Guest Post: Everything’s a Story
By Katie Egan Cunningham
Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote in her famed novel A Little Princess, “Everything’s a story—you are a story—I am a story.” There is so much truth in that brief sentence. Our lives are stories in the making, and there has never been a time with more ways to tell our stories or to learn about the stories of others. While my generation could be characterized as Generation X, I believe today’s students could be aptly named Generation Story. Not only are our students reading and writing stories, they are actively telling stories through photos and videos they compose and curate, and they are listening to and viewing stories at rapid speed thanks to the wonders of Netflix, YouTube, social media, and podcasts. Our students are growing up with a deep sense that everything really is a story.
With Burnett’s profound words in mind, I decided this year to broaden the kinds of stories I’m using with students to support them as readers and writers. In particular, I have found that even the most resistant readers and writers are actively engaged and able to apply skills and strategies with greater independence, when I model with Pixar film clips and song lyrics before turning to literature.
Recently, I taught a fifth grade lesson on how readers can better understand the theme of a story by naming the main character’s struggles. I decided to model with film clips from some of my favorite Pixar movies—Despicable Me and Big Hero Six. We know Gru is a villain in Despicable Me but do we know why? Can we better understand where his struggle for belonging and worthiness come from? How did the writers help us become compassionate towards Gru? Likewise, we know Hiro wants revenge for his brother’s death in Big Hero Six, but can we better understand why when we think about his struggle to hold on to the memory of his brother? How did the writers show us Hiro’s feelings without having to tell us?
I use Pixar clips because students usually know the storylines already and because they are so powerfully written. I often share with students Pixar writer Emma Coats’ Phenomenal Rules for Storytelling. They select the ones they absolutely agree with, the ones they disagree with, and then they craft their own phenomenal rules for storytelling in small groups. Everyone gets invested and everyone thinks critically about what makes a great story.
In addition to Pixar clips, this year I have used song lyrics as mentor texts, especially lyrics from twelve-year old Grace VanderWaal, the winner of the 2016 America’s Got Talent competition. We watch and listen to songs like “I Don’t Know My Name” and “Beautiful Thing”. We talk about the themes Grace explores like finding your identity and looking for beauty in life. We name her craft techniques like repetition and use of “I” to make her message more impacting. We share ideas about how we can be writing thieves by drawing from Grace’s choices in the narratives we compose be they songs, stories, or something else.
Every day in our classrooms there is an opportunity to echo Burnett’s sentiment that everything is a story. I’d love to hear from you as you use new texts to engage your students as readers and writers and as your students realize that they, too, have stories to tell.
Katie Egan Cunningham is an associate professor at Manhattanville College and author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning (Stenhouse, 2015). She is also a co-author of the School Library Journal blog site, The Classroom Bookshelf. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org