Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Death, Certainty, and the Common Core

The Cover to a Child's Personal Narrative
1. First a Story

Last week, a ten-year-old boy stopped me while I was visiting his classroom and asked me how I liked the cover to his composition.  He then handed the piece of yellow construction paper to me. At the time he had not added the RIP or the tears.  As I read the title, I stopped unsure if I was reading correctly and reread. It took me a few seconds to find a voice to ask him about his narrative.

He passed two handwritten pages to me and I read them learning that his favorite uncle had died breaking up a mugging, with a bullet to the center of the forehead. He talked to me about how his uncle was his mother's older brother, her favorite too and how he and his uncle use to watch a special TV show together.  I told him that his narrative made me sad and how reading it reminded me that I needed to reach out to both of my brothers, if for no other reason than to say hello.

That's important to do, he told me as he added the tears and the RIP to the cover.

2. Then Another

Beneath the rhetoric of school reform are children's lives--fragile, resilient, and often tragic.  I think about this child and his powerful need to tell this story--a story I imagine he will tell again and again in different ways throughout his life.  Against this, I also think about those who would have us believe that story has limited place at school.  David Coleman, Common Core author joked about personal and persuasive essay when he discussed the Common Core with an audience of educators. Coleman told the audience that narrative and persuasive writing were the two most often prescribed school texts and why that was wrong.  He said:
The only problem with these two forms of writing is they don't get you very far in college and career readiness. Otherwise they're terrific (laughter).  That is it is rare at a job that the boss says, 'Johnson,  I want a market analysis, but before that I want a compelling narrative about your childhood' (again laughter).
An unintended consequence of the Common Core can be found in the certainty that frames so much of Coleman's utterances. He appears to be so sure that his thinking is right--right for an entire country.  With no actual experience against which to measure his remarks, Coleman continues on--perhaps unaware of what his careless rhetoric will displace--a child's powerful need to make sense of a favorite uncle's death through story.  What concerns me more than David Coleman is the audience of administrators and Department of Education folk who sat there and laughed.  Was there no one in that audience brave enough, bold enough to say to Coleman: Wait, you don't know what you're doing.  Let me tell you a story about a child from...?

3. Even in Business, or is it Especially in Business?

Humans, regardless of age, have a powerful need to tell stories.  Stories matter--not only for ten-year- old boys from the Bronx whose favorite uncles die, but also for those earning their keep in various businesses.  Coleman got it wrong in his contrived scenario about market analysis.

Market analysis is informed by story.  One might say it rests on story.

Consider Seth Godin who writes:

Storywork I was brainstorming with my friend Jay today and he put this picture into my head.
Most of the time we do the work. The work is our initiative and our reactions and our responses and our output. The work is the decisions we make and the people we hire.
The work is what people talk about, because it's what we experience. In other words, the work tells a story.
But what if you haven't figured out a story yet?
Then the work is random. Then the story is confused or bland or indifferent and it doesn't spread.
On the other hand, if you decide what the story is, you can do work that matches the story. Your decisions will match the story. The story will become true because you're living it.
Does Starbucks tell a different story from McDonald's? Of course they do. But look how the work they do matches those stories... from the benefits they offer employees to the decisions they make about packaging or locations.
Same is true for that little consulting firm down the street vs. McKinsey. While the advice may end up being similar, each firm lives a story in who they hire, how they present themselves, etc.
The story creates the work and the work creates the story.

 Muriel Rukeyser expressed our need for story, clearly, artfully--years ago when she wrote:
Time comes into it.
Say it.       Say it.

The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

We are the stories we tell.  If we fail to tell and receive stories, we fail to be. Ten-year-old children innately know this.  Perhaps, some among us still need to learn it.            


  1. Mary Ann,
    Thanks for reminding us of the importance of story. Everything we do is story, and to discount the importance of story in the lives of children in our classrooms is to discount who they are.

    I'm amazed every day by what children are TODAY. Yes, I wonder what they'll accomplish in their lives, but they are already accomplishing so much. It is through story that they learn. They learn how to tell about what has happened, how to shape an event, how to capture the attention of an audience, how to write to persuade.

    It seems in many occupations it is not the best and brightest that thrive, but the people who can work alongside one another. The people who can make others rethink a direction through story.

    Thanks for the reminder of the significance of story and the children in our classrooms.


    1. Cathy,

      The importance of story seems so evident, doesn't it? So when I encounter those who are so anti-story, it makes me wonder about the sadness that must frame their lives. For surely when we are without story , or fail to acknowledge the stories in our lives--or have no desire to receive stories--I can only image the life must be so barren. Each art print, selection of music, Sunday soccer match, dinner at the in-laws, the walk to school, and so on are stories.

      Appreciate your words and the RT.

      Mary Ann