The Power of Personal Stories

SliceOfLifeLogoRecently our third-grade class celebrated a student’s birthday, As is our tradition, the student’s parent came to read to our class. This is always one of my favorite times. What’s not to like? I’m on the audience side of the read aloud, and I often discover books that are new to me.

On this particular morning, I was treated to both benefits again. As Sam’s mom (name changed) pulled out the books Sam had chosen, she pointed out the one with Sam’s picture on the front and said, “We brought Sam’s favorite book. It’s about Sam’s favorite topic!” I love the way we all smiled knowingly. There was no bragging quality to it. We collectively smiled because we understood. Of course the “All About Me” Shutterfly-style photo book would be Sam’s favorite. Don’t we all like things that are especially for and about us?

I thought Sam’s mom would flip through a few pages and then move on to the other book she had brought. Instead, she began on the first page and continued flipping pages, telling the stories behind the pictures.

These are pictures of when Sam was born. This is when Sam came home from the hospital. This was Sam’s favorite thing to do: sucking a thumb. This is Sam when…

I was compelled to take picture after picture of Sam’s mom telling the stories of the each family photo. Why? Because of what was happening all around the room. Sam’s mom held the book while Sam, and Sam’s younger sibling, who joined us for the birthday read aloud, were leaning in, periodically exclaiming and pointing, “Oh! That’s the time when…” The rest of the class was riveted as well. Necks were stretched to see the pictures, and smiles and nods accompanied many of the stories.

You might think that a photo book and oral stories of one student’s life would bore a class of wiggly third graders, but evidence to the contrary, these stories held our rapt attention. My theory on why? Because Sam is one of us, so Sam matters to us, and because Sam’s stories are also our own stories. We can relate to the birth stories, and the holiday stories, and the friendship stories, and the family trip stories. We can relate to the stories.

What a powerful opportunity to see the power our personal stories can have on any audience of readers and writers. Makes me wonder how I will capitalize on that power even more!

As this mom left, I thanked her for sharing the book, and told her what I’d observed, promising pictures of those precious moments. In our conversation she pointed out that there is another special aspect to a photo book of memories, and the accompanying oral histories: “They help you remember and they keep the stories alive.”

So true! Isn’t that the reason we write and read?



#SOL16 – Challenges & Lessons in Writing

We were writing poems for our new writing challenge- #NaPoWriMo. I was trying to finish the poem I was working on because it was nearly time to wrap up. I felt rushed, and something akin to disgust. Yuck! This is not working! I do not like this poem; I would not share this poem.

The thought was nearly dismissed so that I could move on, but a teaching opportunity spoke to me.

I wonder how many students feel the same? This is what I said:

“I just finished a poem, and I don’t really like the way it’s going, and if I work on it, I could probably make it better, and I don’t want to share it, BUT, I will share it. Does anyone else have a poem they don’t want to share, but they will?”

Some heads nodded with me as I spoke, and many hands went up as I finished my question.

We spent the next twenty minutes sharing poems that we “didn’t want to share.” Now, in third grade, when one person does something, others often want to get their turn, too, so students actually wanted a turn, but the lens was changed by my question.

One student read his poem and, as soon as he finished, he said, “It’s a work-in-progress.” Then he quickly interjected, “I just thought of one more line,” and he shared a new line of his work-in-progress poem.

One after another, students volunteered to read, and share what they didn’t want to read aloud. Nearly all students shared a poem. As the last few shared, a girl stood. She was visibly anxious. She rocked from heels to toes, back and forth, back and forth. Some students appeared to notice the rocking motion. All students listened. When she finished, I felt compelled to note that she showed courage in sharing what she did not want to share. She smiled what looked like her thanks and agreement. I know. You don’t know this child. But, if you did, you would agree that this was big.

I’ve held the moment since yesterday because I believe it calls out Kathleen Sokolowski’s question: Should Educators Be Writers? I have held this question in my mind as a focal point since she posed it on January 24th of this year.

When I finished my less-than-satisfying poem, I could have done so many things, but what the writer in me wondered was: Did anyone else have my experience?

Being a teacher who writes has changed my experience as a teacher. Last week, when I had my second-to-last lunch with my students who took on the Slice of Life Challenge, “I asked them: What has been most challenging about the challenge? Maybe you would predict their answers, but being a first-time slicer, I was surprised to find that their responses mirrored my thoughts. They talked about the challenges of coming up with topics, of making time to write every day, and of keeping up with commenting. Wow! Me, too, I told them!

After 31 days of slicing, I know that I have improved my own writing, but lately, I’ve been noticing the benefits to my teaching. Each day, I am faced with one moment after another where writers need my help in supporting their efforts. There are so many possibilities. I could do and say so many things.

Being a writer amongst writers, and a teacher amongst teachers, has allowed me to trust in my experience. I can draw on what I know to connect with, guide, and instruct my student writers.

Today, when my fellow slicing students and I had lunch to celebrate our March accomplishments, I contrasted my last question with: “What did you gain from participating in the Slice of Life Challenge? What did you learn? I smiled when the first two students said they’d done the challenge because there were rewards. I understood that. Sometimes we need external reasons. I had them, too. After all, being able to blog that I’d finished the challenge was a reward.

The next student shared that becoming a better writer had been the primary motivation. Several students nodded to themselves in agreement. I understand this, too. I asked, “Regardless of why you chose to do the challenge, who feels they learned about writing by doing the challenge?”

All hands went up instantly. Again, the writer in me knows this truth. I have learned. I am learning. And in these two statements, I have summarized why I believe that being a writer informs my teaching.