Reading & Literacy Opinion

Why I’m Teaching For the Whole Story

By Ariel Sacks — October 12, 2016 4 min read
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I’m thrilled to be launching this blog today. My vision as I set forth on a new writing adventure is that I’m teaching for the whole story. Taking time to define this vision has been an interesting journey in itself, centering around ideas of power, problem-solving, hope and connectedness. So what do I mean?

Most immediately, as the author of the book, Whole Novels For the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach, I’ve argued for allowing students to read or hear an entire novel before analyzing it in a formal way. I believe we need to experience the whole story before we can understand its impact and analyze what the author has done to create it, as well as why and how well. A reader who knows the whole story has a significant advantage when it comes to seeking and analyzing the truth of a situation. Excerpts, on the other hand, give students partial glimpses at some truth an author may be getting at, but shades the reader enough from it that rather than being in a position to use their own critical thinking, they will likely look to someone who does know the whole story (often the teacher) for insight.

I’m teaching for the whole story, because reading whole stories empowers critical thinking. Teaching for the whole story goes beyond literature, though. It’s also about the story I want to be a part of, as an educator and human being, and the power dynamics at play in the narratives of the wider world.

I grew up in a comfortable suburb of Boston, where things were not perfect, but where I was shielded from the more painful realities of our country and planet. I received a whitewashed version of history through my education, in which American slavery and the Trail of Tears were each a sentence in a text book, and Latin America was a single geography lesson, to name a few of the more glaring examples. (My own Jewish heritage was nonexistent in this story). I spent my college years in Providence, Rhode Island, exploring the injustices and inequities that had been just beyond my field of vision. Everything I thought I had known needed questioning. I studied and wrote poetry, as I tried to assimilate the new information and find my place in it all.

I read somewhere that the problem with lying or omitting the truth is that it inhibits problem solving. Without the whole story, we don’t have the knowledge we need to solve the problems that prompted the lies or omissions in the first place. We’re powerless to them; we waste time creating false narratives to explain them and trying ineffective solutions.

As a possible response to my own outrage at the stories I was newly seeing, I considered fighting injustice head-on as an activist. But as I watched others who were on such a path, I worried I would not be able to sustain the work and survive spiritually, even physically; the scope of the problem was so great.

I remember losing myself one evening in a large book of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry, assigned to me by my teacher, the late poet Michael Harper, as part of a semester of independent study. Rukeyser was a poet, radical, artist, social critic, and defender of freedom through the written word. That
evening in the Brown University library, I had a moment of realization.

In one of Rukeyser’s poems (I haven’t been able to locate it again), there was an image of a huge wave. The wave crossed generations and geography and moved forcefully in the direction of a better world for everyone. I will be a part of this wave, I thought to myself. I would only be a tiny link within it, but I would be connected to all of the others, past, present and future, who helped it to move.

[Image: My grandmother, Lillian Faber, who was also a teacher, lover of poetry, and a part of the wave.]

The words of a poet and the actions of a teacher had helped me find my way forward. Whatever I did with my life, I promised it would be toward the creation of a more equitable and vibrant world for all of us--starting with the leap of faith that there was hope for that story winning out over other narratives. I now spend the bulk of my days helping children access the power of story and their own critical thinking and self-expression, so that they may be moved--as I was and continue to be--to find their places in the world.

As a teacher, I’ve found that many persistent obstacles for students, schools, and the teaching profession stem from individuals lacking the power that comes with knowing the whole story. For example, those who control education funding and policies are usually far removed from the realities inside schools, the stories of actual students and their teachers. Leaders who can’t clearly see multifaceted problems cannot effectively solve them. Likewise, teachers who are isolated in their own classrooms cannot share and learn from one other and are removed from the larger sea changes spreading through teacher leadership.

In teaching and writing about it here, I hope to reveal pieces of the whole story as I see them. I hope to connect to other educators and problem-solvers in and out of the classroom, so that we may all know more and use our collective knowledge to shape a better system for our students.

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