When I visit and observe schools, I find myself asking, “What story drives the thoughts, actions and culture in this place?” Or sometimes, I simplify it and ask, “Does this school tell the story of the American Dream, the American Experiment, or the American Factory? I’m not sure why I gravitate to those three, perhaps because it seems like many school stories seem to fit well in one of those three, or they struggle to tell any story.
There are schools where I find it hard to notice any consistent or coherent story that informs what they do. People follow the bells from class to class. Teachers frame their thoughts about time in terms of weeks, months and a school calendar. Teachers view grading as essentially processing paperwork. Students view homework as tasks to complete in the work day. But overall, if I try to tease out a compelling story, people don’t seem to be able to describe it. I don’t call this the story of the American Factory, because I think it would be misrepresenting some of the best factories in America, one’s where the individual is valued, where people understand their contribution to a final product they value and believe in supporting with their time an effort. Instead, I call this a school without a story, which I contend is a dangerous path. Schools without stories risk nurturing students who have a fragmented view of life and learning, who live without cohesive and compelling life stories.
In Neil Postmans’ 1996 book, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, he suggests that having a clear narrative is an important starting point for thinking about schools of the future. He proposes five potential stories to drive our vision for American schooling. He suggests “Spaceship Earth” as the story of people as caretakers of the planet. In this story, the students explore ways to be innovative as they seek ways to care for their communities, cities, and the planet. In “The Fallen Angel”, he suggests a story of human history, one ripe with errors and discoveries on the journey toward increased knowledge and discovery. The next option he proposes is “The American Experiment.” As Postman tells it, this is a story that defines Americans as people who grapple, argue, debate, and experiment. His forth narrative is called, “The Laws of Diversity”, a story about how differences among people produce a richness and vitality, and that we can have a deep unity amid our diversity. His final suggestion is, “World Weavers.” This is the story of people who create meaning and our view of the world through language. We explore definitions, metaphors, and questions that shape and shift our thinking. In addition to Postman’s suggested narratives, there is also the persistent and arguably dominant story of “The American Dream”, a person of limited means achieves success through persistence, hard work and ingenuity.
These are all potential stories, by they do not make up an exhaustive list. One of my joys is visiting schools and learning new stories that shape their vision of education. Take, for example, the story that drives Acton Academy, and wonderfully innovative blended learning school in Texas. They shape the the learning experience around Joseph Cambell’s monomyth or Hero’s Journey. In Campbell’s study of great narratives throughout history and around the world, he surface what seems to be a consistent pattern, what he calls the Hero’s Journey. So, at Acton, they have created a school around the notion that every student is on a Hero’s Journey in the their life story, and that they are guides along the way. Watch a couple of the videos on their site and you are likely to discovery a passionate and compelling narrative that they use to drive their thoughts, planning and actions. It is a story about young people discovering the gifts that they have to offer the world. Acton is not unique. As I visit charter schools around Wisconsin and other parts of the country, I often find such compelling stories shaping their work and life in school.
Of course, this leads me to a question for all of us. What story shapes our lives, families, schools, and other places of work? Is there a clear and compelling story? How much does it permeate the entire culture or community? Or, is it perhaps a story told by a handful of people, but there are competing stories that leave learners and/or visitors confused about where the school stands and why it exists? How does the story guide you through making tough decisions amid limited resources? How does it lead you to decide what to embrace and what to let go? If your community does not have a compelling story, how might you go about becoming a storyteller, that ancient role that helps imbues meaning, imagination, and vision, and sense of purpose in communities and cultures?