A true story about telling true stories

red brick Berkeley County, WV, courthouse with white pillars and cupola.

Berkeley County, WV, Courthouse is little changed from this 1940s photo.

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter in Martinsburg, WV, real property owners were required to appear at the courthouse of the county in which their property was located during one month each spring to see their property assessment for the following year so it was no surprise that the chair of the Berkeley County Commission asked me if I’d put a notice in the paper telling people to come check their assessments.

Normally, the county beat reporter would write two paragraphs telling people to check their assessments, the managing editor would put the story in a box on the front page, and that was the end of it.

Correcting errors in the property assessments before tax bills were mailed saved the county money and also prevented some serious problems. I’d seen a few people come to the County Commission seeking help recovering property that had been sold for back taxes without their knowledge.

One of those people, I remembered, had come in with the county Emergency Management Services director.

I phoned Dick.

The young fellow turned out to be his son, who had come home from the army to find his house had been auctioned off at a tax sale. Marvin had gotten his house back, but he wouldn’t wish that experience on his worst enemy. His father said Marvin would be happy to talk to me.

I interviewed Marvin, took a photo of him in front of his house in one of the areas newest subdivisions. The story ran across the top of the Saturday paper. The headline read:

How to lose a home and not know it

Marvin’s story was definitely unique. The chances of anyone else in Berkeley County having a similar set of circumstances was probably less than the chance of being eaten by a shark in West Virginia.

But unlikely as it was, it had happened.

And it happened to the county EMS director’s son. He worked for the county. Everybody knew Dick.

True stories motivate people.

In a normal year, the County Commission’s secretary handled inquiries about tax assessments along with her usual work. There were rarely more than one or two people a day who came to view their tax assessments. 

When the courthouse opened Monday morning after Marvin’s story ran in the paper, there was a line of people three abreast from the courthouse steps down the block and around the corner past the drugstore. They had come to check their property assessments.

The line thinned after that first day but it never stopped.

That year, after the story ran about how Marvin lost his new home because he hadn’t gone to check his tax assessment, the county had to move two people out of another office full time for the entire month to help people who’d come to check their tax assessments.

If you teach writing, stories matter.

Every business and organization has information it wants the public to know. Few have the knack of finding the right stories to deliver their information so it motivates customers and donors to act.

True stories motivate, but only if they make points that are clear, unambiguous, and directional. The stories don’t need to say "do this," but they need to point readers to their choices.

It is much easier and much more useful to teach students to notice and collect other people’s stories than it is to try to teach them to tell their own stories well. If you are going to teach students to write narratives—and you should—start them off on other people’s true stories.

Photo Credit: West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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.