Writing Classrooms: Adventurous Stories?

First. A memory, a story. Anytime from 4th to 12th grade.

Having gone through my mom’s and my bedtime ritual, I read for what seemed to be an appropriate time with my light that could be seen underneath the closed door. Then I turned off the light, grabbed the flashlight underneath my pillow, and relocated my reading underneath my covers, from whence the light that allowed the stories to come alive could not be seen through the crack in my bedroom door.

 A nighttime ritual of my own, not to be shared with anyone else but the characters in the stories and the wee hours of the night.

Second. A remembered connection from my reading log.

Over the winter break, I read the book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens, by a long-time science reporter Benedict Carey. The first chapter about brain science is entitled “The Story Maker: The Biology of Memory.” Carey called our brains not a computer, but a storyteller. He depicted our brains as directing the documentary of our lives, complete with a “left brain narrating system ‘the interpreter’” (19).

Third. A quick review of the elements of a story.

Setting, plot, characters, conflict, and theme.

 Fourth. Some ideas.

Conflict is what makes a story interesting, worth reading. If a story does not have conflict, the characters do not struggle, do not change, do not mature.

Both Villanueva and Elbow showcase conflict in their writings.

Villanueva is calling for discourse to reflect conflict, to reflect the conflicting identities–especially for people of color (576-577). And what best represents conflict but stories, narratives.

Ultimately, Villanueva argues for the addition of more pathos into academia because even though “[a]cadmic discourse is cognitively powerful” (571), it is limited in the fact that it cannot fully encapsulate the personal. Villanueva claims [t]he personal here does not negate the need for the academic, it complements, provides an essential element in the rhetorical triangle, an essential element in the intellect—cognition and affect (573).

Villanueva and Elbow can be connected through this power of story: recognizing that each student, each person brings a unique collection of settings, plot, characters, conflicts, and themes (and varieties of language) into the classroom. Elbow clearly values the individual differences his students bring into his writing classroom.

The important thing to remember about stories is that there are major and minor characters, settings, conflicts, themes, and plots.

For students who want to advance their own plot line via the university, the writing classroom becomes a minor (or major) necessary obstacle and the teacher a minor (or major) character to briefly enter into their story for a semester.

The teacher and the students then set out on a “chapter” together. This chapter can greatly aid the students in their next chapters, be somewhat neutral, or even (and tragically) set the students back.

However, perhaps one of the challenges of writing teachers is to show students that their story fits into a larger story or stories–and that their story, if they are adventurous enough, can change other people’s stories as well. It is not enough to simply know one’s own story, but to know the larger context within his or her story fits.

Elbow uses the word “adventuresome” to describe first year writing that does not conform to the typical “standard” (660) and again when hoping students will be more “adventuresome in finding audiences for their writing in nonprestige dialects” (663).

I cannot help but connect these “adventurous” writings to the idea of rule-breaking.

Rule-breaking is often inadvertently done by novices, which can result in beautiful, insightful, innovative creations. Johns, in discussing discourse communities, talks about rule-breaking after one has learned the conventions as a way to push-back. However, what about these often inadvertent rule-breakers who might stumble upon something truly innovative? Too often they are “corrected” without acknowledgment of what they tried being a valid attempt.

Do these inadvertent “rule-breakers” not deserve a safe place? Should we not seek to foster classrooms that follow Elbow’s main argument that the writing classroom be the “safer” place for using language? (643). What does this look like?

Within the framework of seeing all these stories within the classroom, conflict is placed at the center stage. This can be a good thing. When we can see and name our conflict, should we not be grateful? We can be grateful that something previously unseen is now seen and that this conflict can be a site of possibility for growth and maturity.

I became an English teacher in part because I was drawn in by those stories I smuggled into my nighttime routine; I have stayed a teacher because of the stories who enter my classroom. Students who are more complex than I ever will know and to whom I have an obligation, a responsibility to help navigate the complex narratives that the world tells. In order to help them navigate that, I must recognize the conflict that exists within my classroom (a challenging task) and attempt to learn from that “seen conflict” and make it a safe place—as Elbow argues it should be—so that they can, if they want, change not only their own narrative, but the larger narrative into which they enter.

This means I must continually adopt the role of a student in order to learn more about what conflicts are happening in my classroom and the world. I have much to learn. Yes, much to learn indeed.

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One thought on “Writing Classrooms: Adventurous Stories?

  1. The storyteller metaphor has numerous appealing elements. It feels natural and there is support about the metaphoric possibilities. We have the book that you cite, and “Why We Read Fiction: A Theory of Mind and the Novel” by Lisa Zunshine, “The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language” by Mark Turner (frequent co-author with George Lakoff), “Why Don’t Students Like School” by Daniel Willingham (whose Chapter 3 resembles the chapter that you mention), “Proust was a Neuroscientist” by Jonah Lehrner, and probably many others titles which I cannot recall, have not read, or was unaware of their existence. The storyteller metaphor has traction in many respects and in many areas beyond psychology, linguistics, and English studies. For example, Ed Leamer states all macroeconomics is storytelling in the not surprisingly titled “Macroeconomics: Patterns and Stories.”

    But is there a danger to the metaphor in similar respects to the danger of the mind as computer metaphor? I ask because of Eric Kandel’s writing about memory and storytelling, and Daniel Kahneman on storytelling and the many fallacies affiliated with stories. I like the storyteller. I advocate for it in teaching practices; for my writing in the sciences course I picked “Writing Science” by Joshua Schimel specifically because he describes writing in storytelling ways, so does “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking” by Randy Olson, Dorie Barton, and Brian Palermo. The metaphor is palpable, yet I know from other readings that it has significant faults, and I am curious whether other students find faults in storytelling as a metaphor to facilitate writing.

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