Book Review: So, What’s the Story?

13 Sep

Fredricksen, J., Wilhelm, J., & Smith, M. (2012). So, what’s the story? teaching narrative to understand ourselves, others, and the world. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

This book, from the series Exceeding the Common Core State Standards, is written by two of my favorite contemporary writers about English education – M. Smith and J. Wilhelm. They teamed up to write Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom, which is truly one of my favorite books about teaching.

So, What’s the Story? asks difficult questions but offers reasonable and practical templates for responding to those questions. Here are some touchstones that I found stimulating:

  • In their introduction, Jeff, Michael, and Jim (they refer to themselves by first names) implore us to ask how our narrative assignments help students to engage and do functional democratic work in their classroom, school, community, and world. Yes! Narrative can be creative writing, but it doesn’t have to be completely disengaged from the world.
  • Jeff tells a story about his daughter trying to decide what to do with her summer, and he asks her, “Which decision will give you the best story?” I love that. I hope I’m that open when my daughters ask me the same questions.
  • “We need to move beyond the CCSS, because if we only stick with the standards, we focus only on the crafting of individual stories, rather than on how those stories might operate in communities. We think this is limiting because it can keep students’ focus only on the schoolishness of a task, rather than on the wider purposes, principles, and contexts of narratives. […] We don’t want our students to only write stories because we assign them; we want our students to compose stories because stories are vital to the ways in which people and communities understand themselves” (p.21). Again, what I love about this is that it encourages teachers to show students how this work fits into life outside of school, which is something that seems to be majorly missing from the vast majority of our classrooms.
  • Man, I’m seeing a major trend in the quotations I’ve picked out. Here’s another on authentic purpose: “As with any sequence of instruction that supports students’ composing and understanding, it is important to provide a significant purpose and a meaningful context for learning and for use of what is learned” (p.70).

I think what I’ve really taken away from this book, in addition to the activity ideas and planning templates, is a reaffirmation of the central importance of making this work relevant to students. Writing stories is fun, sure, but kids have to understand how this plays out outside of the classroom.

I’d write a whole post on my thoughts about the place of creative writing and fiction in the classroom, but I’m not that brave yet. Give me another few months 🙂

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