Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is a story?

There is a story of how Anansi (a well-known trickster figure in West African stories) brought all the stories of the world down to earth. There are several versions published, the most famous of which is probably "A Story, A Story" by Gail E. Haley. I tell a version based on how the story is recorded in a book called "Family of Earth and Sky", edited by John Elder and Hertha D. Wong.

I've always enjoyed telling this story, and have told it many times. However, I will never tell this story the same way again after one of my students, Isaac, asked a question at the end.

Briefly, in the story I tell, Anansi appeals to the Sky God, who originally had all the stories, who tells him he needs to bring him three animals. Anansi goes and manages to trick them all into being caught, takes them up to the Sky God ...

The Sky God was astounded to see that Anansi had, indeed, fulfilled all of the tasks he had assigned. With a heavy heart, the Sky God gave Anansi all the stories of the world. Anansi took them back down to earth to share with all the animals and people. And last I heard, he is still telling them today.
Isaac: So what did the Sky God give him anyway? Like, books or something?

I caught myself beginning to answer, though I didn't know what I thought at the time. Better to bite my lip and ask my favorite question: "What do you think?"

Ted: "If it were a story about a tiger it would be a tiger that goes in a book."
Tessa: "I think it's like little circles with whatever it's about inside. Like if it was a story about butterflies, it would be a bubble with butterflies inside."
Bobby: "It's like in Harry Potter. This guy, Professor Slughorn has a wand and he put it up to his head and pulls a memory out. It's white stuff. So I think it would be white like that. ... See, Dumbledore had a memory in a jar, but it was a fake memory. Well, not a fake memory, but there was something wrong with it, so Slughorn pulled out his memory - the right memory - and put it in a jar for Harry Potter."
Isaac: "But what would it look like if a GOD gave you a story? I think he just started throwing books at him his sack."
Manuel: "It's probably like this piece of paper with stories on them. You look at them for a long time until you can tell the story without looking at the pictures and worlds. Like, it's a piece of paper with words on it. And pictures from the story."
Kerrick: "Maybe they're ghost-like because they were given by a god. Like, invisible, or see-through. He could still see the words because they're darker, but the paper would be invisible."
Charlie: "I don't think they looked like anything. He just made it so that Anansi could tell the stories."

I was blown away by these responses, I felt the breath taken right out of me. Beneath all of these thoughts, there raged the deeper question of what a story really is.

I took advantage of other telling opportunities and gathered the following ideas from other children:
"I think the Sky God took all the stories from where he kept them, like on a bookshelf in his bedroom, and gave them to Anansi."
"I think he just told Anansi all the stories."
In one case, I mentioned: "One girl I know said she thought they were bubbles with pictures from the story inside."
Response: "Oh yeah! And then they pop and come out. When he wants to tell a story, he pulls out the bubble and pops it open and the story pops out!"

The same group of kids from above continued along these lines when I told another story, "The Uwabami", a trickster tale from Japan, when Manuel noted: "At the library, I found a story like that, but it was a little different.
Isaac: "How would you know what the real story is?"
Avery: "What do you think?"
Isaac: Well, just ask the person who wrote it.
Kerrick: But they're probably not alive.
Iver: There is no real story. There's more than one and they're all good.
Charlie: Yeah. Everyone tells it differently.
Bobby: Yeah, you can hear it, you can change it, then pass it on.
Manuel: When a person dies, the person finds it [the story] and changes, and it gets changed and changed and changed until it's so changed that no one can change it anymore.
Avery: Is there a "real" story that we can find somewhere?
Kelsey: Not exactly. There is an original story ... no, there really isn't, because even storytellers tell stories different every time.
Manuel: There was probably a real story far far away and people thought he was a great storyteller and put the story where he lived.
Avery: But let's say we want to find the real story of "The Uwabami". The original. What would we do to find that out?
Kerrick: Maybe the thinking of it was probably a snake. When the author thought of the Uwabami, he thought it should be a snake.
Isaac: We could go to Japan and ask the villagers who the author is.
Tessa: Who is the author?
Avery: Good question. Who wrote that story, or told it first?
Several: You?

I share all of these comments as the stuff I am chewing on as I consider the question of what a story really is. I recall a remarkable woman I met in Germany, a renowned choir leader who went to some high organization in the world of church music, held a hymnal in front of them and said, "There are no hymns in this hymnal." Very controversial, but she stood her ground, arguing that a hymn is not a hymn until it is song, given voice by humans, and heard by humans, in community with each other.

I wonder if the same could not be said for stories?


Now, this is a particularly ironic question to ask considering the title. But consider any storybook. Is a book a story? When I recall the choir leader's notion of what constitutes a hymn, I feel I have no choice but to say, No. The book itself is not the story, but that which is read and heard by people.

And yet, the story communicated in this book is quite different than other versions of that same story. So, it seems the representation of the story does matter, as there are several possible ways to depict the same story.

And yet again, I recall an idea - a claim, really - that Kieran Egan shared this past summer (at a summer course in Imaginative Education). It is, at least, my memory that he warned against the belief in our current print-based, information-driven culture that knowledge exists on the paper, or worse, "in the file" or "on my phone." (I have had several friends refer to their iPhones as "my second brain"). The alphabet is merely a code, he said, but the knowledge it represents can only be grasped by the human brain who deconstructs an idea into code and the human brain(s) who reconstructs it from code. Of course, the original idea exists in the mind of one human, and none can tell what idea will exist in the minds of others when communicated to them. "You hear it, you can change it, and you pass it on..."

As might be obvious, I am leaning toward the position that a book is not a story. But I don't want to resolve myself to a definitive decision in either direction. I am excited to continue to share my favorite story listeners' ideas with others and to ask the questions that arise from recalling them (of which there are many I've not included!).

There are also, of course, other print media to consider besides books. But the question remains the same.

What is a story?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Not a Box

I am really cherishing the opportunity to continue building my relationship with the Raindrop community. After subbing for Emily for a week, and now for Brad for a week and two days, I feel a real connection with each of the children and continue to enjoy each and every one of them.

Yesterday, as some of us were looking for a book to read, I came upon this one, “Not a Box”, by Antoinette Portis. It is a gem of a book, about all the things that a box can become. The dedication says it all, really: “To children everywhere sitting in cardboard boxes.”

When I finish reading or telling a story, I often like to ask the children an open question. I’m not looking for any particular answers, just getting a sense of the kids’ thoughts on what happened in the story or on how it relates to their own lives.

This book lends itself well to such open questions. The pages alternate between a picture of the bunny as an adult would see it - sitting in a box, standing on a box, wearing a box, etc. - and a corresponding picture of what the bunny understands the box to be - a race car, a mountain, a robot costume, etc. Accompanying each picture is text that refers to the voice of either the adult or the bunny.

Why are you sitting in a box? It’s not a box.

After reading the book through the first time, I decided to go back to the first set of pages to talk about them a little.

Avery: It sounds like someone is asking her, “Why are you sitting a box?” And she says “It’s not a box.” What is it to her?
Kevin: A race car.
Avery: On this first page, it really looks like it’s just a box, but on this next page, I can see how she sees in her mind that it’s a race car. I wonder why she thinks it looks like a race car? Let’s look at the first page again. Why does she think it’s a race car?

We went through the rest of the book, noting how the bunny thinks of the box differently depending on how she is positioned in relation to it. Kevin and Jessie were especially eager to share how well they remembered what each box was going to become on the next page. I asked a few times, “What else to could the box be in this picture?”, focusing on the plain, black and white depictions of the bunny. No answers. Hmm.

After reading the book a second time, we were sitting near the fabric basket. I said, “It’s fun to pretend that the materials we play with can be something else. Like the fabric. Just like the box, it’s not fabric, it’s … what else could it be?”

No answer. Kevin and Eden picked up the fabric to consider it.

Perhaps too soon, I said, “I wonder what this fabric could be. I know! It’s not fabric, it’s a snake!” With that, I shaped a piece of fabric into a long snake-like figure. I had hoped this would get their imaginations going, so I asked, “What else could it be?”

Kevin: “It’s a snake!” [started to play with it, holding it at one end]
Avery: What do you think, Isla? What else could the fabric be?
Jasmine: Snake!
Avery: Duzan, what are you going to make the fabric be?
Eden: A snake!

Hmm. Not exactly the kind of game I had thought this would be. Until I remembered that children this age are still very much learners through mimicry, not fully understanding something someone has said until they say it themselves. We see this every day as one child says something, and all the others say it back, as if echoing to show the first child that s/he’s been heard.

I realized at this point that I was far too invested in what I was looking for, and not open enough to what the children were telling me. I was looking, of course, for their sense of the abstract, their understanding of how a box can be imagined to be so very many things - indeed, how anything can be anything else, if we put our minds and imaginations to it.

But, why was I looking for them to tell me about it? I saw them thinking abstractly every day!

At the playdough table, Eden comments to Theo, “I’m making a pancake.” Theo replies: “I’m making a pancake, too. No, I’m making a pizza.” Together, on the big chair, several children fly together on an airplane to Alaska.
Jasmine shows Adam a “bee” on the lamp stand. And blocks! How many times have I watched blocks become castles, cars, storefronts, houses?! And yes ... (as pictured here) even as potties.

The point is, contrary to what a lot of courses and texts on child development like to say, children ARE abstract thinkers, from the very beginning. They use everyday objects to represent other objects and ideas all the time - it is the very basis of their play. What I have marveled at these past few weeks is that, while the children seamlessly play with abstract notions all day, the moment I try to probe their thinking about their play, it’s as if they have no idea what they’re doing. It’s as if Jean Piaget - who introduced the whole notion that children think concretely before they think abstractly - swoops down at precisely that moment to magically prevent me from unlocking the secret.

What is that secret? The only sense I can make from these observations is that, while children are, as I said, already abstract thinkers at a young age (in this case, 2-3 years old), what fails them is consciousness about their thinking: they lack metacognition. They can understand that a black piece of fabric with sparkles put over their head turns them into a spider web, but they don’t understand how they can understand that. Metacognition - thinking about our thinking - is what enables us to separate concrete from abstract thinking in the first place. It also helps us make sense of both concrete and abstract meanings in the world around us - in literature and film, in advertisements, in the behaviors of those around us, and of complete strangers, and so on.

When does this consciousness arise? I’m not sure, to tell the truth. But I do know that children are not only abstract thinkers, but keen observers, as well. The more we, as adults and teachers, can model our thinking out loud, the more they will pick up on this marvelous, dynamic, and outright fascinating process we call human thinking.

I know it’s not a box. But what is it to you?