Curating enduring stories for teaching and learning

My father, Ray was born into a poor farming family. He was a child of the Depression, a teenager during World War II, graduating from high school at 16 because he had skipped two grades. He was an accomplished baseball player, but missed out on university scholarships when he had to quit playing varsity baseball. The family needed him to work.
His dream was to be a civil engineer; he’d learned about engineering by witnessing the Army Corp of Engineers in the region. No one in his family or community had attended university, so he had to find his own way. After high school, he took courses at the local junior college while doing construction work to support his family and save for tuition. After two years he was able to transfer to the University of Kansas.
On his own and traveling for the first time, my father took a bus to Lawrence Kansas with everything he owned—a small suitcase of clothing, pencils, and a pad of notebook paper. When he checked in, he discovered that although the tuition had been paid it didn’t cover his room and board. He worked out a plan with high school friends to sneak into the dormitory each night and sleep under one of their beds.
For food, books, and other living expenses, he played pool for money and made enough each week to cover expenses while going to university full-time. The stress of his living situation influenced his grades and overall well-being. He’d been a successful student all his life, but university was a burden. He left the university just a semester short of graduation, lured by paid construction jobs back home.
While working construction, he met someone and got married, then drafted into the Army. Once decommissioned, he moved back to Kansas and worked construction. The University of Kansas sent periodic letters reminding him that he was only a few credits away from graduating with his Civil Engineering degree. But at 30 with a wife, home, and mounting financial responsibilities, he could not relocate to Lawrence to finish the degree.
The construction company he worked for sent him to Chile. After a few months, a letter arrived from the university, reminding him that he was a mere semester shy of his degree. But this time the university offered a solution—a new approach they hadn’t tried before. They would mail him the coursework—textbook, assignments, and exams—and he would mail back his completed work for evaluation.
Within a year, working full-time in another country, he completed his degree and received his diploma. The journey to his degree had taken him 15 years. If it hadn’t been for the university continuing to reach out to him and then doing business in a different way, he may never have completed his degree or achieved his dream of being a civil engineer.

As many schools and universities rolled out adjusted policies, procedures, and services to better support students during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reminded of Ray’s story and the value of proactively addressing students’ needs even when it requires doing business in a different way (e.g., see Michael Cucher’s account of different ways of using social media such as WhatsApp and Twitter during times of crisis). Unique situations require equally unique responses and approaches. Being responsive to students by meeting them where they are is mission critical—students need us to respond with a clear commitment and action plan for supporting them as they continue their education. As shared by Sara Winstead Fry in Removing Barriers to Student Success, “Finding ways to remove barriers is a journey, not a destination.” Flexibility, adaptation, and thinking outside of the box needs to be the new routine. As I considered my own commitment to an action plan for supporting students’ continued access, progress, achievement, and overall well-being during the pandemic and associated quarantine, I was reminded of my father’s journey to a college degree, and shared his story with colleagues and students to encourage reflection and collective commitment to better support students and make a positive difference in their lives. I received feedback from those with their own stories of persistence and progress, encouraged by their university’s response and outreach during COVID-19. Students applauded institutions that had a learner-centered, action-based commitment to caring about their well-being and were willing to think outside of the box with flexible and innovative approaches to supporting them. Ray’s story and the stories I received in response have inspired me to be the best educator I can be...especially when times are tough.

This story-sharing exchange was a reminder of the power of stories in my teaching practice. Stories are the life-force of my work. As well known to the Hybrid Pedagogy/DPL community (see Voices of Practice), experience is essential for learning and change, and stories are how we make meaning from our experience. Never a terribly effective lecturer, I instead use stories to liberate and articulate my experience in ways that have potential value to students. When told well, stories have the power to arouse students’ emotions; given that people generally don’t pay attention to boring things, holding students’ attention is important for learning and memory. As my work moves increasingly into the digital space, stories help bridge the transactional distance between my students and I. Our shared stories have helped us develop relationships that allowed us to better work together in our community of inquiry. Quoting Herman Melville, “Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results”; shared stories in the digital space have helped me experience those invisible threads as more tangible, more weighty, more undeniable. Our shared online learning communities are more tangible, more weighty, and more undeniable...making them more effective digital spaces for learning.

As many educators do, I have a plethora of stories I draw on. In the remainder of this piece, I share a few of my favorites and reflect on their value in my teaching.

“Jeremy? Why don’t we catch up with our friends now?” I asked as delicately as I could muster. A colleague and I were walking a small group of 3 and 4 year olds from our temporary preschool building to the neighborhood playground, a daily adventure. I was bringing up the rear to redirect any stragglers. Jeremy was walking slower than the other students who were excitedly hurrying to get to the playground. I waved my colleague on so she knew Jeremy and I would be along momentarily. Jeremy still hadn’t responded, just continued his snail’s pace, staring at the ground around him, and refusing to make eye contact with me. I tried again. “Hey, Jeremy! Check it out, our friends are at the playground. Why don’t we join them!” Still no response, no eye contact. After a couple more times of me trying different approaches (“Look at how much fun our friends are having!”) I was out of ideas. I got down on my knees in front of Jeremy. “Jeremy...please…” I was unable to hide my exasperation. “Can we go ahead and join our friends now?” Jeremy looked up and locked eyes with me, smiling, “Miss, sometimes you just have to stop and look at the poop.”  (A story honoring colleague Dr. Ellen Hall)

I’ve held onto Jeremy’s story for years, carried him around in my back pocket and shared him in different ways with a variety of individuals and groups. Often for different reasons, with different points to illustrate. The Jeremy story helps me break the ice and connect with others through humor and a shared experience of children. As an educator, Jeremy’s story opens the door to conversations about the value of understanding students’ learning needs and interests, and using that information to inform engagement and learning strategies. The story allows me to be vulnerable and discuss what I  could have done differently to assess the needs of the learner—how I could be more learner-centered and inclusive in my learning design. I’ve used the story as a case study, asking early childhood education students what they would recommend be done differently and why. And I’ve used the story as a way of inviting students to share their own stories.

The telling of stories has always helped me feel human and establish a social presence in the digital space. Some of the stories I share with students are about teaching and learning events in more formal instructional spaces, such as university courses. Others are about ordinary moments in my life that have happened outside of a classroom but nevertheless speak to valued aspects of teaching and learning. I’ve used this next story primarily with my learning design and technology students as part of an exercise in getting to the heart of a message while still maintaining emotional power. We start with a five-photo story activity inspired by photojournalist techniques. Students create a sequence of five visuals to tell a story, and the only text included is the title of the story. The instructional goal of this activity is to encourage students to experience the effectiveness and efficiency of visuals and storytelling in educational contexts, and in general to explore their creative abilities to design messages that are powerful and memorable. After students complete their five-photo stories I invite them to add up to 200 words to their visuals.

Top left: a picture of trees in snow; top right: a tiny dog coming in from the snow; middle left: a mother cradling her newborn; middle right: the same dog and the same baby in a carrier sitting next to each other; bottom: leafless trees amidst a blue and cloudy sky.
Example of a five-photo story, an activity inspired by photojournalist techniques.
I was in my first trimester and, as they say, sick as a dog. So were you. The results of your test came back. You had cancer. Inoperable. No cure. Three months...if we were “lucky." You felt pretty good during the day, but in the evening you’d crawl up into my ever-diminishing lap for comfort. Each night I’d whisper in your ear, “You’re such a good dog at fighting this cancer. So brave.” And then I would wish to myself, “Please hang in there long enough to see the baby…” Gillian was born on July 11th. To get used to her, we let you smell the blanket she was first swaddled in. You slowly crawled onto her blanket, and fell asleep. Although you didn’t feel well and were increasingly weak, you didn’t leave her side for a moment. You died at home on October 20th. You got to see the baby. And she got to be with you.
Her first word was dog.

This extension to the original activity encourages students to compare and contrast the influence of visuals and text/narration in storytelling and instructional messages, examine the effectiveness and efficiency of visuals and text/narration alone vs. together in storytelling and instructional messages, and work on getting to the essence of their story or message without losing emotional or instructional quality. [Here is my visuals+text combined story as an example.]

My daughter and I were in a queue at the grocery store, waiting our turn to check out. With a three-year old’s enthusiasm she was reliving our earlier puddle-splashing. The woman in front of us turned and smiled at her, asked her a couple of questions about the puddle-splashing. Before turning away to make her purchases, the woman looked at me and said, “She’s beautiful.” My daughter stared at her with wide-eyed amazement. She tugged on me, “Mommy?” I bent down so I could hear her whisper, “How did she know?”

The stories I adapt and share over and over—the enduring ones—possess four qualities: malleability, immediacy, compelling-ness, and resonance [see some of my previous writing on these aesthetic qualities, one related to infographic design and one related to the situational qualities of exceptional presenters].. They have an aesthetic that allows them to transcend a moment or a situation. Like a symphony, a painting, a film, a book, some stories have relevance and value beyond what the storyteller or author conceived. They are their own, breathe on their own—without rigid, calcified boundaries of definition and meaning. They are expansive. They are sticky. They are the boss of themselves. An enduring story is itself an aesthetic learning experience for those hearing/reading the story and those who tell the story.

When I was a freshman at university, I had a course on the influential literature of the 1960s. On the Road, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice, Franny and Zooey, Blues for Mister Charlie, Electric Koolaid Acid Test, The Teachings of Don Juan… For a punk-era (albeit neo-hippy) kid, these readings were magical. I felt enlightened, and was convinced I should have been a child of the SixtiesI *was* stardust, I *was* golden, and I needed to get back to the garden! However, the professor of this courseto my mindwas the antithesis of the Sixties. Did he even livereally LIVEthrough the Sixties?!? He was absent-minded, dispassionate, unrelatable on every level. I disliked him, and he was sullying my experience of literature that BELONGED TO ME.
The class started as usual. I was doodling in my notebook, the low rumble of his voice as innocuous as the constant hum of the building’s generator. Suddenly the energy in the room changed… His voice sounded different. I looked up from my notebook, and he looked different. He began slowly, and then...he told us about a trip he’d taken to Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He went to the grassy knoll across from the schoolbook repository in order to experience that space. He described how he lined himself up on the knoll until he was in the spot he thought the President’s car was when the first shot was fired. With tears streaming down his face he said, “When I finally looked down at my feet to see where I was, I saw that the grass was worn away. I then realized that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people pilgrimaged to this same spot and did exactly what I’d done. Lined themselves up in the same way. They were drawn...drawn to *this* spot...because they needed to be there.”

I’ve shared the Dallas pilgrimage story to open conversations with students on topics such as cultivating social presence in online courses, teaching with passion, being vulnerable as an educator, getting out from behind the podium, engaging students, and telling stories. [I am reminded of Bethany Thomas’s story about Mr. Jason in her HP article, We Are Teachers.] The Dallas pilgrimage story might also be used to stimulate conversations about the tensions of the Cold War, the Baby Boomer generation, the making of a president, and gun control. In this way, enduring stories are malleable—allowing those who hear the story to determine personal meaning and relevance, and to be a co-owner or co-creator of the experience.

Not too long ago I *caught* breast cancer. As an educator I wanted to talk about my experience, using the social context to help me process. I quickly discovered how uncomfortable people are with talking about cancerand breasts with cancerin-person. The silence isolated me, made the diagnosis more ominous. I felt alone, but knew my situation wasn’t unique. I needed to talk about it or I’d be paralyzed by the unknown. In the quiet of my room, I stared at the glowing screen of my laptop. I started with a simple “breast cancer” search. Then  “breast cancer surgery," “bilateral mastectomy," and “breast cancer treatment." I connected with social-networking groups devoted to breast cancer: treatment, surgical options, recovery, “communicating with your children,” finding doctors, and so on. YouTube provided me with video diaries of women facing breast cancer.  I shared my diagnosis via Facebook. My silence was broken, and with it everyone else’s. I received well-wishes, jokes, songs, “fuck cancer” memesall to bring a smile to my face. And learned of friends' cancer experiences. When my in-person community fell silent, my online community helped me with my process. They celebrated when I received the all-clear after treatment, and at every subsequent “ding dong the cancer’s dead” anniversary.  And...surprisingly...being my online support network during my breast cancer seemed to help friends and family with their own experiences of cancerpast and present. The reciprocity helped to heal meinside and out.

Enduring stories have a quality of immediacy. They create a sense of urgency and excitement; they capture the emotional authenticity of the situation described. My story about catching breast cancer is very personal as it involves a family facing the decision-making involved in disease treatment and management. And mom’s—i.e., my—now-questionable immortality, and my fear of dying or at least being forever marred by the experience. Those hearing/reading the story are drawn in because of the vulnerability expressed, and the vulnerability is so intimate, immediate, present. So human as it describes core feelings that are shared between and among my students and I.

After spending months designing and developing a new online course, applying theoretically and empirically sound instructional and community-building strategies to support student engagement and learning, I launched my new course without a hitch. The projects were relevant, involving students in real-world activities. The instructional materials were well designed, and students were encouraged to participate in the bounded course community and the professional community of practice for which they were preparing. A slam dunk, the course was a great success! I felt like I was a great success! Midway through the semester, a student emailed me, "Thank you for a great course. The materials are so useful, and the projects really have me applying what I've learned in the program. But, where are you?"

The stories I share over and over again also have a narrative structure and sequence that makes them compelling, because those hearing/reading the stories want to find out what happens next. Often there’s a provocation or novelty that surprises those hearing/reading the story, and that unknown or unexpected element drives them to listen intently. When I tell the story about the “slam dunk” course, the failure of “But, where are you?” is a surprise, creating an opportunity to evoke attention and interest and to talk about teaching and learning.

When I was getting my MBA, Professor Brown came to class every day in the same frayed-at-the-elbow corduroy jacket and messy hair. He’d rush in, always late, and immediately start his lecture…without even looking at us. His lectures were monotone. He used hand-drawn and hand-smeared transparencies to reinforce important points…points that never seemed important.
When we arrived one Thursday, the classroom was the same, except there was a phone, a lamp, and a nameplate on the desk at the front of the room. At 9am sharp, a man entered. Pin-stripped suit; red silk tie and wing tips. I couldn’t believe it was Professor Brown. He looked directly at us and said, “Good morning. I’m glad you got set up in the conference room. As you know from my memo, I’ve got a mess on my hands and need your help. Look at these files, and brainstorm next steps. If you have any questions, just page me.”
Then, Professor Brown left the room.
We looked at each other and didn’t know what to do. Finally, we grabbed the files he’d left, and moved our desks closer together to start figuring it out. We kept an eye on the door waiting for him to come back. He didn’t.
From that point on, each time we came to class we found different files left for us, or a memo from the CEO informing us to expect a phone call from the personnel manager or the assembly line supervisor. Or that we had a meeting in 15 minutes with the evasive operations manager. Or, that the board needed an update on our progress in an hour. And, sure enough, these individuals – all role-played by Professor Brown – would call or show up. Over six weeks we collected the information we needed to complete our report and present our findings to the board. [See this digital story for an alternative experience of this story.]

I was toying with the idea of  being a systems analyst before taking Professor Brown’s course. That didn’t happen. Instead, I’m a professor…hoping that I’m half the teacher Professor Brown was. This is not only a story I’ve shared with others many times to invite exploration and conversation on a variety of instructional topics, it’s a story I tell myself at the start of every new semester, whenever I create a new learning opportunity for students, whenever I think I’ve got nothing left to give my students. This story has also influenced my scholarship and I’ve always been interested in understanding why Dr. Brown’s approach enhanced my learning, engagement, performance, and experience. This story reverberates through me, on a constant loop, on my own professional-life mixtape. [The curation of others’ stories has also been a vibrant and inspiring part of my scholarship; see What was Your Best Learning Experience? Our Story About Using Stories to Solve Instructional Problems as an example of the value of storytelling in inquiry.]

I started lecturing my 5-year old daughter over some now long-forgotten broken rule. As she’d heard this lecture for the umpteenth time, she rolled her eyes while I talked. “Did you just roll your eyes at me?!?” Without missing a beat, “No. I was just practicing doing this,” rolling her eyes again to demonstrate.

Resonance is about reverberation. I hope my stories endure because they reverberate and kindle—even amplify—images, emotions, and memories that are unique to each student hearing or reading the story. That reverberation creates connection—connection to the story, connection to past stories, connection to future actions and new stories. Connection between and among us. Connection to our shared humanness.

Not all of my stories are as utilitarian to my teaching as the stories I’ve shared above. But all of my stories—all of our stories—have the potential to be enduring. Stories are sustenance: they are in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the communities we live, work, and love.. I’m reminded of an exchange in the film The Bill Chill:

Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

Replace “rationalization” with “story”—storytelling is ubiquitous. I’m quite sure I’ve never gone a week without telling a story with intention—to share, to connect, to stimulate an exchange. More eloquently stated by Freire, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other..” For me, storytelling is an act of invention and re-invention leading to collective, co-created knowledge. And our stories are the substantive, lingering artifact of our restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry. The act of storytelling and the enduring stories that emerge are the bedrock of my teaching.

Epilogue… It turns out that storytelling and stories are also the bedrock of my scholarship. In 2021 I began a new story-curation project, collecting people’s teaching experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many educators of in-classroom courses shifted online with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The change was jarring and emotionally challenging for both educators and students. Yet educators stepped up to the challenge, reexamined and adjusted their teaching practices, and continued serving their students. For many, the change has been enlightening and transformative. And for those educators who were already teaching online their students' circumstances changed so drastically during the pandemic that they too had to make adjustments accordingly and learned much from the experience. The next step in this project is to establish a website for sharing these curated experiences far and wide. If you would like to contribute, please share your experience via the Online Teaching during COVID-19 form. Thank you for sharing your enduring stories with the community at large.