Storytelling Through Artifacts

When I was in grad school, we had an assignment where we had to create a lesson plan around an artifact. I had been teaching in museums for several years at that point, so I had experience teaching with and through artifacts. But we also had the Summer Solstice party coming up.

That spring, I had gotten into a bit of a mythology fact-checking fight for a show introduction I was writing for the planetarium attached to the museum. So, the education curator, who happened to be the professor who assigned the artifact lesson plan, asked me to put together a little storytelling program for the party. I asked if the stories I gathered and presented counted as artifacts, and she said, “Absolutely.”

I was the only student in that class who had to present their artifact lesson plan to a public audience.

My classmates couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea of stories as artifacts. But I wrapped each story in its context, with a bit here and there on the science of solstices, and the audience and professor loved it.

I’ve been thinking about that assignment a lot over the last few weeks while I’ve been working on my object for the Sherlock Holmes MOOC. We’ve picked an object to develop into a smart clue for a live, collaborative crime scene, but we’ve also been working on the object’s story and weaving that into a wider story with other students’ objects. It’s been this collaborative storytelling project, in a very odd way.

But it’s made me think about what I knew as a museum educator, what I know as an amateur cultural anthropologist: Artifacts tell a story about their time and place. Something doesn’t have to be old to be an artifact. The device you’re reading this on is technically an artifact. Scary, huh? What story does it tell? Is that scarier?

Oh, the random things you think about while working on storytelling projects.

The Resilient Child is Not the Enemy

An article posted at the beginning of the year revealed that children who rise above challenges in their youth become successful adults at the cost of their future health, and even went  so far as to suggest that maybe children shouldn’t be allowed to endure the stress of overcoming whatever obstacles they are presented with.

When I first read the article, I was livid. It sounded like the writers were encouraging adults to discourage children from daring to set and reach for goals. In fact, the exact note I left for myself in Instapaper was, Yes, let’s find a way to panic those breaking free into rejoining the drones. Because that was what I took away from that reading.

But re-reading the article after several months hasn’t improved my opinion of the writers’ position. Where does anyone get off saying that a child shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for their potential, to learn early how to set goals, hot to identify and handle setbacks? Because that’s really what this article is saying. That embuing children and their plastic, adaptable minds with skills that will enable them to become successful adults isn’t a good idea.

We’ve had this problem for a couple of generations now (my own included) where people seem to have developed what has often been called a sense of entitlement. They seem to not be able to cope with…anything, really. And part of that is because we weren’t really expected to handle things as kids. My generation saw both parents go to work, and as a result were a bit more indulgent with us to try to make up for not spending as much time with us. It was never our fault we did anything; we were just acting out because we missed our parents. Or because one of our parents was no longer living with us, because we were the first generation to have more kids living in broken homes than in nuclear family units. That coddling hasn’t done us any favors, especially those who have struggled to figure out how to function beyond it.

It’s time that we remember children are capable of taking on challenges, of setting their own challenges and successfully managing them, that being given opportunities to take chances and learn how to handle setbacks in a safe zone will take them farther than telling them why their failures are someone else’s fault. We don’t have to throw them to the wolves; we just have to enable them to be able to fail, learn from that failure, and pick themselves up and try again. That’s the key: We have to give them a safe space to fail while they’re learning that resilience. Learning they can fail will go a long way toward minimizing the stress addressed in that article.

Sorry for the soapbox. It probably won’t be the only rant this week.

Expressing to Be Interpreted

Writing has become a contentious art. In one corner, you have the formal, academic rules. And in the other, you have what is often referred to as “txtspeak”, a set of rules that really kind of aren’t. As a writer, a writing teacher, and an editor, I’ve become fascinated with the spectrum of writing rules and how we as a society and how we as the involved professions have reacted to this. Some say, “Well, language is living, and it’s currently in a state of evolution.” Others fight tooth and claw for the  rules.

I tend to err on the side of the rules for one simple reason, one I often remind my students and my beta reading and editing clients about: Writing is a means of communication. That’s its whole purpose for existing. The one exception might be a private journal, where writing serves as a means to codify thoughts, feelings, and memories…but that still means the person who wrote it probably intends to look back at it later and glean information. So, it’s still a form of communication.

While I was deep in trying to decide how best to evolve this blog to keep up with the changes that were taking place in my life last fall, I had in the same day two different conversations, one with a fellow writer and one with a fellow teacher, about this idea of communication and the level of formality. It was interesting, even if neither conversation reached a fulfilling conclusion.

The writer was thinking about voice and audience, and about how a writer’s voice in certain contexts is a collaboration with the audience, in what the audience brings to the story. Collaboration is highly dependent on communication, and so it made sense that she was thinking about the accessibility of her own writing voice.

The teacher felt that we should be teaching dialectical English instead of what we teach as “standard English”. When I asked how he saw that going along with teaching students to write to be understood, he announced that clarity is bunk. I know from years of lurking around writers and editors that the number one reason writers, especially writers just learning the craft, are steered away from writing dialects is because it can be so hard for those who don’t live in an area where the dialect is spoken to make sense of it, so I  was a little surprised to hear an academic take such a strong stand (especially when he failed to defend it).

We know from studying centuries-old texts in standard English classes that language does evolve as the society it serves evolves. We see it. We explore it when we attempt to modernize a story to where we currently are in our language development. And it’s interesting to think about how this formal vs. informal rules continuum is fought and evolves along with the evolution of the language itself.

How about you? Where do you fall on the continuum, and why?

The Need For Better Role Models

When Titanic was re-released in April, there was an image going around – a screencap of some kids chatting on Facebook about discovering the movie was based on real events.  To them, it was amazing and gave some of them a new perspective on the movie, but the group as a whole became an internet joke, attacked for not knowing the real story to begin with.

There’s more in the world right now encouraging stupid or impulsive, selfish behavior. When that’s what you’re surrounded by, of course you aren’t going to grow up to be someone who chooses to take part in the community. Why should you when these people you freely acknowledge as losers are succeeding by being selfish losers? Of course you aren’t going to develop anything resembling a work ethic. Why should you when television and the internet are full of people who’ve become celebrities just because they made one comment that proved they slept through school?

We talk about all the ways television impacts us negatively, but do we ever really look at what’s going on? Kids grow up in front of the television, Netflix, and YouTube. And a fair few of them gravitate toward the stupid stuff because anything else makes them think, and they’re being taught in school that they don’t have to think. They just have to follow rubrics, make excuses, and have their parents threaten the teacher, and they’ll pass the class. And they’ll be told how wonderful they are, and reassured that their failures and their misbehavior aren’t their fault.

And we end up with a generation with little common or base knowledge and an overly inflated self-esteem and sense of entitlement. They don’t understand how simple things work because they were socially promoted through their math and science classes. They can’t put together an intelligible email…or a complete sentence for that matter, because they were socially promoted through language arts. And develop a love of reading? Forget that! Books are for stupid English class. No one in the real world reads (which does actually confuse me. I see more people reading something on the bus than not reading.) They have no idea how to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, nor any clue with how to deal with rejection.

I’ve talked about this in the past on other blogs, but what if we stopped putting the losers in the spotlight and started heaping all the attention on people doing real, positive, impactful things in the world? What if we stopped making mistakes and failure the enemy, and turned them into the teaching and motivation moments they used to be? If we all stopped acting like teenagers, would the teenagers coming up be more able to move on to a productive adulthood?

Storytelling, An Ancient Teaching Method

I was teaching one afternoon several months ago when a fellow teacher looked over at me and said, “You know, I know there’s a  difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale, but I don’t know what it is. Do you?” After a moment of thought, I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know, either. I’ve grown up with fables, fairy tales, folklore, and mythology my entire life, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between them on the spot.

What’s really embarrassing is that these stories are our history. Teachers’ history, I mean. Storytelling is one of the original teaching methods, and we’re now reconnecting with the power and strength of the story to make topics sticky enough to be learned. Those who wove these stories are really our masters now, those we should be looking to for guidance on how to re-incorporate the story into our teaching…and two teachers sat there realizing they couldn’t tell you which type of story was which.

It turns out sorting them out is relatively simple. The fable is a story, usually featuring animals, that teaches a moral or a life lesson. The folk tale, folklore in the collective, is a story that orally conveys the customs, assumed history, and beliefs of a culture. The fairy tale is a lesson wrapped up in a fantastical story. As they involve animals and humans, they are considered a subset of fables. Fairy tales were told shared orally as entertainment and education until someone finally started recording each story (and its many variations). The myth is a story about a god or a legendary hero that searches to explain the scientific observations of the originating culture. Some cultures have also woven bits of their history, exaggerated a bit, into their mythology as a means of asserting their dominance in an area or to assert cultural pride.

While these stories can’t be easily identified with a core subject, they’ve lasted throughout time, often teaching the modern people who hear them today.