enlightenment to our research on multiplication by 11.
That really sums up her work with the students that day. They were not doing worksheets or rote memorization; they were doing research. They were not checking the box for participation points; they were bringing enlightenment. And the knowledge is owned and produced collectively, just as it is in a research university or laboratory. This is a beautiful education.
What’s the best way we can help kids write clearly and effectively? This question has been contentious since at least the late nineteenth century when we began teaching composition at the secondary level (Harvard began the conversation in the 1880s when it required an application essay, instituted freshman composition courses, and later convened the famed Committee of Ten to set guidelines for secondary instruction across disciplines).
Since then, adults have been pretty consistently concerned about the apparently “poor” state of student writing. Those concerns sometimes reflect institutional changes (more people going to college) or demographic changes (different people going to college). Writing, after all, is about access to the language of power: the standard, conventional English that suggests a particular class background and academic preparation. Muddying the waters further, other skills — like reading and reasoning — are inextricably bound up with what we mean when we talk about writing. The broad implications of student composition quality suggest that ultimately, when we ask whether our students can write, we’re really asking whether they’re learning at all.
Given those stakes, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a volatile and far-reaching history of shifts in American composition instruction, with predictably extreme ideological swings between prescriptive, formulaic approaches (think of a traditional Catholic school) and approaches that prioritize personal meaning and self-expression. (I’ve found that, in practice, most teachers mix both approaches eclectically with their students’ needs in mind. I try to be that kind of teacher.)
Mentor teacher and writing expert Ralph Fletcher’s forthcoming book Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing is decidedly in the latter category, making a compelling case for rejecting outright the highly structured academic writer’s workshops borne of the Common Core’s standardized imperatives. Fewer formal academic exercises with rigid rubrics, he argues, and more free-flowing and creative prompts.
In this sample published online, he uses the metaphor of the “greenbelt” — a purposely uncultivated tract of land meant to protect the environment against encroaching development — to imagine spaces of wild, joyful, untethered writing experiences for all of our kids. What an apt image! He explains:
Some wildlife can thrive without a greenbelt. Robins, sparrows, crows, rabbits, voles, and skunks can survive perfectly well within the confines of a neighborhood development. But many other species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, plants, and trees need the conditions provided by raw, wild forest. Otherwise they will struggle and eventually disappear.
All well and good. But what does all this have to do with teaching writing? In recent years the writing workshop has come under intense pressure: state writing tests, Common Core State Standards, various commercial programs. Writing workshop as we once knew it has been “developed.” Many old-growth trees have been cut down. A great deal of curricular land has been cleared, parceled off, and subdivided. It’s harder and harder to find the essential wildness — the unique intelligence found whenever children freely express themselves — that once infused the workshop.
As he points out, lots of kids are able to do well within the constraints of standard academic writing instruction. But what about the kids left behind? And what are we all missing out on — teachers, academically successful kids, bored and reluctant writers, all of us?
It’s true that some kids, like some species, may be able to survive and even thrive in this more developed workshop atmosphere. But I submit that many students find today’s writing workshop too narrow and constricting for them to generate any enthusiasm for writing. Those writers would benefit from being allowed to do more writing that is free and unguided — writing that they generate themselves.
The excerpt makes a compelling case to question what it is that we think we’re doing when we craft writing assignments. Those of us who teach AP English might not be ready to throw out the rhetorical analysis essay, and those of us who prepare kids for college might continue to find academic writing exercises purposeful vehicles for giving students access to particular discourses, texts, and fields of knowledge. But Fletcher’s work makes me wonder: if the composition we require of students forecloses their sense of discovery, wonder, and joy, what are we really teaching them about writing?