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Last week I voiced my concerns about decreasing the emphasis on narrative writing in schools, with more effort going to evidence-based argument and other skills that business and colleges say are essential.
Could we think beyond the needs of business for a moment?
My first reason for wanting to do so: Could we think of other cultures? And the high value placed on story as one conveys values, truths, societal norms, warnings, rules, wisdom and so much more through narrative? I’ve done some work with schools for Native American children, for example. In a powerful book, Our Stories Remember, James Bruchak says this about the use of narratives.
What is the place and purpose of stories? What is their proper use? Stories were never “just a story,” in the sense of being merely entertainment. They were and remain a powerful tool for teaching. Lesson stories were used by every American Indian nation as a way of socializing the young and strengthening the values of their tribal nation for both young and old (p. 35)
A second reason: narratives help students discover who they are. School isn’t just a race to the finish line of a good job. It’s supposed to be a process by which we find our strengths, discover what works for us, unearth what is important and what drives our passions, and learn to communicate what makes us tick.
AND, IN SO MANY CASES, LEARNING TO WRITE NARRATIVES HAS UNLOCKED THE WORLD OF LEARNING FOR STUDENTS WHO HAVE NEVER ENGAGED IN THEIR OWN EDUCATION BEFORE.
That’s what The Freedom Writers Diary was all about. That’s what the powerful stories of books like Bronx Masquerade convey. And True Notebooks. Yes students need to learn to present an argument, but both forms of writing need attention. I’m worried that the sample tasks I’m seeing will make writing as interesting as lessons on balancing checkbooks or writing up lab experiments. Paul Lockhart, a mathematics teacher in Brooklyn, points out in A Mathematician’s Lament:
It may be true that you have to be able to read in order to fill out forms at the DMV, but that’s not why we teach children to read. We teach them to read for the higher purpose of allowing them access to beautiful and meaningful ideas. Not only would it be cruel to teach reading in such a way—to force third-graders to fill out purchase orders and tax forms—it wouldn’t work! We learn things because they interest us now, not because they might be useful later (p, 47)
And by the way, Lockhart uses a powerful narrative to begin that book, a plea for going back to the drawing board in math education!
If we really want all students to succeed, how about if we balance the needs of the soul, the needs of different cultures, and the needs of future employers and professors. That seems a surer bet.