A Gift of Stories by Emily Visness
As a special education inclusion teacher who co-teaches in middle school language arts and history classes, I work with students who face many challenges. One challenge is getting them to see past the “work” of learning and see the fun in the stories that surround them through their learning in school. A love for stories is something I’ve had my entire life, and I have my Gramma to thank for that.
My Gramma was an interesting woman who, when described to someone else, could almost seem like a fictional character herself. The stories she told of her early life on a Canadian island were filled with adventure, mystery, and fun. She made the characters of her relatives come alive in the sharing of her memories – her stories. As a child, I heard these stories over and over and I now feel as if I really knew my ancestors, even though they were long gone by the time I was born. I credit my Gramma with instilling in me a childlike delight in a good story, and when she told a story about her grandfather in Canada, her cats, her children when they were young, or her own childhood, she brought the stories to life in my mind. Now, as a teacher, it’s part of my job to bring stories to life for students, whether we’re studying history or a work of fiction. Many of my students have difficulty picturing a story happen as they read, and by listening and watching me tell a story with descriptions and details and emotions they have the opportunity to practice visualizing the story in their minds. Understanding the written word is hard for kids who can’t “see” the story play out in their imaginations, and it is rewarding to help them learn to use their minds to watch a story unfold.
My Gramma was also an avid reader and a lover of poems. She shared that love with me by reading aloud to me and reciting poems she memorized. I particularly remember her reciting Jabberwocky from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There which frightened my sister, my cousin and me and made us feel watched by a hidden monster as we played in her garden. When my middle school students studied this poem, many found it difficult because it’s filled with nonsense words – my students often don’t know the difference between real words and nonsense words, so this poem was especially challenging for them. The “work” of understanding the poem, of determining nonsense words from real vocabulary, annotating for understanding, and identifying literary devices can feel daunting for students with learning disabilities. However, that “work” was tempered for them with the fun of listening to the poem read aloud as well as hearing the story of my Gramma scaring me with the poem when I was a child. The students love hearing a personal connection, a story, tied to their learning from a teacher, and I try to provide them with that at every opportunity.
Passing on a love of stories to my students is important to me. This often happens naturally, when I tell them anecdotes about my life. Giving them personal stories that are interesting gets them engaged, and has them laughing, gasping, or asking questions. The thought processes and questioning they do while listening to stories from my life are easily transferred to their reading assignments in history or language arts. Reluctant readers can find books they will enjoy by hearing me tell stories – or rather, book-talking books to get them interested in What Happens Next. Students who are bored by history can find some excitement in the events they’re required to learn about by listening to the telling of stories – not only telling what happened, but describing what is known about each historical person’s personality and sharing little known facts to enhance students’ learning and make it feel relevant. Some readings are required, not chosen, but with a little imagination those stories can come to life for students in a memorable way. The possibilities for gifting students with stories are truly endless, and it is a privilege for me to be a part of that every day.
My Gramma taught me that even our regular, seemingly unimportant, everyday lives are actually full of amazing stories. If I can get my students to see the value and possibility in their own stories, and in the stories they learn in school (both fictional and true), then my Gramma’s legacy, and my own, will be carried forward by a new generation.
Grandfather told me stories while we rocked in his rocker beside the stove with the windows through which you could see the snapping, crackling flames. Grandfather said, “Would you like to hear how a bear chased me when I was a young man?” I said, “Yes” and then asked if it were a true story or a made up story. I had just learned that there were two kinds – both good, but it was a good idea to know the difference…
-excerpt from Island Memories, by L.C. Clark (my Gramma)
Emily Visness is a special education inclusion teacher at a Title 1 middle school for Pflugerville ISD, has taught grades 4th through 11th, and thinks middle school students are highly underrated as a species. When she is not teaching, she can be found raising two passionate readers, speaking out against book challenges, doing ancestry research, and geeking out over gothic horror novels and movies. You can find her on her blog (thebookishadvocate.wordpress.com), on Facebook (The Bookish Advocate), on Twitter (@bookishadvocate), or on Instagram (TheBookishAdvocate).