Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Power of Story: Address to ALEA 2011

I spoke today at the 2011 Australian Literacy Educators' Association in Melbourne. My talk was centred on the importance of words, story and literature. In an age where images, film, gaming and digital forms of meaning are more important, I wanted to remind people of the foundational importance of words and language. While I value visual literacy (see HERE), I've been worried at the loss of emphasis that literature and story receives.

I started a little controversially by suggesting that the statement “…a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not accurate. While a picture can be more effective than a 1,000 poorly written words, the words of literature are economical and powerful. They offend us (‘old baldy’), amuse us ('Frobscottle'), rebuke us (‘get out’!), malign and vilify us (‘liar’), frighten us (‘an evil act’), inform us (‘Danger!’), sadden us (‘She’s dead’), disempower us (‘bloody wog’), hurt us (‘I hate you’), persuade us (‘it’s a bargain’), give us hope (‘she’s conscious’) and so on.

When words form stories they have power to do extraordinary things. Here are examples of just some of my favourite lead sentences from children's and adult books:

Late one night, for no particular reason, something stirred in the black mud at the bottom of Berkley’s Creek, (Jenny Wagner, illustrations Ron Brooks,' ‘The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek’)

'All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' (Leo Tolstoy, 'Anna Karenina').

'Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.' (Charles Dickens ‘A Christmas Carol’)

'Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.' (J.K. Rowling, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’)

It was the night before the Fund-raising Effort that the devils came.’ (Robert Westall, ‘The Scarecrows’).

'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' (Jane Austen, 'Pride and Prejudice').

Jackson was thin, small and ugly, and stank like a drain.’ (Leon Garfield, ‘Fair’s Fair’)

Deep in the still cold shadows the last Theefyspray looked out from her lonely lair’ (Paul Jennings, illustrated by Jane Tanner, ‘The Fisherman and the Theefyspray’).

Each of the authors who wrote these words agonised over the choice and order of every word. The agony was due to their desire to engage their readers, to transport us in time and space, to enrich us through their stories.

The importance of story (narrative)

Harold Rosen once suggested that 'Narratives in all their diversity and multiplicity make up the fabric of our lives; they are constitutive moments in the formation of our identities and our sense of community affiliation'.

Narrative is central to how our minds order experience, whether real or virtual, human minds order experience in the mode of story. Jerome Bruner and others have taught us that narrative is 'a fundamental mode of thought through which we construct our world or worlds.'

Literature is important in the classroom

Literature is an important part of any school curriculum. Language and story are foundational to what it is to be human, and literature is the pinnacle of narrative development. Literature is where story demonstrates its richness and complexity. It is here that we see the best possible words in the best possible order, used to the best possible effect. It is where the craft of representing ideas, giving information, challenging ideologies and views of the world, sharing history, sustaining and reinventing culture is at its peak.

In short, words and story matter and so we need to create classrooms that value literature and enable it to impact on children as readers. The use of literature in such classrooms has six key elements:

a) Independent reading – you need books and you need time (15-20 mins a day).

b) Shared literature is important – we need to read books out loud and share them in groups. Being able to read the same books as other class members is important, so some should be shared.

c) Talk about books – Talk about books is important and can take many forms, including individual conferences, literature circles and roving conferences. But the best talk is often that initiated by members of the class, born from the excitement of story.

d) Some deep study of meaning – Reading of literature needs to be 'deep' at times. Readers should tackle longer texts, read many books by same author, read harder material, engage in sustained reading, develop reading stamina, do word study & explore languages, and learn new things through reading

e) Literature is connected to other ways of meanings – Story always has a relationship to other modes of learning and meaning making – drawing, video, film, sound, drama, firsthand experiences.

f) Reader Response – response is important to the reading of literature, and can involve planned activities, spontaneous talk or even silence, writing, drama, craft and so on.

My colleague Professor Claire Woods said many years ago:
Children’s response to literature is often unpredictable. We as teachers should learn to expect the unexpected.” 
We need to avoid preconceived notions of how children should respond.

All 6 elements above are related to one another. In classrooms where the teacher shares books, children will want to read books. When children are given a chance to talk about books, they will encourage one another to read, they’ll share books, stories will find their way into conversations, playground games for younger children and so on. Our aim as teachers should be to create learning communities in our classrooms in which literature has an important place.

Such communities develop ‘underground’ communication systems, notes are passes, messages sent, ideas are shared about things that matter (e.g. jokes, images, bits they like). As well, ‘literary grapevines’ emerge as kids pass around a book with unusual features (e.g. ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, a funny or ‘rude’ bit), and ‘secret codes’ are invented known only to people who have read the book.

Summing up

If literature is to be effective, and have an enriching and transforming effect on readers, it must be embedded within authentic communities of readers and writers. It is in the interactions, relationships and shared knowledge that are connected with literature that learning and change occurs. The key to a successful literature classroom is one in which story is important and is part of the glue that binds the classroom community together.


little_stranger said...

Hi Trevor - I hope I don't sound picky, but the opening line about happy and unhappy families was from Anna Karenina. Although, the opening line of Pride and Predjudice is one of my favourites too: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for picking that up. I had both in my long list in my draft paper and cut one out but must have (in the process) mixed up the authors and titles. Fixed now. Trevor

Anonymous said...

Great stuff but where is the multimodal? In fact was it at the conference at all?

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Anonymous. Yes, I did address multimodal literacy but didn't include it in this post. The post simply covered the first of my three points. I'll try to post the other two bits later.