Monday, June 28, 2010

All You Need Is a Story (and Some Skill)

"I hate social studies!" a certain anonymous person recently said. I answered, "It is impossible to hate all of social studies! Do you even know what social studies is - history, economics, geography, culture, psychology, sociology, religion. Do you really hate all of that?"

I really do believe that it is impossible to hate everything that fits under the category of "social studies." But, it is not impossible to be unable to make connections to current events, to have a difficult time with a reading assignment, or to be bored out your mind by an assignment or lecture. If I took the "big books" that are part of our social studies program at used them to teach social studies to my second graders, I don't doubt they would think they hated social studies too. But I wouldn't do that!

I set off this year to find social studies in the world - the interesting kind - wherever I could, just to prove that it is interesting. For example, one day, anonymous and I were stuck in a long line of traffic. The train barriers were down and obviously broken, so what do you do when the barriers are down and you know for sure there is no train? Ahh...human behavior. Some cars that could, turned around and left, but not us social scientists! We watched and observed...What would happen? How long would people wait? Then, the first person decided to go through the barriers...what makes a person decide to do that? Then, the next car and the next went through...we waited...who would be the person to stop and let the other side of traffic have a turn, etc. Was this interesting to watch. "Umm...I don't know (that means yes by the way)." Imagine that this is your career - to observe people and how they behave and find out why people do what they do. Did you know that's a career?

Another "test" came in what might be considered an unusual place to find an interesting history lesson. As anonymous and I scurried to church, running late as always, it was obvious that anonymous was again thoroughly put out by having to spend an hour at a Sunday Mass. But, as we sat in our pews and the priest began his homily, I was feeling thankful that we have good speakers at our church. This week the priest became storyteller. Without notes or fumbling, he told the story, as if he was there, about Sir Thomas More (a powerful story if you have never heard or read it). I could tell by looking at anonymous that she was trying not to be interested but couldn't help herself. Later, I asked her if she had ever heard of Thomas More before. She hadn't. I asked if she thought the story was interesting. "A little (that means yes)," she replied. That is part of history, you know!

A good story, an interesting situation, some meaningful connections...these are the things that make learning "unhated." We in the classroom spend a lot of time talking, but we could use our time more wisely if we converted our talking to storytelling. How can we fit our message into something people want to hear - or, how can others be the storytellers guided by us? We need the knowledge, of course, a bit of skill in telling our story (plain old speaking works, but we have so many other resources for storytelling now, such as the written word, images, video, etc.)

One final observation - even reading a story (a book) can be converted to an adventure. During the last week of school, my second graders were "listening" to a good story. They seemed somewhat interested but not all the way involved. Until...I changed to a storyteller! In the middle of a book about animals playing music and taking rides on riverboats (the main purpose being to enjoy a story and to read a book with a setting in Louisiana), as I noticed some fading focus, I inserted, "Oh, by the way, this is a true story. I know, I was there." Everyone sat up - what did she say, this is true, this isn't true, you were there? So, for the rest of the book, I told the story of what I saw. Of course, they didn't believe me, but they played along. So, which of those trees were you in? How did you get in the house? What was the name of THAT alligator? Same book, different story. Way different experience, for the children and for me!

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