Back when I taught elementary school, I consistently and happily shared stories from my personal life with my students. Those stories, for the most part, fell into three categories: Traveling, Pets, and Things I Saw on My Way to School.
While explaining a travel brochure assignment during a history lesson, I used one of my favorite trips (Germany) as an example. A teacher passing by my classroom overheard me. Later, at lunch, she told me she felt nauseated by my sharing. It was utterly inappropriate, she said, for a teacher to bring his or her personal life into the classroom. Find a generic resource or make something up, but don’t share your own travels, or anything else for that matter.
I was aghast. I like to remember fighting back, but I’m pretty sure I just mumbled into my Bagel Monster and let it go.
But I never really let it go.
With elementary and middle school students, with graduate students and my current college students, I have shared and continue to share. Sharing is a teaching tool. Using it, a skill. What to share, when to share, how to share—I consider it all carefully. Personal stories enliven lessons, bridge material inside the classroom to the world outside, demonstrate the relevance of what I teach, and remind my students that I too am human, that what I bring to our time together is as complex as what they bring. We do not—we should not—teach and learn in isolated chambers. The classroom is a dynamic part of the whole-life landscape of both students and teachers.
A colleague and dear friend, Dr. Katie Cunningham, feels the same way. While teaching elementary school together, we asked our students to share their stories. We knew art teachers who asked students to paint a summer memory, reading teachers who asked students to collect “red words” over break, writing teachers who asked the popular question: “What did you do over vacation?” We observed that a certain level of vulnerability is required to share, and that a certain level of trust is needed to facilitate that sharing. We found it helpful, and even crucial, to share our own stories as a way to model vulnerability and trust. In order to ask it of our students, we had to ask it of ourselves. That’s one of the things teachers do best: model.
While instructing graduate students of education, Katie and I do the same. We model our willingness to share, and in turn guide our teacher candidates to share with their own elementary school students. Going one step further, we have created a writing exercise called the 7/6 Project to provide structure, boundaries, and scaffolding for the sharing of stories. Within the project’s “edges,” our students—both those in elementary school and those in graduate school—more readily loosen, brainstorm, create, trust, and share.
Our article on the 7/6 Project appears in the Winter 2013 Issue of The English Record. I’m really proud of this one!