This post was written by NCTE members Amy Miller and Meghan Jones.
Teaching memoir in the high school classroom has traditionally been a words-on-paper task. While written personal narratives are worthwhile and powerful, we, the team of teachers responsible for the ninth-grade heterogeneously grouped English classes at Farmington High School, instead turned to the most human and ancient art: oral storytelling.
Oral stories preserve history when paper is destroyed. The act of telling one’s story can evoke empathy, build connections, and communicate an individual identity while simultaneously weaving a collective one.
We hope that by speaking, listening to, crafting, and delivering stories orally, our students will understand the immense power of storytelling for both the teller and the listener.
Throughout our unit titled What does it mean to be a storyteller?, students question which stories are worth telling and how and why stories can influence an individual’s thoughts or beliefs. They read published memoirs, watch videos of oral storytellers, and search for storytelling “in the wild,” a term we borrow from movingwriters.org, as they build lists of storytelling topics and strategies that effective storytellers employ.
Students begin class each day of the unit responding to a prompt on an index card that evokes a story, memory, or reflection on a memory (e.g. What is one story that sticks with you? Re-tell it! Or Most of us have to make difficult decisions throughout our lives. Tell the story of a time when you had to make a tough decision.), inspired by one of Jay Nickerson’s “Memoir Remix” ideas published on movingwriters.org.
Students turn and talk about their responses, which challenges students to overcome the nerves of sharing personal stories, to take risks, to listen empathetically to others, and to build a deeper understanding of a community to which they belong.
Through this daily activity, students are collecting memories and reflecting on the significance of their experiences; they are also gathering a list of authentic storytelling techniques. Once they have a robust collection of memoir cards, students sort the cards into three categories: Green (stories with promise), Yellow (stories with seeds of promise) and Red (stories that seem to be a dead end).
Concurrently, students independently read memoirs they have chosen; as they read, students focus on the most powerful moments and the storytelling techniques that highlight the power of those moments. Our anchor text is Elie Wiesel’s Night, a story both profound and profoundly told.
In an interview we watched as a team (and would later share with students), Wiesel said, “anyone who listens to a Witness becomes a Witness. So those who hear us, those who read us, must continue to bear witness for us. Until now, they’re doing it with us, but at a certain point in time, they will do it for all of us.” His words compelled us to move beyond the role of a reader and into the role of witness. Together with our students, we bear witness to Wiesel’s story and pause to examine the moments that most move and inspire us.
In preparation for the final project, an oral storytelling task, students whittle down their topics and apply the strategies specific to oral storytelling to plan their own stories.
Students read excerpts from master storyteller Matthew Dicks’s book Storyworthy and look for evidence of his approach to crafting story as they study Moth-storytelling mentors like him and other teenage performers. They identify the “five-second moment” of their stories and build their beginnings and endings accordingly. Collaboratively, they set norms for the storytelling slam with expectations for both the audience and the speaker, and on the day of the slam, they rise in front of a classroom of their peers and speak their truths: silly, sincere, heart-wrenching, remorseful, proud, funny, and sweet.
Each year, we bear witness to stories from the heart—stories of unwanted body hair and boring summer days and moments of clarity about one’s parents and sports victories and regretful missteps and divorce and loss and personal triumphs. During the story slam, we laugh, we cry, and we become witnesses to each others’ truths. We settle into the palpable embrace of our class community—a community woven together by empathy.
Amy Miller (Twitter @FHSEnglishCT) is the English department leader and Meghan Jones (Twitter @FHSliteracy) is a literacy specialist and instructional coach at Farmington High School in Farmington, Connecticut.