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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Our Students Have a Story to Tell...

By Chris Shaw — February 11, 2014 3 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Chris Shaw. Chris has been a folk singer and storyteller for decades, and for many years sat on the Board of Education for the Averill Park Central School District.

Talking to myself again, wonderin’ if this traveling is good? Is there something else a doin’ I’d be doin’ if I could? But, oh the stories I could tell! If it all blows up and goes to hell, I wish that we could sit upon a bed in some hotel, and listen to the stories I could tell.” John Sebastian, from “The Stories We Could Tell”

Storytelling...we all do it. Some better than others, some fools like me have even made a living doing it. To most of us though, it’s ingrained deep within us. If you look back in history, storytelling is as old as man himself. The need to share experiences, comic, epic, mundane, and even tragic is part of the human fabric. Some bemoan the erosion of storytelling in our culture, I say to them, you’re not listening well enough.

When I grew up I the Adirondack Mountains, storytelling had a different face. It lived on the front porches, in the diners, and the barbershops. Not just the personal stories of the day, but carefully crafted stories handed down from generation to generation.They all crept into my psyche, silent and undetected.

Later, on a stage at the Caffe Lena, America’s oldest coffeehouse, my stories started to seep out, like an over filled jar of maple syrup. As I looked around me, I saw that there were few people standing up in a room telling stories for the sake of it. People who grew up with that experience flocked to the performances, wanting to feel the nostalgia.

What I didn’t predict was a huge audience I hadn’t even considered...kids.

I started to tell stories in schools all over the country. Stories from, and about, the mountains where I grew up. I told them in little rural schools, inner city schools, sprawling suburban schools, any kind of school where they’d let me sit down with a group of kids and talk. Some of these kids hadn’t ever heard a story in that kind of environment, some of them didn’t know what to make of this tall white guy, with his big nose and glasses, talking about places they’d never even heard of.

That’s when it happened.

All of the sudden they heard about a character in that story they could relate to, and they locked onto that story like a guided missile. I’d hear, “How’d you know about all that stuff...you know another one?” I started teaching the kids to tell Round Stories, an old parlor game when I grew up.

In a Round Story, somebody tells the beginning of a story, often making it up out of thin air, then points to another person who has to pick up the story from where the first person left off, making up the story as they go, bringing their own personal chattel to it. When they go on for a bit, they pass it on to another person, then another, and another, until someone makes up an ending. (I need to interject a warning here to anyone thinking of trying this with kids, the Boy Scouts were right, “Be Prepared” because you may not believe some of the stuff you’ll hear!). Watching kids find their voice is it’s own reward.

This is not to say I haven’t explored storytelling with adults, I have, and it’s a great experience, but very different than telling stories with kids. By the time people are adults, they have a treasure trove of stories, they just need to find a way to let them out. My job there was to be less of an innovator, and more of a facilitator.Telling stories has a strange effect on folks, the more they do it, the easier it gets. The easier it gets, the better they get at it.

So where does all this fit in to life today? Where are we telling our stories nowadays?

That’s easy...everywhere. They’re down at Starbucks when you strike up a conversation with the guy that ordered the same thing you did. They’re on the radio when your kids are listening to Rap. And it’s NEVER going to stop. Not until people don’t want to laugh, or cry, or feel like they’re not the only person that ever felt a certain way.

The need to communicate is as vital a need now as it has ever been, and doing that by sharing a story that brings a smile, or conjures up a fine old memory is time well spent. We may not be down at the corner store, sitting on the cracker barrel whittling and spinning yarns, but storytelling lives on.

But if you feel the burning need to sit on the front porch with a glass of homemade lemonade, and listen to an old man in red suspenders pull your leg sometime, just ask Pete DeWitt, he’ll know where to send you.

Learn more about Chris Shaw and Bridget Ball here.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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