Story

“We have to stop acting as if my story is the only one that matters
. . . and everyone else’s story is a lie.“

Thus Julius Lester concluded his speech at Wednesday’s second annual Celebration of Writing ceremony, A Journey in Words, honoring outstanding work from students in the UMass Writing Program. I thought of my students and their experience in “Section 71” this semester. I am not sure if I unnerved them (?) with my responses to their third self-reflection letters of the term but it did seem as if they were desperate to escape our last day of class. Had I worked them too hard? Expected too much? Do the stories they tell of College Writing reflect the trust and faith I have in them as human beings?
After my first batch of final conferences I am relieved, although some students may yet imagine that there could have been an easier way to achieve their success. I am incredibly proud of the final reflection letters I have read to date; each student has written in moving terms about their growth and shows maturity through the choice and development of their unique theme. Professor Lester provided me with a simpler framework to ask the question I wanted the students to answer in these cumulative and summary reflections on what they have achieved as writers over the semester: What is the story you now have to tell about yourself as a writer?
I appreciated so many parts of Professor Lester’s address about the “unique power of story” as a metaphor for living. My awareness of the story I invite my students into through asking them to learn publicly by doing most of their homework on an online software platform has deepened considerably. First and foremost, I learn from them. The power of position that I use as a teacher is to create the conditions under which I learn best. I have understood this about myself for a long time, but had not fully grasped the way in which my ambition to continue growing structures the learning process for my students as a mirror to mine. This revelation occurred in conversation with my students a few weeks ago when they were (once again!) critiquing my take on the standard curriculum.
The results of this pedagogy are more apparent this semester than they have been in the past. I hope this is because I am actually improving the ways in which I set and explain expectations and guidelines. Notes I’ve made to myself over the past few weeks will guide me as I revise the experiment for next semester’s new group of incoming freshfolk. I will enjoy the summer prior (!), but am already eager to get on with applying this term’s lessons. I am grateful to my current students for their efforts &emdash; the mix of challenge and compliment combine to enhance my life-story: “a narrative in which we see ourselves and our experience….[my story of teaching tells] something of myself… who we are and/or a vision of who we would like to be.”
Professor Lester got it right: “We make-up stories about individuals based on appearance [skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc] and nations make up stories about peoples.” I invite and encourage my students to make up their own stories, to bind themselves in connection through (the small) shared experience of this class, and to create and affirm &emdash; together &emdash; ways to overcome adversity.
Selfishly, I want to come along for the ride. 🙂

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