Literacy Learning Still Begins with Story

Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning 
By Katie Egan Cunningham
(Stenhouse, 2015 – Learn more)

mary thompson for cordiReviewed by Mary Langer Thompson

“What’s the story?” We ask this question in one way or another constantly because the experiences of our lives matter. They make us human and connect us, yet in our schools, story is endangered, especially with the current emphasis on skills and strategy.

story biondiKatie Egan Cunningham asserts that it is stories that can transform classrooms, and that it is possible to heighten their power. If we agree with the author, and her arguments are convincing, then we need to choose stories carefully. The criteria for choosing are “mirrors and windows,” she says. “We need look for books that provide both mirrors and windows for students from all backgrounds.”

Searching for diversity

The story search needs to be focused and careful because there is a “diversity gap” in children’s books with only 10 percent in the past 18 years containing multicultural content and 37 percent of the U.S. population being people of color.

Cunningham provides an annotated bibliography with selections that will appeal to young children and middle-schoolers as well as older students who will enjoy poetry, essays, videos, songs, and novels. There are also charts on where to find diverse stories, some in Spanish and English, like Pat Mora’s poems.

But the place to start, the author urges, is with students’ own stories. As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

The book begins with a moving anecdote relaying how a poem connected a disabled girl with her classmates. Cunningham suggests techniques like pairing Georgia Heard’s “heart mapping” strategy with “dream mapping.” Another way to learn students’ identities and interests is to have students write six-word memoirs. These exercises will give students the “inky courage” they need to share their stories.

A welcoming tone

When explaining these exercises, Cunningham’s tone is warm and caring. Reading this book is like having a conversation with an empathetic friend who sincerely wants to help fellow teachers enrich everyone’s school experience. Few curriculum guides make you put them down in order to think about the wisdom the author is sharing while you also look forward to the next chapter.

She even thanks her own past teachers by name. Her discussion at times sounds like a memoir of what stories have meant to her and her family. She shares experiences of reading with her own children. It’s all effective in drawing us into the work.

Once books are chosen, Cunningham looks at what makes for an authentic character, or one that comes to life for us as readers. For those who argue there’s no such real person, Cunningham quotes the research from Brené Brown on people who live wholeheartedly and with vulnerability. Perhaps, she suggests, we can look at literary characters in the same way. She analyzes some books using Brown’s criteria for people who live whole-heartedly.

Cunningham also shows us how to look at strong scenes with big themes. She encourages teachers to have students browse for poems that speak to them and gives examples of student art work and poetic responses. I particularly enjoyed her discussion of the elements of music and how songwriters and musicians play with these elements, like meter and tempo, just like storytellers.

Making stories come alive

To make stories come to life, Cunningham talks about Read-Alouds, Think-Alouds and creative dramatics to get students into Nancy Atwell’s “reading zone.” Her methods remind me of James Moffett who in 1968 wrote A Student-Centered Language Arts Curriculum, Grades K-13: A Handbook for Teachers. He praised teachers who read aloud but said it would be better if students followed along, because they would be reading as well and would learn to read unconsciously. I’ve always remembered that and found myself wishing that Cunningham had mentioned this technique.

Another work that this book reminds me of is The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante. Both emphasize how our brains are wired for story. Cunningham has a section on building stories and mentions Joseph Campbell’s work on the stages heroes go through.

Because she studied architecture, she emphasizes the relationship between the philosophies of architects and storytellers. “Architects, like writers, often know that less is more. Less ornamentation allows you to notice the amazing windows.”

She discusses simple, compound, and complex sentences and the techniques of “Turn and talk,” “Stop and jot,” “Stop and act,” and brief discussion.

Active learning through stories

Clearly, for this author stories are “sacred objects.” She believes that behind all our opinions, photos, creations, and utterances there is a story. She seeks to encourage active, not passive, learning and no “right answers” because “when stories matter, we are changed.”

Story saved me in my first year of teaching when I scrapped the worksheets to read The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now, both by S.E. Hinton, with my middle schoolers. If you are a teacher or writer or both, you’ll want Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning in your library because of its practical focus mixed with a philosophy beautifully expressed.

This book will keep you thinking for a long time and stresses the importance of caring for our students’ stories even as we explore stories and story-making with them.

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Dr. Mary Langer Thompson
is the author of Poems in Water, her first collection of poetry. She is a retired school principal and English teacher and a proud member of the California Writers Club, High Desert Branch, a group that helps each other and community members (All Our Yesterdays: A Collection of Memoirs) tell their stories.

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