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A tale of two stories

Is school a place where students write their own stories -- or a place where stories are imposed and students must accept them? How teachers and students can use the metaphor of life as a story to help them reflect upon the nature of school and their rela

7 min read


A tale of two stories


From my many years as an educator, two statements stand out as representing what schools can be at their best and at their worst. Two statements that tell dramatically different stories.

The first statement was a question that came after I had facilitated a focus group discussion of inner-city middle school students. After the discussion, a young girl, on her own initiative, came up to me and asked if I had achieved my life’s goals. I thanked her for asking and confirmed that being an educator and helping students was a goal that I felt I had achieved. She listened and thanked me.

Afterward, when I reflected on what she did, I realized that her inquiry was a credit to the educators in that school. They encouraged their students to imagine themselves into the future and to reflect upon what they wanted to achieve in their lives. These students had a strong sense of the meaning and purpose for why they attended school. Learning was essential to life’s success. Success was setting goals, working towards them and hopefully achieving them. This young girl was probably in the habit of asking people the same question and collecting their responses as her own “data set” for future reference. When schools can engender this type of thinking and imagining, they improve students’ lives and consequently change the world for the better. They serve as portals to a better life.

The second statement came from a high school student in a suburban high school who was on a panel discussing the level of bullying and harassment typically occurring in high school. The panel painted a sad picture of how some students are singled out and mistreated under the radar of adult supervision. After several students added to this description, one student was asked if there was anything that could be done to change this situation. He paused, looked down, shook his head and replied that he saw no hope in changing anything — that was just how school was.

The statement troubled me. If a young student with his life ahead of him feels that his school is unchangeable, then he might likely conclude that the “world” is unchangeable.  For students who have learned this lesson, school is a closed system where they must meet the requirements imposed on them, avoid social mistreatment and hopefully “survive” until they can graduate.

The school stories of these two students could not differ more greatly. I use the word story deliberately because life in school has a beginning, middle and end. Students and staff who spend time in school, whether they know it or not, are writing a story — something that can be remembered and told to others.

Typically, however, we don’t think of our lives as stories, but perhaps we should. Beyond the present moment that we are in, we are either looking back and reconstructing our experience in memory or looking ahead and projecting what our experiences will be. That’s a story.

The young girl viewed school as a place where she could write her own story while in school and then continue to write it beyond her time in school. School was a time to think, ask questions and hopefully discover what she wanted her life to be. Her school story was a work in progress with a future she could envision and aim toward.

The high school student viewed school as a place immune to change, with a fixed story that was written before he arrived. It was not a story that he could write. It was one written by others — a story he had to accept and follow. I hoped that he wouldn’t apply this lesson to his life beyond school.

I share this metaphor of life being a story because this moment in time is an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of school itself. Is school a place where students write their own stories? Or is school a place where stories are imposed and students must accept them? The metaphor of life as a story could be a useful tool for helping students and educators reflect upon the nature of school itself and their relationship to it.

Please excuse my mixing metaphors to help me illustrate my point.

Think of school as being a game of Monopoly or a similar board game that has been in progress for a while and still has a way to go before it is completed. Now imagine that an earthquake shook the table it was on so forcefully that the entire game was flipped over and scattered on the floor. When the earthquake is over and every participant returns, the reactions to the event will differ greatly. Those ahead in the game will want to restore it as best as possible; those way behind might be glad the game was disrupted and be reluctant to start playing again; and those in the middle will probably be ambivalent about what to do next.

The COVID disruption was the earthquake that flipped the board over and unsettled everyone’s game. Now the question is what to do next when in person, face to face learning is restored.

Those in leadership positions can decide to reconstruct the game and, as best as possible, put everyone back into their positions prior to the disruption. Or, they can do something different: They can use this opportunity to talk about the game (school) and everyone’s reaction to the disruption and its “aftershocks”. This creates an opportunity for all the participants (students and staff) to reflect upon where they were (pre-disruption)and what they would like to do in the future (post disruption).

Here is a way to facilitate this reflection and discussion: Use the metaphor of story to describe the school experience in the past and into the future. Provide everyone with a series of sentence stems to answer privately and then share in discussion. Here are some examples:

  • For me school is a place where I …
  • For most other students, school is a place where they …
  • For most teachers and staff school is a place where they …
  • For me school could be (or I wish was) a place where… 

This story sharing has the potential to be more than just a touchy-feely exercise. Viewing one’s experience as writing one’s story can facilitate a sense of agency for both students and staff. Agency is the sense of being in charge of solving one’s problems and achieving one’s goals. Research shows that people with a sense of agency are more successful and happier than people without agency. In addition, research has demonstrated that metacognition (being aware of one’s own thinking) also contributes to higher achievement. On top of those two reasons there is something we all know: Sharing stories strengthens relationships.

Schools are more than mere physical buildings. They are a web of interdependent relationships, of people interacting with other people  — places full of stories. COVID demonstrated this fact because it took the building out of the experience leaving only the relationships albeit online versions of them. Perhaps the best time to talk about this fact is when everyone is walking back into the buildings that were taken away!

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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