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What's Your Story?

Posted: 11/22/10 11:50 AM ET

Teaching and curriculum at their best rest on the twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation, knowledge and human freedom. Teaching in a democracy is geared toward participation and engagement, and it's based, then, on a common faith: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each an intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, signifying, and creative universe.

Central to an education for citizenship, participation, engagement, and democracy -- an education toward freedom -- is developing in students and teachers alike the ability to think and speak for themselves. The core curriculum -- explicit and assumed -- of a liberating education is this: we each have a mind of our own; we are all works-in-progress swimming toward an uncertain and indeterminate shore; we can each join with others in order to act on our own judgments and in our own freedom; human progress is always the result of thoughtful action. This means that a central requirement of teaching and curriculum becomes the development of a distinct and singular voice in every student.

Students must learn to grapple -- both now and in the future -- with a question central to the spirit and heart of democracy, a question both simple and profound, straight-forward and twisty: what's your story? How will you find the voice to tell it fully and fairly?

All human life, of course, is in part a story of suffering and loss and pain. When that pain is preventable, the suffering undeserved, we resist, and in that resistance is another common-place in our human story. Sometimes our stories are ignored or diminished by others, sometimes we are seen through the heavy lenses of stereotypes and labels, our undeniable and indispensable three-dimensionality suffocated and diminished, our hopes handcuffed and our possibilities flattened and policed. The development of a more powerful and compelling voice becomes even more essential.

It's here that students draw upon their educations, on their own minds and their own spirits, to lift themselves up and beyond the negative and the controlling. What's your story? Who are you in the world? What in the world are your chances and your choices?

Telling our stories, trusting our stories, listening carefully and emphatically to the stories of others is part of the work of democracy. Everyone counts, and nobody counts more than any one else. In a real democracy the full development of each is the necessary condition for the full development of all.

What's your story? How is it like or unlike other stories? What's next? What will you do now, as the poet Mary Oliver urges, with your one wild and precious life? What are the next chapters going to be, and the chapters after that, and after that? No one knows for sure, for each person must write those next chapters -- and even so, only partially, for every life is also a dance of the dialectic, a sometimes difficult negotiation between chance and choice.
To be a good teacher in this context means above all to have an abiding faith in all students, to believe in the possibility that every person can create things and is capable of both individual and social transformation. Curriculum becomes a form of reinventing, re-creating, and rewriting, of finding voice, and this is a task that can be accomplished only by free subjects, never by inert objects. Curriculum, then, is a dialogical process in which everyone participates actively as equals--a turbulent, raucous, unpredictable, noisy, and participatory affair. The goal of dialogue in this context is critical thinking and action--voice and knowledge emerge from the continual interaction of reflection and action.

An emphasis on the needs and interests of student is co-primary with faith in a kind of robust public that can be created in classrooms, as well as in the larger society. To be exclusively student-centered, to the extent that the needs of the group are ignored or erased, is to develop a kind of fatalistic narcissism; to honor the group while ignoring the needs of the individual is to destroy any real possibility of freedom. This is the meaning of community, the creation of places where people are held together because they are working along common lines in a common spirit with common aims. These are places of energy and excitement, unlike the sites of coercion and containment that are all-too-familiar in schools: the difference is motive, spirit, and atmosphere. These qualities are found when people move from being passive recipients to choosing themselves as authors, speakers, actors, builders, and makers within a social surround.