Friday, 2 August 2013

Reflections on Storytelling

View from one of our daily pre-writing hikes
I recently attended a storytelling workshop with renowned Ojibway author Richard Wagamese and found myself in the unfamiliar role of a student. I believe as teachers we should pursue this “student” experience more often.  We are in danger of forgetting the insecurities and tension that accompanies the role. Richard approaches his writing from a tradition of spontaneous oral storytelling. He speaks of all stories as “energy” and embraces the philosophy that all things and all people have stories to share if you are willing to listen. To ask someone to share stories out loud without much preparation requires a fundamental commitment to creating an environment free of doubt and judgment and fear. Richard masterfully worked to eliminate these concepts from the moment we started the workshop. Early on the first day we were presented with a colourful rubber chicken and asked to give it a name. Any pestering inner voice advising us that our words or ideas weren’t good enough, required a prompt self-whack on the head from our chicken. Chickens have power. Likewise if any other member of the group voiced elements of self criticism we all shared a responsibility to counter their negativity with our chickens. It immediately created a playful method to reinforce a non-judgmental atmosphere where we would be free to share and risk and create. 

At first our stories began from a place of safety and familiarity. We shared ideas aloud with each other but drew from previous experiences of emotion and power. We didn’t have to stretch ourselves too far to find inspiration, we only had to play with methods of sharing those experiences with others. This also intertwined us with the histories of the rest of the group. One of the most memorable experiences of the entire four days came from interviewing a partner about a significant memory and then re-telling the memory as that person. Speaking in first person and using someone else’s voice to describe an emotional experience fused us in a way I would not have thought possible considering the length of time we had known one another. Stories connect. Stories break down differences and stereotypes and transport you into the life and thoughts of another human being as their story becomes a part of yourself. They move us beyond barriers of age and gender and ethnicity and perspective and judgement. It is something I will never forget. It is something I will do again.
The rubber chicken: nemesis of negativity

From the safety of previous memories and familiar experiences Richard guided us into more risky territory with the challenge of spontaneously creating thoughts and ideas that were completely new. Our story prompts became random and scattered. They deliberately forced us out of our comfort zones to create something from the recesses of our imaginations and beyond the realms of previous experience. At once it was both daunting and exhilarating; the chickens came out on more than one occasion. But we were permitted to be silly and nonsensical as we wove our ideas and voiced them out loud from a pure and spontaneous place. 

As we moved from oral tradition into the written word we were suddenly faced with years of the regulations and structures that we all associate with writing. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation expectations reared up to crush the pure joy of creating stories and sharing them with one another. Fear and judgement threatened to resurface. Cue the chickens. 

Richard had a simple solution:

There are no rules. There. Are. No. Rules. therearenorulestheirarenoruleztherernorules

We wrote pages of intentional run-on sentences. We wrote. fragments. We joyously rejected every grammatical commandment that had ever been forced upon us by the expectations of formal writing. I simultaneously laughed and cringed at the memory of every red stroke I received on a piece of writing and the many I have personally scribed on the papers of my students. We wrote and we wrote and we wrote and we laughed and cried and exchanged the powerful thoughts that emerged. 

After an entire day of creative expression we gradually added some punctuation and structure but those elements never made us compromise our creativity or expression. Instead of viewing sentence elements as rules and confinements, we recognized them for their true purpose: to create a rhythm and flow that honours the words being used and increases their impact.

At the end of the fourth day I was astounded by what what each of us had created. We had spoken and written not for recognition or approval or to convince or persuade others. We wrote for the pure joy of creative expression-the pure freedom of sharing something from within you and the absolute privilege of hearing stories told from the hearts of others. It was unforgettable.

The entire experience has inspired a reflection on our education system. We truly have it backwards. We begin with the rules and the structures and the judgements. We place students in a box increasingly reinforced with layers of requirements and expectations. Then we are surprised when they can’t create a story, when they can’t solve a problem, when they can’t think for themselves. I asked Richard what he felt were some improvements we could make in education and he responded that our school system lacked “soulfulness”. He’s right. We take education and we disconnect student learning from spontaneity and creativity and play. So often we completely separate the curriculum from Who. They. Are. In September I will go back to my grade 12 students and all of us will walk into the world of provincial exams, university expectations, graduation requirements, percentages and letter grades. We will live in the world of judgements and rankings and rules, but my number one priority will be to begin in a place of freedom. We will go back to the world of childhood play. We will create. We will share. We will get to know each other and ourselves. The rules and restrictions will be there waiting for us, but I promise we will begin with the soul. 


  1. I LOVE this blog! Not only is you own sense of learning challenged but you have gone one step further and thought about how you are going to re-create the opportunity for your senior students. For a senior English teacher to have a goal of beginning with "soul" rather than rules is wonderful. Also love that your district project is searching for ways to identify and work with student strengths. I firmly believe that if students leave the school system knowing what their strengths are and believing that they can learn whatever they need to learn in life that they are set! Kudos! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I am excited about trying things in September. You have reminded me that identifying and working with student strengths is kind of like starting with the soul. Instead of beginning with the curriculum, we should start with who the students are (and what their strengths and interests are) and then find ways to help them use those things to master the curriculum. I completely agree that if students are aware of their own abilities, and have confidence and have become self-directed learners, then they can determine whatever future path they want. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  2. Live Each Day led me here...I do hope you are able to transfer the joy and freedom of what you experienced with Richard to your Grade 12's. I really appreciate the concept of beginning with the soul. All teaching should definitely begin that way. I'm happy to know there are teachers like yourselves out there who care that much!

    1. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. I think such an important part of the workshop was that I was put in the role of the student and reminded so clearly of how hard it is to share ideas when you are worried about "doing it right" or if it is "good enough". It is so hard to let go of years of expectations! I am looking forward to seeing what happens if we try to get students to "unlearn" a few things and focus on the joy of storytelling. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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