Discovering Teaching Artistry is pleased to welcome our first guest contributor, Emily Gray of Living Equals Learning.
Recently I started reading Wendell Berry’s classic critique of modern culture and agriculture, The Unsettling of America. Originally written in 1977, his words are prescient and, while his is an agriculture aim, I would like to argue that Berry’s words are no less applicable for our education system. In the chapter entitled “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture”, Berry writes,
“A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverences, aspiration.”
As a country, as a world, we are on a fast track to modernity. We have exchanged cottage trades and small farms for supermarkets and big box stores. We have put family businesses out of business in the name of convenience and the lowest price at any cost. More quickly than ever before, we’ve supplanted our own communities with the homogeneity of a Starbucks on every corner and a McDonald’s on every freeway.
I don’t mean to slip into food politicking but I do believe that this trend toward – nay! this full tilt toward – overwhelming sameness in the name of progress is paralleled in our system of education. Where we once gave teachers classroom autonomy, we now have the likes of the Common Core (a nationally standardized curriculum currently being adopted in nearly every state). Where we once had creative expression through play, we now have longer school days and shorter (or nonexistent) recesses. Where there were once untold numbers of assessment methods, we now only look to standardized tests and mandated yearly exams as measures of “progress”.
When compared with Berry’s definition of a healthy culture, our school systems hardly stack up. What cultural memories, as Berry highlights, can we pass on to our children with the likes of inaccurate and ever changing textbooks? What insight into individual cultures – individual lives – can possibly lie in the mass marketed curriculum of today? When our kids are given worksheets to fill their time and pop quizzes to prepare them for tests like the MAP, when do they have the opportunity to value their work or develop a reverence for their own experiences? There is no doubt in my mind that we have already invoked the calamity of a corrupted culture.
In the face of this calamity, it becomes our job to ask the question, How do we restore that communal order of insight and value, of reverences and aspiration? Just as I have no doubt about our currently corrupted culture, I have confidence in the antidote. The answer, I believe, is in storysharing.
Unlike storytelling, storysharing, as I’m using the word, describes the ways in which we share pieces of ourselves so they may become the warp and weft of our healthy communities. Storytelling is most often a form of entertainment. Storysharing, on the other hand, is a means of understanding one another by understanding each others lived experiences. Perhaps those lived experiences will be entertaining; certainly they will be of a value not possible in the prepackaged, sterile environment that our kids have come to associate with our current classrooms.
Having people – students, teachers, parents, community members – share their own story within the learning environment brings a relevancy to the classroom that is simply unavailable in any other form. When we have the stories of our own community members to learn from, we feel a part of something that is simultaneously deep within us and larger than ourselves. When our stories are heard and appreciated, and we have the opportunity to listen to, appreciate, and learn from the stories of others in our communities, we begin the work of rebuilding that communal order that is paramount to a healthy culture.
As a testimonial to the power of sharing stories, I’d like to share a quote from an interview I did earlier this year with youth activist and writer Adam Fletcher. Fletcher told me about a course he took while in college where his only assignment was to write about his work experience up to that point. In essence, he was bringing acute relevancy to his academic career by sharing stories about his own life. “It was so affirming, so real [to be told that] my work experience was worth something. I do know something and my life counts. That aspect [of the course] gave me a lot of confidence, and a sense of ability academically.”
I envision a world where everyone can experience such affirmation through sharing their own story. I believe that through the sharing of our own stories, we can begin to construct the insight and reverence, build the aspirations and invoke the memories of our own culture through our own lived experiences. And I believe the birth of that world, the beginning of that construction, can happen in our classrooms.