I Knew It! Or, Why Stories are Awesome

Did you know that our brains are wired to listen to stories and get all lit up and excited like those MRI scans you see of people listening to some concerto? Well, I did. But here’s an awesome article that discusses this phenomenon far more articulately: “What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains.”

This comes to me via The Paper Graders who got it via a Penny Kittle Tweet. The Internet is almost as awesome as stories.

I’m going to veer off now, but I swear I’ll come back. I love my partner-in-crime, spouse-extraordinaire, and fellow amateur chef to death, but there is one area in which we differ drastically: he does not read novels. I do. I love novels. I read novels regularly and tell myself it’s because I have to do it for work, but that’s a total lie. I’m currently catching up with the rest of the universe and reading Life of Pi, which is amazing. He, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of reading a good novel (he did over vacation, as a matter of fact), but when it comes right down to it, his storytelling, storyreading, and storylistening preferences are simply different from mine.

All of that said, our relationship revolves around stories. We spend our evenings telling each other stories. Stories about our day. Stories about our lives. Stories we’ve really told each other over and over again but that don’t ever get old, because we love them so much. Stories about who we are. Stories about who we want to be. Stories about who we will someday be, and who all the people in our lives will someday be with us.

Ever met a 5 year old kid? (if your answer is no, crawl out from under your rock.) They’re the same way — only they’re obsessed with that one picture book you swear you never want to see again or that one story about Uncle Joe that you swear isn’t funny but they swear really, really is.

In other words, just because my husband doesn’t read stories in novel form doesn’t mean he doesn’t love stories. He talks all the time about whether or not he can “tell a story” with his science. I don’t really understand his science, so I don’t really know what that means, but I’m pretty sure if he “had no story,” none of the other scientists in scientistland would care at all about his science. The story gives it life, gives it a purpose. Right down to the most “objective” thinkers, we all love stories.

I do the research I do because I love listening to people’s stories and then weaving them together to tell another story, incorporating them into my own stories, and reimagining my work around their stories.

Allow me to quote Mr. S over at TPG:

Humans are fundamentally narrative creating machines. It is how we grapple with the world around us, our experiences, that which we generally call reality, pretty much everything. We process the world in the form of stories. Stories that we make up to make sense of our own lives, stories we make up to make sense of other’s lives, stories we make up to share our ideas. To the extent that a particular human gets good at the skill of constructing narrative he or she gets good at operating in community with other humans. And becomes good at dealing with him or herself.

So why is the story-ness being sucked out of education? David Coleman and other CCSS advocates argue that we need to take all those useless stories out of our classrooms and replace them with good, hard, expository texts. That writing narratives gets kids nowhere. That reading them gets them even more nowhere (or something like that).

It depresses me, but I see this shift happening in my own teaching and tutoring — one of my students came to me with a narrative assignment that got her so excited, we spent two sessions staring at it, revising it, and reimagining it together. I’ve never seen this kid revise like she did in those two sessions. I’ve never seen her so excited about writing. The experience made me realize how little creative energy students are getting at school — and, apparently, from me during tutoring. Shame on me. With this drive to be more able to “argue academically,” we’ve (I’ve) apparently forgotten that good argumentation relies on stories. I knew it… once. Did I really forget it? Forget what an integral part of education storytelling, storymaking, and storyreading is? That many stories, in fact, are making an argument. Carol Jago says on commoncore.org:

Across the nation, teachers say “I don’t have time to teach literature and literary nonfiction anymore” Why? Because the focus turns to the behaviors that students need to perform on assessments. What’s wrongheaded about this is that, with every fiber of my body, I know that the best prep for any kind of assessment in reading is to read and that students who read 20, 30, 40 books a year are probably going to have a pretty good vocabulary, understand complex syntax, and know what to do when they meet challenges in text.

The real heart breaking part of this though, is that the students who find themselves most often in the classes that are literature lite [and] reading lite, are those students who are most disengaged from school. So what are they experiencing? They experience a content-free curriculum. And the result is that instead of what we hope is a meaningful day in education, it’s meaning-less. And so it reaffirms these students’ belief that school is about nothing. English– that’s about commas and stuff– and that is the opposite of what those of us who love literature, love teaching students about literature, and love engendering those rich conversations about literature, would love to happen.

If we suck the stories out of classrooms — just like if my husband were to suck the stories out of one of his papers about proteins and stuff — nobody’s gonna care, least of all a roomful of teenagers. It’s time to make sure that we’re spending our time thinking about the stories we tell, where they take us, and where they come from. This doesn’t mean we need to read more novels. That decidedly would not have worked for my husband, who hated Beloved as a kid (but didn’t hate 1984, from what I can tell) and finds stories in other places. But it does mean we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t lose its creative edge. Even science tells a story.

I’m going to start with my own teaching, and go from there.

2 thoughts on “I Knew It! Or, Why Stories are Awesome

  1. jay

    Liz-
    Thanks for the tag, and a great thought about narrative. We need to keep up this drumbeat- the point I most appreciate in your piece is that it’s the kids who most need to be engaged who are getting a ‘content free’ curriculum (I will shamelessly steal that phrase- it’s excellent). In the name of ‘better’ we are making it worse. -JS

  2. Pingback: More on Stories « Gone Digital

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