First Person Plural: Storytelling as Learning in the Disciplines

By Melanie Landon-Hays and Tracy L. Smiles

diversityToday’s students live in a different world than we grew up in. Because technology has increased interconnectedness in almost every domain of learning including arts, politics, education, and cultures, today’s student is not bound by time and space when it comes to interacting with and learning about cultures and societies around the world. Coupled with migration and immigration, today’s student lives in more culturally and linguistically diverse US communities and schools (Short, 2010). Through these changes, largely shaped by technology’s ability to foster for students connections throughout the world, we have come to believe as literacy educators that understanding global cultures is an essential 21st century skill (NCTE, 2008). We have also come to understand that increased diversity requires students to be knowledgeable about world regions and global issues, and able to communicate across cultures and languages (Short, 2010; Allan, 2003). In short, today’s students are not, nor should be constrained by distance and time when it comes to exploring the richness of learning available to them through global inquiry.

And yet—-learning in schools occurs within standards guidelines that create boundaries of what counts as learning in each discipline, and as a result, in attempts to “meet” these standards the high stakes assessment that accompany these allegedly more rigorous expectations, teachers are faced with preparing global citizens that can perform specific tasks related to prescriptive assessments in order to successfully participate in current educational systems. What we would like to explore this month in WOW Currents is how we might think about how global knowledge is built as students learn about mathematics, science, language arts and social studies, and how methods for teaching can be culled from different parts of the world. Further, we will examine how global learning in a discipline is promoted as students come to understand scientific, mathematical, and cultural truths from around the world as they read International stories, mathematical solutions, collaborative scientific data, and diverse histories from the vast resources available as a result of diminished informational borders. Thinking about disciplinary learning this way, for us, has generated important understandings of the critical role disciplinary teachers play in developing discipline specific literacies.


When students are apprenticed into a discipline by erecting movable borders constructed from global knowledge of how thinking is done in a discipline, rather than perpetuating fixed borders made from narrow ideas of what count as text and knowledge in a discipline, we create opportunities for valuing a global conversations about a content area, focusing on the “stories of that discipline” rather than the rules. For example, when we move beyond the textbook in a Social Studies class to using primary documents from diverse sources that teach students to construct a full and nuanced knowledge of a time period, instead of just internalizing one author’s textbook view, we move the borders of that discipline from narrow to wide and unfixed constructions that can grow with the diversity of perspectives required in global conversations. We prepare students to understand the “stories of a discipline” including the texts and knowledge that are important for producing thinkers that become scientists, mathematicians, historians, storytellers, dramatists, etc. We believe students make meaning in a discipline by understanding its stories and creating and promoting their own stories, rather than regurgitating information that often counts as disciplinary learning. In short, we embrace the notion that a story is a theory of something, what we tell and how we tell it reveals what we believe (Carter, 2003; Short, 2012). As we encourage our students to make meaning by sharing their stories of connections they have made in a discipline, we promote their first person stories and help them to author their understanding locally in their classrooms. When we enhance this learning by making the local intersect with the global by sharing diverse stories of learning and thinking centered on disciplinary understanding, we help our students to make the first person, plural, a term we borrow from the Writer’s Center blog that is currently exploring “Nonfiction Storytelling in Science, Technology and Policy—The Necessity of Narrative,” a subject being discussed among editors from leading publications—The Atlantic, Harper’s, National Geographic, Publisher’s Weekly and Slate— (see the link below).

World of Words was largely created on the premise that reading powerful stories from different parts of the world can be avenues for global inquiry, and in this case, for moving disciplinary instruction from covering standards to students making deeper, more personal connections to the content, which in turn inspires authentic inquiries into significant questions and issues related to the content. Additionally, the inclusion of narratives such as those found in high quality children’s and adolescent literature that are situated in a discipline can lead students to use more authentic literacy tasks. Teachers armed with a wide variety of texts will help students explore, share, and sometimes take thoughtful new actions as a result of their learning, fostering both local and global connections that deepen their students’ understanding of the many and diverse stories that count as learning in a discipline.

Our future blog posts will discuss ways that disciplinary understanding can be enhanced when framed with global conversations based on the stories of a discipline. We will focus on content area perspectives that share ways in which high quality international literature can be integrated into classroom teaching to enhance both content and literacy learning. Building on the premise that stories can connect us to the past, create community with others, explain the natural world, engage our imaginations, and expand our notions of what it means to be human, we will provide insights into what this looks like in disciplinary teaching (Short, 2012).

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. To view our complete offerings of WOW Currents, please visit archival stream.

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