By Gary Chapin
Writer, Educating for Good
“I love it when a plan comes together.” — Hannibal Smith, The A-team, 1983
In November, we came up with a plan. While another part of the AfL team was helping educators from Tucson Unified School District and Sunnyside Unified School District create ten expeditions for the 220-ish conference attendees to visit, the storytelling wing of AfL recruited a group of 26 storyfinders, attendees of the conference who would find the stories that emerged and tell them in the blog.
At the end of last month, we published the last of the stories of the conference, and I find myself starting a wrap-up blog post with a George Peppard quote from an action TV show that was dear to me in my distant youth.
Because this plan came together! More than 30 stories, once a week, for 7 months, without fail. This may seem mundane to you, but I’m going to feel good about it because there are so many plans that don’t come together. My experience of the whole project had me, fingers crossed, thinking, “I hope this works out!” We set out to do something good that we’d never done before and—thanks to the genius of every single storyteller and team member—pulled it off.
It was complicated and complex
Every project like this has logistical difficulties. It goes without saying. (Though there was that time, the day before the conference, when I was asked to come talk to the Tucson educators who were storytellers. I hadn’t had a chance to meet with them yet! So I Lyfted over to the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Instruction offices, but went into the wrong building on the campus! Nobody knew about this meeting I was supposed to attend. I ended up wandering around until someone called to me, “Are you Gary?” Phew! The meeting ended up going great. Disaster narrowly averted!)
Still, there are some things that made this a unique experience for the organizers and the storytellers. The most important of these is that storytelling is not reporting. We weren’t trying to “document the event,” or strive for the reporters’ objectivity, a sort of third-person neutrality.
Stories are told by people. This sounds obvious, and it is, but it’s also not. Talking with storytellers, we tried getting them to stop thinking “what’s important,” and to start thinking, “what’s fascinating to me.” When folks are talking about what is fascinating to them they come alive. The person talking, the person listening, and the subject of the story all benefit. Writing about “what’s important” or what “should fascinate me” may be necessary, at times, but it is not good storytelling. We trusted in the fascinations, humor, and kindness of our storytellers. We gave up some control, and benefitted as storytellers used their curiosity as a power source.
Stories are best told by the people living them. It was very important to us to have educators from Tucson doing a good chunk of the storytelling. The educators in Tucson have done amazing work in a particularly difficult climate over the years. For AfL to come in, send out “our folks,” to pull out these stories, as if we discovered Tucson would not have rung true or kind.
Storytelling is reciprocal. A guiding principle for the February AfL event was that Tucson USD and Sunnyside USD had to benefit from the relationship with AfL as much as AfL did. This was true for the storytelling as much as anything else. Extractive storytelling takes from the folks and returns nothing. Talking Story is the opposite of this. Tellers and listeners trade places, supporting each other. The growth of the persons and the community is the purpose of the storytelling.
Reciprocity presents as genuine respect. The idea that we’d set up this project, cultivate this team of storytellers, gather these 30-ish stories, and then we would own them forever and be able to do whatever we wanted with them—that didn’t feel great. That’s a description of capitalistic storytelling, in which we hoard intellectual property. What we’re going for is democratized storytelling. Storytelling in which the humans involved have a say in the conditions of storytelling, the uses the story is put to, and in which, as already mentioned, the community benefits.
What this means practically, is that as we prepare for a presentation at the Aurora Conference about the storytelling project, we’re asking folks if they are okay with their stories moving into a new conference environment. This wasn’t in our original agreement with the storytellers, to take the stories on the road. It may seem likely that they’d agree to this, but we’re checking. Similarly, we’re asking if they’d be willing to read their stories aloud, recording them, so that the storyteller’s voices can be in the room at Aurora, and not just their words.
So where does this “wrap-up” stand? It doesn’t sound like we’re done.
Storytelling—along with ecosystems, student agency, next gen practices, relationships, etc.—is an integral part of our vision of assessment and we’ll be pursuing it from now till forever.
But for a little while, I’m going to enjoy the feeling of a plan coming together. I am extraordinarily grateful to everyone involved. Having Rita Harvey, Jenny Poon, Justin Wells, and Gretchen Morgan thinking this through during the first months, and Lauren Ho keeping the train running and on the track. At the same time. Yeah, Lauren deserves a medal. Also, Rashanda Snead, our liaison at TUSD, who made it possible for everyone to talk when we needed to.
And, more importantly, the team of storytellers.
Cheryl Ka'uhane Lupenui
Gary Chapin and Laurie Gagnon
And thanks, finally, to the educators and kids in Tucson USD and Sunnyside USD.
About the Storyteller
Gary is the co-author of 126 Falsehoods We Believe About Education (2021). He has been working in education since 2000, first as a teacher, then as a curriculum director, then as a Dept. of Ed. researcher, and most recently as an advocate and supporter of equity based practices such as competency-based learning, performance assessment, adaptive leadership, and collaborative cultures. He is deeply fascinated by questions like: What should kids learn? How do we decide what kids should learn? How do we learn what they learned? How can learning what they learned help them learn more? Also: systems!
Gary has provided support to schools and districts trying to work with performance-based practices, competency-based cultures, fundamental assumptions, portrait of a graduate, assessment audits, competency development, change management, teacher-leader sanity, etc. He’s especially proud of his ability to bring comfort to teachers by easing their stress around rubrics.
He has written dozens of articles and blog posts over the years and presented at many education conferences around the nation. To see his resume, click here.