Storytelling should be tethered to a cause

People read what they want to know about.

Most people must be seduced into reading what they need to know about.

When business and professional leaders tell teachers they want students to be able to tell stories, what they want is writers who can tell the stories the business and professional leaders want told.

Those stories are rarely first person narratives.

They are nearly always third person reportage.

And they are almost never a story the writer would have chosen to tell if she weren’t being paid: They are almost always boring stories.

The only reason writers get paid is because, unlike the suited-individuals who hire them, they can take uninteresting stories, find something in them that could be made to be interesting, and use that nugget to grab the attention of people who haven’t been paying attention and move them to action.

If you are going to teach narrative writing, what you should be focusing on is what people are willing to pay for: third-person reportage that finds a human story that can be told to breathe life into the boring story so it moves people to action.

Real storytelling is telling stories about what people need to know

A few decades ago, after covering a city council meeting the evening before, when I reported to work on day two of my second reporting job, the managing editor asked me what news came out of the meeting.

I told him the important story was about a major waterline project being considered that would take years and cost millions, but the story readers would be interested in was that a traffic light was going to be installed at a certain busy intersection.

The ME raised arms his arms in the clenched fists victory salute and said, "At last! a reporter who knows the difference between what people want to know and what they need to know."

In today’s English classrooms, teachers have enthusiastically embraced the idea that in the twenty-first century students need to be good storytellers, without putting that idea in the context of what people need to know.

The world outside the English classroom rarely wants to hear a student’s personal story told in that student’s voice: Those might as well be cat videos for all the value they have in the marketplace.

What institutions and businesses want is people who can tell their stories which, as least as far as institutions and businesses are concerned — are the stories about what people need to know.

If you’re an English teacher who wants to prepare students for real-world storytelling, you need to prepare students to tell other people’s stories about dull topics to people who aren’t interested and interest those people enough to read to the end.

Narrative Writing within Common Core

Whether they are disposed toward approval of the Common Core or not, I believe teachers can profit by looking at their classes and their school curriculum through the lens of the standards.

One of the topics on which study the Common Core has changed my understanding of teaching writing is their use of narrative. I’ve always had difficulty teaching narrative (and avoided doing it) because in my own experience a required narrative was typically a personal essay. I don’t have difficulty writing personal essays—I once wrote humorous personal essays for a weekly magazine—but I didn’t see personal essay as useful in the typical school and business situations students were likely to encounter. Moreover, I was reluctant to open myself to reading the self-revelations students vomited into their essays.

As I’ve been digging into the Common Core Standards, I’ve come to see they use narrative in the same sense that the news reporter uses the term story. The author puts events and people into a primarily chronological context in order to reveal to readers the significance of those events and people. The value of the narrative is not just what happened, but why it happened and what the narrative means for readers.

I’ve written elsewhere about Michael Umphrey’s work with the Montana Heritage Project. The projects Umphrey describes employ narratives in the sense that Common Core uses the term. Students do intellectual work (research, analysis, documentation) with and for agencies in their communities. Their studies often use records of the past (newspapers, photographs, court records, etc.) as raw data. They share and preserve their  findings for other researchers to build upon.

Just last week I began a course in Data-Driven Journalism offered as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) by the Knight Center for Journalism in The Americas. This fascinating course looks at ways journalists and communications professionals in other fields can use data sources to tell stories explaining the connections between aggregations of data and how the data affects individual members of the audience personally.

These two different projects have some common threads:

  • Both projects use data that is directly relevant to the researchers, often because of where the researchers live/work.
  • The projects involve teams of individuals.
  • They involve real work, not make-work.
  • Projects may involve multiple data sources and multiple types of data sources (including print, databases, photographs, audio, objects.)
  • Projects may be presented in several different types of output, including print, audio, video, and oral presentations
  • Projects tend to be multidisciplinary.
  • Mathematical, scientific, technical, and graphic design skills may be needed to research, analyze, and communicate the story.
  • The end products are gifts to their communities.

I believe looking at these two different ways of story-making can help classroom teachers identify ways of using narratives for authentic, engaging learning in either a Common Core or non-Core environment.