Saturday, October 23, 2010

"A truly meaningful skill: Telling, listening to stories" - Kay McSpadden, The Charlotte Observer

As we read in today's paper.  Strangely seems like what we do at Dialect:

>>When I was a new mother, more than one person took me aside and warned me not to blink or my children would be grown.

It was true. Even though my sons were babies and toddlers forever - the nights of sleeplessness never-ending - I blinked one day and realized that they were both young men, out of college, older than I was when I married.

Every year at this time I remember that the same time warp happens at school - that my students will slip out of my life almost as soon as I get to know them.

On block schedule this is especially apparent. Now I see the same faces for 90 days before another group takes their place.

This week marked the end of the first grading quarter, something that caught me, as it always does, by surprise. In many ways my students and I are just now falling into a comfortable rhythm, although the comfort may be more mine than theirs.

Before one of the first unit tests, for instance, my English IV students looked askance at the checklist I handed out detailing what they needed to study.

"Is Chaucer going to be on the test?" Brianna asked, her face pinched in near-pain. I knew what she meant. We had gone carefully through the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, talking extensively about each of the characters, focusing on Chaucer's jaundiced attitude revealed through his sarcastic diction. We read every line - took copious notes - made out organizers and debated which characters were truly good and which much sketchier.

"That was so LONG!" Brianna said, her face still screwed up.

And then she did something so teenagerish that I laughed.

She smiled - a big, happy, toothy smile - lifted her eyebrows, and added, "But it was GOOD."

A few weeks later and those same struggling readers are in the middle of Macbeth. On my board we are keeping the Macdeath toll - that's right, Macdeath - the list of people who end up as lifeless bodies by the end of Act 5.

Shakespeare is harder to read than a modern translation of Chaucer, so I'm not sure if Brianna will pronounce it GOOD when we finish. At the end of Act Three, one student still wasn't quite sure who King Duncan (dead since Act Two) was.

We may be moving too quickly through the play. Perhaps less blinking is in order.

It's hard to slow down - ahead of me I see John Donne and Milton, Pepys and Samuel Johnson, Robbie Burns and William Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats and Shelley and Tennyson and Housman - not to mention the whole host of splendid modern and postmodern writers.

And underneath them all, the real reason we read - to untangle the messages of writers through the ages, all of them showing us, again and again, what it is to be human.

More than mere literacy, literature's human connection might be the most important thing our students learn in school. My students are amazed that the 14th century people described by Chaucer and Shakespeare's contemporaries 200 years later had the same strengths and weaknesses as people today.

Cultures change, they discover, but human nature stays the same.

Listen to what passes these days for public discourse and you might hear a different view - that differences define us. Illegal aliens, gays, people of different faiths - ignoring our common humanity is an abnegation of what literature teaches us.

"Tell your story," John Quincy Adams advises the mutinous slaves in Steven Spielberg's "Amistad." There's was a compelling one to tell, involving an unjust enslavement and a desperate attempt to return to Africa.

But until their story was told, they were numbers - 57 slaves at the mercy of the American judicial system. Their story turned them into humans - and the U.S. Supreme Court found the courage to let them go free.

As humans we need stories. That's how we make sense of the world and of each other. In this week's Newsweek, Doug Imbruce writes about his new Internet search engine, Qwiki, which purports to turn search results into "story, a quintessentially human way to experience information."

Instead of getting unrelated nuggets of information, Qwiki is supposed to be able to offer "a curated information experience," connecting pictures and interactive media into a voice-narrated story.

Those of us in education are constantly being told to prepare our students for 21st century skills - facility with technology being primary. But reminding them of the oldest skill of all - telling and listening to stories about other human beings - might not only help our students participate more meaningfully in the world now, but help them get ready to make sense of the world that will be here in the blink of an eye.<<

Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of "Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching." Write her at

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