Philippe Ernewein is the dean of faculty training and development at Denver Academy, which specializes in educating students with learning differences. This post originally appeared in a longer version on the website of Statement, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society.
A good friend of mine and fellow educator, Matt, recently found a typewritten letter, written to him for his 21st birthday by his father, now many years deceased. In the faded 20-year-old letter, he spoke of seeing his son move into adulthood. He lamented the opportunities he felt he missed and recalled magical times they did have together. He told Matt how proud he was of him.
This letter is part of the fabric of Matt’s story. It is one-of-one. Authentic. Original. Real.
Matt’s letter made me recall an idea I learned about from Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Ganz has written extensively about the power and importance of story. He says that those of us in public work, like teachers, have a responsibility to offer a public account of who we are, why we do what we do, and where we hope to lead.
Ganz’s recipe for this public narrative starts with the “story of self”—the idea that you have to author your own story and learn to tell it to others “so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.”
He proposes a simple series of questions to start the story of self:
- Identify a challenge you’ve encountered in your life.
- What were the choices you made when you were faced with this obstacle?
- What were the results?
Carving out time to think about matters of the soul, ideals, and purpose is a necessary component of effective professional development. By authoring our own narrative we, as teachers, can maneuver through the bombardment of images and stories in media that report on what teachers are supposed to be and do. Along with other key training in our content area, technology, and strategies, composing our story of self will make us better teachers (or possibly highlight that we have selected the wrong profession).
Over the summer, the teachers at my school were asked to compose their stories of self to share during our first week back. It was a powerful and invigorating activity. Reading the stories in small groups felt like a sort of sacrament. Bonds and partnerships were established or strengthened.
A number of teachers brought the idea back to their classrooms and assigned similar writing for their students. For them the assignment is having a powerful impact.
Jackson, an 11th grader, mentioned during a conference that he wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until ninth grade and wanted to write about that. “I think if my fourth grade teacher knew I had dyslexia, maybe they would have been able to teach me better.” Our conversation turned to advocacy, learning strategies, and even forgiveness. Jackson said he doesn’t hold a grudge against his fourth grade teacher: “I wasn’t the easiest kid to have in class back then.”
Jackson wasn’t writing about his summer vacation or illuminating the themes he found in his summer reading (although both types of writing may have their place). This writing and thinking was real. It involved heavy cognitive lifting.
The story of self provided Jackson with a framework to archive his unique learning experience. I could never have assigned him to reflect and write about his fourth grade experience. Ganz’s questions acted like a roadmap to move students toward honestly drafting their own stories. And after they’ve found the words to shape and tell their stories, I firmly believe our students will have a stronger sense of who they are as learners and individuals.
Philippe Ernewein is the dean of faculty training and development at Denver Academy, which specializes in educating students with learning differences. Learn more about his work at his website, www.rememberit.org.