Finding Humanity in Students’ Stories

Sharing the story of “Stone Soup” around a fire

On a recent Monday, one of my students told me a story about their weekend. This is a typical Monday occurrence at my school, and I’m sure it’s common at yours, as well. Sometimes, swept up in the busyness of starting a new week, I’m not terribly present for those conversations. Thankfully, I was present for this one, and I’m writing this post as a reminder to myself and an invitation for others to be more mindful in those moments, because they matter for all sorts of reasons.

This particular story was about a weekend theater group in a larger city that the student is a part of. The student — let’s call them Mel — is non-binary and ended up in a small group with, in their words, “all the gender nonconforming kids”. As the group was chatting, Mel discovered that pretty much all the other kids weren’t having their preferred pronouns or names respected in their schools. Mel — my student — was the happy exception, thanks to supportive teachers and classmates.

As part of their theater warmups, groups were expected to write short, impromptu skits. Mel’s group crafted a skit around their common experience of being misgendered at school. The misgendered student in the skit was encouraged by their peers to enlist the aid of a teacher ally, who helped them out by using their preferred pronouns in front of other students and staff, thus normalizing the practice. The teacher character was, of course, based on me.

I think that Mel felt they were just telling me a silly, fun story from the weekend, but it really touched me, and the story has been rattling around in my head ever since. Using their preferred pronouns in the classroom hadn’t struck me as anything special I was doing, but it clearly mattered a lot to Mel.

At a recent conference I attended, David O’Connor, Education Consultant for the American Indian Studies Program at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, spoke beautifully and repeatedly about the importance of storytelling in human cultures. He advocates for educators to take an active role in rewriting the stories our students believe about themselves, especially the negative ones that society tells about them. In his words, “Stories are the most powerful thing.”

The act of restoring humanity to our classrooms must include actively listening to our students’ stories, and supporting them in writing new ones when the old ones no longer serve them. And if those stories help us see our own practice from a new perspective? So much the better.

GMWP: Greater Madison Writing Project

Teacher as Artist, Teacher as Researcher, Teacher as…

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