Stories – spores waiting to propagate knowledge

books on shelf

I think about stories all the time – if fact, I think in stories – after all, what is more transformative than a good story? I came to this thought while on my daily walk, listening to Bram Stoker’s Dracula via audiobook. I find I am not just intellectually following the plot as Harker climbs down the castle wall into the vampire’s room; I am viscerally reacting to his terror with heightened perception. And then the steam-of-consciousness thoughts begin firing: How did Stoker come to his editorial choices? Did he mean to imbue his female characters with feminist qualities? That line by Van Helsing on perception is perfect for my lecture on folklore’s multitude of stakeholders. My brain is in critical mode. And that’s exactly where I want my students’ brains; so how do I facilitate this transformation from passive to active learner?

For me, it is story that is the trigger. Give me a good story and I will ask questions, empathize with the author or the characters, form alternative scenarios, leap to subjects that seem disconnected, but are merely extensions of a thread that has been teased from the narrative. I began to intentionally apply this supposition to students years ago, but in unstructured ways that had hit or miss success.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to embed some of my practices in a course called Finding Ourselves in Folklore, a writing intensive, freshman seminar that is driven by content of the professor’s choosing. I use a selection of folktales, fairytales, ballads, and critical readings to engage students on issues of perspective and applying a critical lens to what they think they know.  As I refine the course activities and assessments, it is clear that I get students’ best work when they are personally embedded. This epiphany is stunningly obvious, but the difficulty has been in finding the connector points into the content. I can’t always read folklore relevant to each and every student. Some students don’t even want to be there; they took the course because it was in a good time slot! What to do?

This semester, I began by forcing them back into their childhood cultures. We ended our first class meeting with a group song. I had them stand with me and ask that they join in where they could. So, most of us sang and performed the accompanying choreography to “Head and Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” a preschool song that most of my 28 freshman students knew. It was my foray into connecting them to our new community – the one in this class, at this liberal arts school, in a small Southern town – with something both endearing and silly.

As we debriefed the next class on how so many of us came to know the same song, though few students were from the same geographical regions, they began to talk about their lives. I have several international students who did not share this common experience with the song, but spoke of similar experiences within their culture’s domain. Most students participated in the discussion and the exercise gave us a point of entry to the complex topic of folklore and culture.

We went on the next day to shore up their geography skills (a deficit noted in earlier semesters) with an activity that had them pin point their hometowns or birth places on a world map. We noted the “neighbors” and those who had travelled great distances to be here. We each said something about these places, revealing bits about ourselves in the process. I say we, because I joined them in these activities. To remain aloof and separate from this class culture is artificial and detrimental to my goal: that all will find their identities represented in the course in one way or another and this connectedness will serve to connect them to all the course goals, including the improvement of their writing skills.

Each set of course readings has a corresponding writing component in which they have the opportunity to connect their experiences with the discourse. No – not all students are doing the homework – but almost all are. And no, not all are reading critically – but we are working on that skill as well. Along this line, I find that immediate feedback on their efforts is imperative. Once they knew I was invested in what they had to say, I found they were willing to invest more of their time and effort in the work. Again, not true for all, but for most.

The feedback I value most is their interest. They are staying after class to continue a discussion or to ask questions about a thread that has become personal for them. To have such positive rapport early in a semester is invigorating and makes me a more engaged instructor. I hope my engagement translates into enhanced effectiveness.

Post Script: As I reflect on this story, I realize that I have inadvertently teased out one of those lateral threads and found a way to attack a manuscript about using maps that had me stymied.  Woot!