June 15, 2024
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June 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Story Has No Beginning or End

“The Story Girl,” by L.M. Montgomery, has long been a favorite book of mine since childhood, largely because each and every one of us is a story-teller. As children, as parents and as teachers, we all tell stories about ourselves and about each other. Every culture tells stories to transmit values and to impress the next generation. Graham Greene said, “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” With Purim and Pesach upon us, we are once again reminded of the vitality of narrative and its centrality in our Judaism, in our self-image and how we place ourselves in the context of generations.

A Smattering of Quotes Lifted From Teachers and Students

“I notice how orderly you are waiting on line to go up the stairs, first and second graders. This shows me that you are patient. This shows that you know the morning safety rule of waiting to follow the teacher up the stairs.”

“I see the way you are holding the door for the student behind you. This shows that you have the quality of caring. You are a kind classmate.”

“How is Bunny a brother like my brother?”

“How does Edward Tulane feel about all of his name changes?

“I wonder how density manifests and how we can model it with real-world items.”

“It feels like Martin Luther King’s speech is speaking to me right now.”

“I figured out a plan for recycling paper in our classroom. Would I be able to get a recycling bin?”

“So, is it better to be visible or invisible as a refugee?”

“I appreciate that you completed your math homework.”

“I see your eagerness to come into the classroom. That shows me how excited you are for learning.”

“Why can you translate back and forth between real-world examples and mathematical symbols?”

A Principal as Author of a School Narrative

As I perambulate throughout the school, I observe sixth graders in full PPE regalia as they engage in a science experiment. I hear eager second and fourth grade discussion leaders and summarizers in literature circles. I see kindergarteners manipulating materials in preparation for the hundredth day of school and I inhale the sharp aroma of fresh fruit, as they cross-over their celebration with brachot. Socratic dialogues abound, where students do a deep dive and reflect back what they hear from each other. Students labor and argue over their engineering design project sketches.

Students of all ages and grades constantly approach me and eagerly share questions, observations and ideas. Along with my physical peregrinations, I am simultaneously constructing meaning and creating an ongoing narrative about our school. In my construction, our school’s story in this COVID year is profound and exciting, a tale of extraordinary teachers leading learning in a joyous atmosphere. The information I imbibe through my senses feed my story. In my epic, in spite of each of our human flaws, I am awed by the tenacity I see in students and teachers, and how we are harnessing challenges to aspire, to be reflective, to accept mistakes and errors, to allow ourselves to feel anxious and mourn, and yet still step into our greatness.

To Be Human Is to Be a Storyteller

Many thoughts float in and out of my conscious mind as I hear all of these variegated interactions. For me, immersive learning is intoxicating and I chronicle—about the interplay between teachers and students, and about individuals. Over the course of a day I engage in conversations with students across all grade levels, with teachers, formally and informally, and of course with parents. Again, I am assembling commentaries, with best intentions assumed on all sides.

To be human is to fundamentally be a storyteller. Telling stories, assigning patterns and investing meaning in what our senses take in is how we make sense of this world. We tend to trust our senses; the information we absorb through vision, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and our sense of ourselves in space—our proprioceptive input. Essentially, that information is inherently subjective, and we create stories to make meaning from what we assimilate. In some sense, none of those stories are real, and of course, in another sense, they are very real because we believe and act upon them, so they become our reality.

Our minds are always so busy. There are thoughts constantly flitting through our brains at a rapid pace, and mostly, although without realizing it, we are constantly judging. Each and every one of us is an author of our own story. We assemble narratives to fit the events and interactions in our lives. This ability to create stories is a great strength and tool for learning and growth, when channeled effectively. If allowed to run amok, though, we sometimes imprison ourselves through our negative storytelling.

Best Intentions Assumed

Presuming positive intent and framing the information we receive in an open fashion allows all of us to operate from our better selves. By genuinely listening and being open and curious, we can conceive a fuller picture of every human being. This is true for all members of the circle of education.

It is important for teachers to be self-aware about the stories they are constructing about students, about the overall atmosphere of their class, and about their own self-efficacy and relationships with their students. This is true for students and the stories they construct about themselves as learners and as human beings. Students’ stories about themselves are heavily influenced by teachers, and, especially, parent language around self-efficacy. Parents, too, create narratives about their children and about their children’s teachers. Principals and administrators also need to be aware of the chronicles and commentaries our brains create and step away. All of us must strive to create our stories from a place of compassion and empathy, curiosity about each other, and our deeply held connections.

No two people ever have the same experience. Each and every human being is unique and will perceive, through his/her senses, the exact same circumstances, slightly differently and quite frequently, with significant alterations.

The Power of the Words

The power of each word we use to describe our experiences and to frame both our stories and how we perceive others is infinite. The descriptions we choose to filter our world impact our relationships, our sense of belonging, and our self-esteem. The totality of a child is not encompassed by a teacher’s story or a parent’s story and he or she often lives out the story he or she writes for him or herself. As Emily Dickinson so famously wrote, “A word is dead/When it is said,/Some say./I say it just/Begins to live/That day.” Let us choose narratives and words that infuse us with the courage to choose an emotionally healthy life.

Chana Luchins is the principal of general studies at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, New Jersey.

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