Stories are the fabric of our lives, whether we are reading a story, watching a story, dancing a story, painting a story…stories weave our lives together in ways that bring meaning and connection to our lives. Stories show us how much we share common experiences even with backgrounds that come from very diverse cultures.
There is something magical about stories that connect us to one another. In the English Language Learning (ELL) classroom students come together from diverse backgrounds and cultures, each with unique stories and unique languages. As beginning or emerging speakers ELL students have little or no understanding of English, never mind having an understanding of the language of the peers in their classroom. An ELL classroom can easily consist of ten different languages. What do they have in common? Story! As teacher, librarian and storyteller, we wondered how we might use that common factor of story to build speaking, listening, writing and information literacy skills. Our journey begins with a story….
I reach my hand into a bag, in the bag I find a smooth rock and my story begins….
It was a cold dark night. The air was heavy, fog rolled in off the mountains into our small fruit farming and coal mining valley. Rooftops were swallowed and the lights seeping through windows made the houses look like giant jack-o-lanterns dancing in the swamps of a misty bog. In my house we were headed to bed. My brother went to his bedroom and snuggled in under his heavy quilt. My mom shooed my sisters and me to bed. Our bedrooms were in the basement. Dad wouldn’t be home for another 8 hours. He was doing the graveyard shift at the coalmine where he worked to supplement his struggling fruit farm. I could say the night wasn’t all that different than any other school night, early to bed, early to rise, except it wasn’t. In the wee hours of the morning a scream pierced through the darkness that shrouded the house. I woke and struggled to figure out where I was. The house was full of smoke. The scream was pulling me up the stairs. Stumbling through the darkness, tears streaming down my face from the sting of the smoke, I saw my mother dragging my brother out into the hallway. His eyes were glazed over, he was not breathing. My mother’s scream changed to commands, “open the doors, the window” My sisters and I sprang into action. “Pray” my mother said. We did that too. I grabbed a blanket, the frigid January frost swept quickly into the house through the open doorway and windows. I was shaking. Not sure if it was from the cold or from the fright of all that was happening. I began to give my brother mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Mom was on the phone, calling the ambulance, calling grandma, calling our pastor. Somehow she needed to get word to my dad who was down in the pitch-black belly of the coalmine. The rest is kind of a blur, lights flashing, being spirited away, with grandma? Honestly it was hard to put it all together and make sense of everything that was happening. Would my brother be ok? Would he live? Would he be the same if he did come back? I couldn’t sleep. I wondered. I prayed. I think I even cried. All that fear, all that uncertainty lifted when Wayne walked into grandma’s house the next day. The first words he said to me? “Boy, I knew you were full of a lot of hot air!” We laughed, we hugged, we cried. But this time I was crying because he was the same old joking, funny guy that had gone out into the night under flashing lights just hours before. “So, I bet you are wondering what this rock (I hold up the rock that I pulled out from the bag that started the whole story), has to do with the story I just told you”. Well my brother is all grown up now and he likes to collect rocks. He finds beautiful rocks and he takes them home and he polishes them up. He finds rocks that don’t seem like anything at all until he takes them home and finds their hidden beauty. And then? He gives those rocks away. He carries a pocket full of them wherever he goes, and if you happen to be in a restaurant where he is, you might see him walk over to a table that has a young family and he asks the mom and dad, “Can I give your child this rock?” Children love his gifts and parents walk away feeling special. I hope someday you are in a place where the rockman is and he sees you and gives you a rock as beautiful as the one I pulled out of the bag. And if you do get that chance, you will know the story of the rockman!
This is an example of the OPEN phase of our Guided Inquiry Design Unit. Storytelling becomes the loom in which we will weave together our entire unit. There is a high level of student interest. Students share their own narrative stories following this model lesson. Each student is asked to bring 3 personal items in a bag we give them, from which they will drawn and tell their own personal story.
We spend a great deal of time in the OPEN phase as we want students to have ample time to understand the meaning story has in each of their individual lives, the lives of their families, and the culture from which they come, as well as the eventual person they will be partnered with. We also need to build trust for these new language learners. We need to build trust for us (the teaching team) and in each other. These are students who are working hard to acquire a new language and they need the confidence that they are in a trusting environment. Through the focus on story we are able to bring understanding that stories show us how we are alike and how each of our stories enrich the lives of others. This understanding is the opening for learning about other cultures and countries. Over the course of our unit our students will thread this understanding of story into the research they will do about the country and culture of the partner they are teamed with.
Some tools we use during this OPEN phase:
- Narrative Bags with objects to connect to a personal story
- Story Starter Worksheet (optional to the objects bag):
Look at your given photo, and then briefly (1-2 words) answer these questions off the top of your head. Use your answers to help you connect the photo to a personal event in your life.
- Who or what is in the picture? What are their relationships to each other?
- What activity(ies) are happening in the picture? Is someone going to or from a location?
- What emotions are happening in the photo?
- What season is it in the photo?
- What would the scent and sounds of this picture be?
- Brainstorming about yourself:
- Narrative short stories are used to read to the students.(Amy Tan’s Fish Cheeks is a good example).
- Vocabulary Logs
We wrap up this OPEN phase with a Narrative Story Festival. Parents are invited and this is the first time the storyteller (our extended team member) is introduced. She is invited as a special guest and tells her own narrative story. She will return several times over the course of the unit to present workshops for students as they dig into their own cultural stories.
Later this week, I will share the collaborative process and the other phases in the unit.