This mentality is why I chose electives in poetry and storytelling rather than my more comfortable music and visual art for grad school this spring. And, so far, what a good choice! This past weekend I spent my Saturday and Sunday from 8 am to 5 pm in a rather ugly, sparse classroom. Oh, the horror, right?
The best thing about going to an art/education school is that the teachers know how to teach and they know their art form. Abigail Jefferson, the instructor for my weekend course, isn't only a wonderful and engaging teacher, she's an inspiring storyteller. With her we learned about storytelling through storytelling. Throughout the long weekend I don't think we sat down for more than an hour at a time. This comes from Abigail's experience with middle schoolers, but also speakers to her knowledge as a performer and teacher about attention spans and how to best engage people.
While preparing and excitedly waiting for this class, I found myself noticing the stories I was already telling everyday and remembering the stories that I had been told throughout my life. There are stories that I forgot that I knew and stories that I forget how I know, ones through which I hear my mother's voice and Jim Weiss's on cassette. Yes, even I am old enough to remember cassettes.
Through the class I also realized that stories are, and always have been, how I learn. I've been blessed by whatever combination of nature, nurture, or spiritual force you personally prefer with a sharp memory. I can hear things once and teach about the material later in the day. (That has happened. More than once. Bad planning, I know). But during the weekend I realized that stories and discovery aren't just good tools for teaching and learning, they are the best.
Give me facts, numbers, and names and I can read them over three times and know them for the test tomorrow. But then I promptly forget them because I just don't care about those specifics. There are people whose life work is based off of such specifics and facts, but I am thankfully not one of them. I could describe the entire catalogue of an artist's work, the stories behind each piece, and the artist's biography, but forget their name until something reminds me of it hours later.
But to tell stories you don't need verbatim, memorized facts. Indeed, memorization often impedes a good story. You need to absorb and understand the story itself. Then, when you go back to tell it, the details can be formed in the moment, based on the connection and the energy you are experiencing. Storytelling is a trust exercise between you and your brain, one that I need to practice. I often lose what I know because I over-think and second guess myself rather than trusting not what I've memorized, but what I've learned, what I know. In psychology, that's called psuedostupidity. (A random fact I remember from my second year of college not because it was the most important, but because I could directly connect it to my life... and it made me laugh.)
From my reading for another class, I can see that I'm far from the only person who believes in storytelling as an incredible vehicle for teaching. In Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, Paulo Freire, the father of current educational thought and the archangel of Lesley schooling, describes how he teaches writing. Rather than reducing reading to rules of grammar and structure he taught these rules as "objects to be discovered within the body of the texts." He goes on to say that "the students did not have to memorize the description mechanically, but rather learn its underlying significance." Freire was on the forefront of changing teachers from the fountain of information to the leaders of discussion and discovery, or the storytellers.
As soon as I read Freire's words, my brain clicked into gear. I wasn't thinking of something that I remembered from my days of rote memorization, but something that I knew from listening to Abigail, taking part in her stories, and making my own stories; that human connection is the best way to teach and to be taught.