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Story as meaning-making

Stories are woven so tightly into the fabric of our everyday lives that it’s easy to overlook their significance in framing how we think about ourselves and the world. They fill every part of our daily lives as we talk about events and people, read books and news reports, gossip, send text messages, listen to music, watch video clips, and catch up on a favorite television show. We live storied lives.

Stories are thus much more than a book or narrative – they are the way our minds make sense of our lives and world. We work at understanding events and people by constructing stories to interpret what is occurring around us. In turn, these stories create our views of the world and the lens through which we construct meaning about ourselves and others. We also tell stories to make connections, form relationships, and create community with others.

“Stories Frame Our Thinking and Interactions”

Despite the significant ways in which stories frame our world views and identities, their role in making sense of life is often not recognised or valued. In schools, students are given access to stories primarily through literature but the focus is not on the value of the stories themselves. Instead, literature is used to teach something else—reading skills, critical thinking, writing models, historical events, mathematical concepts. The many different forms in which stories are commonly told and shared outside of schools are also often not recognised or valued within classrooms.

If we step back from the pressure of tests and standards and consider why story matters and the ways in which story is thinking and meaning-making, we have time to reconsider and recapture the role of story in our classrooms.

It’s the way we make sense of the world. Harold Rosen (1986) argues that stories are a way to move from the chaotic “stuff” of daily life into understanding. We are surrounded by an endless flow of experiences on a daily basis, and we invent beginnings and endings to organise our experiences by creating a meaningful sequence of facts and interpretations. Stories impose order and coherence on that stream of experiences and we tell our stories to others to invite them to consider our meanings and to construct their own.

“Story is a Mode of Knowing”

It captures the richness and nuances of human life, accommodating the ambiguity and complexity of situations in the multiplicity of meanings inherent to any story (Carter, 1993). Although traditionally thought is seen as an instrument of reason, there are forms of thought that are narrative in nature rather than logical. Barbara Hardy (1968) believes that story is a primary act of mind:

For we dream, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative. In order to really live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.”

Our views of the world are a web of interconnected stories; a distillation of all the stories we have shared. This web of stories becomes our interpretive lens for new experiences so that story is our means of constructing the world, making meaning of our lives, and creating funds of knowledge.

Rosen (1986) also points out that the distinction between expository text and narrative text and between theories and stories is an artificial one. He argues that theories are just bigger stories. Scientists, for example, create a theory by using current information to tell a story that provides an explanation of a natural phenomenon, such as black holes. They change their stories over time as new information and perspectives become available. A story is thus a theory of something, what we tell and how we tell it reveals what we believe (Carter, 1993).

“Without the stories of the past, we are unable to see the possibility of change.”

Stories of the past are particularly significant in framing our thinking about the world. Milton Meltzer (1981), the author of many nonfiction history books on social issues, argues that history is memory, consisting of stories about our past that provide us with a sense of humanity. Without these stories of the past, we are nothing, adrift and unable to compare and contrast our current experiences with the past in order to make sense of those experiences. We are locked in the current moment, deprived of memory, and so blinded from understanding the present. Meltzer argues that governments in totalitarian countries thus outlaw the collective memory. In our society, we neglect it, and so fail to see ourselves as part of a larger continuum of life that stretches far behind us and far ahead as well. We need stories of the past to locate ourselves and to envision a reason to take action for social change to create a better world. Without the stories of the past, we are unable to see the possibility of change.

The ways in which we create and tell stories are culturally-based. All children come to school with stories, although the types of stories that they are familiar with and the ways in which they tell stories may be quite different from school norms. Shirley Brice Heath (1983), for example, found that children coming from a particular African-American community had learned to tell fanciful stories in order to get adult attention and to aggressively push their way into conversations. These children were viewed as rude and as telling “tall tales” at school, a misunderstanding of the cultural context of their homes and stories by teachers. The challenge for teachers is not to judge children by what they are lacking, but instead evaluate their strengths related to the stories they are bringing to school from their families and communities. If the culture of the community is to enter the culture of the school, that community’s stories must be valued as meaningful and valid.

“Stories have the power to direct and change our lives and world”

Stories summon us to wisdom, strength and delight, and make the richness of imagination available to all of us. We engage in story to understand ourselves and our world as well as to envision a better world and to take action that makes a difference. They have the power to direct and change our lives and world – if we provide the time and space necessary for their role in meaning-making. Story is at the heart of who we each are as human beings. They are our memory and identity – “for in the stories could be found wisdom and in wisdom, strength.”

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