Monday, February 20, 2017

The Best Stories

I am an English teacher. I teach reading, writing, and speaking. I teach these subjects logically and in linear fashion. Most days, I teach with as much passion as I can muster about writing analytical paragraphs. What I notice most when reading my students’ writing is that their love for story does not match mine. Students fall short of analyzing why it matters that the protagonist’s life changed, or how the minor characters are impacted by the changes within the protagonist. Students struggle with this not because they fail to analyze, but because they have not been taught to care.

This caring falls on my shoulders. It is my job to make my students care. So, the real failure here, the real reason my students cannot analyze, is because they do not yet realize the power of story.

The frightening aspect of this is that at one point, students cared. Students cared when the Lorax spoke for the trees; students recall this story with wide eyes as they explain how the Lorax stood up for climate change when he insisted that the trees mattered, even when everyone else said they did not. Students cared when the Giving Tree gave the boy every last resource it could until it no longer existed for itself, but instead existed selflessly, so that the boy, in turn, could live selflessly with those around him. Students cared about these stories because these stories are trees in their own lives, sowing seeds of compassion, growing kindness, tolerance, and empathy that are rooted into their very souls and branch out into their relationships with others and the world.

When, then, did my students lose the power of story that had been planted in them from an early age?

Perhaps this is a question I need to aim at my students. I admit, asking this question scares me, because certainly part of their answer could be them placing blame on me. “The story doesn’t mean as much to me when I have to analyze the theme,” they’ll say. “I want to enjoy the story without writing about why it mattered.”

What students need to understand is, the best stories make us want to write about them, to discuss them with people we care about long after we have finished reading, watching, or listening to them. When we close the book after reading the last page, the best stories force us to stare at the wall or the sky or the ceiling and question our very existence. When the screen shows the credits and the music plays, the best stories force a longing upon us as we return to our own world after being lost in another. When our friend or family member finishes telling a story and we laugh or cry with them, the best stories create a desire for connection within us that compels us to tell a story of our own in return, or leaves us speechless, sitting and feeling the emotions the person has invoked in ourselves. The best stories keep us thinking about our place in the world and compel us to make those around us challenge themselves as much as we dare challenge ourselves.

The best stories lend themselves to us. They allow themselves to be shattered so that we can all carry a piece of them with us in our quest to become an individual. Naturally, this means that those who read, analyze, and create stories more often will foster a stronger sense of self.

Before we teach them to write, we must teach them to care. Before we teach them to  analyze, we must teach them to empathize. Before we teach them our curriculum, we must teach them our hearts.

It is only when we teach their hearts that we will teach them how to write.

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