Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer 2011

Originally written as a Facebook note on July 28, 2011

Summer 2011

by Nate Gibson on Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 4:28pm

I keep telling myself that I'll write more often during the summer. I keep telling myself that, yet somehow time slips away from me, and all of a sudden it has been 5 weeks since I posted a Facebook note. That last one was written on the longest day of the year, and was very much reflective, looking back on a tough year. This note will focus more on what I've been up to this summer/what I'm still up to.

1. I'll start with this one because it is so incredibly fresh in my mind--Storytelling class! I had the privilege to take EDUC 309 (Storytelling) at Western Washington University. The class started on June 23, meeting Mondays/Wednesdays from 1:00-4:50, and we just had our last class today (which I can barely believe!). This was one of the nicest surprises of the summer--I signed up for the class 2 days before it started because I noticed that a few spots had opened up (when I'd looked at the course catalog earlier in the Spring, this was one of the first classes to fill up). I had no idea what to expect, but let me tell you--that class is well worth the $800 price of admission! (and yes, that's how I spend my hard-won teacher salary--taking classes)

First, the professor was fantastic. Rosemary Vohs is a talented storyteller herself, and knows how to develop those skills in her students. On the first day of class, she opened with a story about how Anansi the Spider opened a great box containing all of the stories in the world, and as a result, they spread to every corner of the earth. As she told the story, I knew I was in for a different sort of class, and different was exactly what I needed to inspire me in my own planning for the coming school-year. Over the coming days, I would learn that storytelling is one of the most basic languages that we have--as humans, we are constantly telling stories and 90% of the time, we don't even realize it! I also learned that storytelling has lost its status as an art form, as well as a preferred medium of entertainment and education--in short, people have gotten increasingly sloppy and lazy as technology has gotten more complex and handy. We still tell stories, but we, as a largely technocratic culture, don't value storytelling enough to tell stories nearly as well or often as we should. As a result, social interactions often begin and end with electronics, there's a wide disconnect between children and the life stories/experiences of their grandparents and even their parents, and we feel as though entertainment isn't valid unless it fills in the blanks for us. How utterly unimaginative! The class has inspired me to try and bring back that emphasis, that value for storytelling in my own humble circles. My students--consider this fair warning!

I also learned that storytelling is NOT the same as memorization! This was a huge comfort, as I envisioned a storytelling class as involving a lot of time reading through the same folktale over and over until I had every last word, every last punctuation mark firmly etched in my mind. NOT SO! Storytelling is about employing mental imagery--reading through a story maybe once or twice to acquaint oneself with the major plot elements, character and above all, IMAGES, and then retelling the story in one's own words. So what if you tell the story differently than you read or heard it? So what if the dialogue changes? So what if the protagonist goes from being a rabbit to a bear, or a little girl to an old lady? As long as you've maintained the plot and the big ideas of the story, everything else is fair game--storytelling is a medium that calls for tellers to take ownership of something and pass it along to others. I mean, just think of how folktales have spread and adapted themselves to so many different cultural situations and times--in my research for the class, I discovered that there are something like 15 different variations of the "Sleepy Beauty" story. Folktales change--that's the nature of the beast, and of course we all know that every time we tell a personal experience story, that fish just keeps getting a little bit bigger... So, if you're thinking to yourself "well huzzah for Nate, glad he enjoyed storytelling, but I can't do that", THINK AGAIN. Everyone is capable of learning and retelling stories, and telling stories from their own lives. It doesn't require hours of memorization--just some imagination and the willingness to take risks, and improve your story with every telling.

In this class, we told four stories: a personal experience story, a retold folktale, a folktale with some kind of extra performance element, and a family history story. Each story allowed me to become more comfortable with the idea of not only learning how to tell stories, but also teaching it down the line. I discovered that storytelling comes naturally to me, and was paid a huge complement when several classmates told me on our last day of performances that I was hands-down the best storyteller in the class. Of course, I was 5 or 6 years older than most of my classmates, and have the advantage of 2 years of teaching under my belt--I think a number of my classmates could do just as well once they've been teaching for a while (and have gotten desensitized to the self-consciousness and jitters of being in front of a large group). I also had a chance to do a lot of reading/writing about how to use storytelling in the classroom (something that is woefully overlooked at the secondary level), compile a huge file of folktales to draw from, attend a local storytelling event, and even organize a storytelling evening at my church. The class was a tremendous blessing to me, and it will influence my teaching this year in a big way. Not only will I tell stories often (my goal is a new story each week), I will also make student storytelling a part of my class. I focused on public speaking and presentation skills last year, and I think that storytelling is the first step in that process that I more or less missed (aside from a few extemporaneous speeches that I had my students do at random times). Storytelling can be a confidence-booster, as students can share their own stories, and can speak without worrying about notes or a script. They can focus more on skills to hook their listeners such as eye contact, physicality (movements/gestures), facial expression, tone of voice, and more. It's an empty canvas on which they can start to sketch the presenter that they want to be. Taught and executed right, storytelling can also be a solid way to build an atmosphere of trust in the classroom--students get to know each other well as they share their experiences, and will be more willing to step out and take risks in formal presentations later on.

Not only this, but storytelling can be a step in teaching writing--what better way to get students to connect class themes and concepts with their own lives than through story! Not to mention, what better way to get students to think about language--to be aware of how they put words and ideas together than to watch a recording of themselves telling a story or listening to feedback from trusted peers?

In case you can't tell by the mammoth amount of space I've devoted to point number 1, I'm EXCITED :D! I hope my soon-to-be-students who read this are excited, too.

2. Church-related stuff: I am putting this all into one category because what this really boils down to is my love for my home-church, Wiser Lake Chapel. The highlight of my summer is having the opportunity to worship with my family and friends, to listen to solid expository preaching, and to enjoy fellowship with a wonderful group of people. My brother organized weekly Wednesday evening studies of the church fathers which was quite interesting and edifying. It was especially encouraging to see so many peers at the chapel, people in their early 20s, turn up to read and discuss each week. It gave me a new-found appreciation for theology, which I think too often gets dismissed as "too complicated for simple faith." True, there's centuries of muddy waters, and denominational struggles/splits that will never make sense to me, but here's the simple truth: You can say "I love Jesus and that's enough", but you absolutely need to know what that means! We're called to love God with our hearts, souls and minds... loving God with our minds means examining tradition against the Word of God, striving to know just what it is that we believe and where those beliefs come from. So many heresies have started and taken flame because believers stop thinking about their faith or apply faulty thought stemming from a misunderstanding of God's Word, God's character. Case in point--there was a heresy (Ben, if you read this, help me out with the name) that emphasized the humanity of Christ over His Divinity. As soon as you begin to overlook Christ's role in the Trinity as the Son (and with that, the weight of his sacrifice by dying on the cross, not to mention his triumph over death), and only look at His life, you wind up believing that Christ is an example of how someone can become perfect by basically just being a good person. To say "well, I'll just do what Christ did" means nothing unless you recognize that Christ is the Word, the Son of God, and that he died to atone for the fact that we are colossal screw-ups (we're born steeped in it--there's absolutely no side-stepping sin and living the perfect life). We follow Christ not because we have hope of becoming perfect ourselves, but because He is our only hope and we must cling to Him with our all. I find this reassuring, but still there have been many in history who find more immediate gratification and comfort in the thought that salvation really is something within our grasp, something we control. This thinking continues to be a dangerous temptation to this day. So yeah, theology can help us to recognize such heretical thought. Some may balk at what I'm saying, and argue that spending so much time thinking and studying will result in a faith that exists only in the mind--something that has no bearing on one's life, actions or the orientation of one's heart. To those concerns, I say this (echoing a point that came up repeatedly in our Wednesday evening studies): Study and discussion about theology must always bring us back to worship. Always. We can spend our lives studying Augustine, Athanaseus, and Tertullian, but if that study doesn't bring us back to worship, it's worthless. That said--the study is so very important, and once you get into it, so very interesting, and a true testimony to the goodness and faithfulness of God.

On a slightly different note, playing weekly Thursday evening softball was a tremendous joy as well. Again, organized by my brother (who is such an inspiration--Ben's a natural-born organizer, mentor, coach and teacher), each evening was mostly attended by younger children. While this limited the intensity of play somewhat (and definitely limited the amount of action outfielders saw), it was fun to be involved in encouraging the children and helping to teach them the game of softball--both the technical skills and the sheer enjoyment. Wiser Lake Chapel is a wonderful home-church, and I think that as long as I live, and no matter where else in the world I may eventually call "home", it will always be my home-church.

3. Reading/planning. I'll keep this section short--I promise! Just like last summer, I've done a lot of reading to prepare me for the coming school-year as I start planning my classes. This summer, the bulk of my attention went to two books: "Teaching for Joy and Justice" by Linda Christensen and "Building the English Classroom" by Bruce Penniman. Between these two books, I found more nuggets of wisdom, more wise advice for effective teaching than I can possibly try to incorporate in one school-year. So, I'm left with the painful task of picking and choosing what to focus on. What stood out at me in Christensen's book was the idea of connecting class content to student's own lives and experiences as a gateway to invite them into study, discussion, critical thinking and writing. This rubs shoulders nicely with what I learned in my storytelling class, so that was doubly exciting! I'm determined to plan around questions, ideas and themes that will lend themselves to such connections. The other thing that I took away was the importance of teaching writing as a process, and not as a 'two-drafts-and-voila-you-have-a-finished-product!' game. Both authors suggested the use of a writing portfolio to create this atmosphere of constant revision and retooling. I must confess that I am somewhat weak at teaching writing--writing has always come naturally to me, and so I never, ever, ever thought about what I was actually doing when I wrote. I certainly never revised anything I wrote, never proofread, never had anyone else proofread. I always got As, so I never felt I had to (another reason why grades might not actually encourage true learning, but that's a rant for another time :P). I'm excited by the idea of intentionally teaching rewrites and revisions as part of the process and not just a hoop to jump through (rough draft will be due on Monday, final draft will be due on Friday).

4. Running. Pretty self-explanatory, and I'm getting tired (and lazy). I've run for about two weeks now, and it feels better every day (less exhausting, that is--my feet have some gnarly blisters right now, and those definitely don't feel good :P). I'm determined to make a habit of this that will last me through the school-year (I hope to use the school treadmills during the winter). Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I hope not. Saying I value my own health but then spending a majority of my time sitting on my butt is terribly hypocritical and I even feel guilty right now having spent nearly an hour and a half sitting to write this long note. Plus, I want to be able to keep up with my middle school XC runners when practices start in August (the past two years, I've just biked behind them telling them to keep running. I wonder if they resent that? Man, I know I would've...)

Whew! I've written more than enough, and I need to call it a night. Anyway, that's my summer in a nutshell. It's been wonderful. My brother left for Denver last week to begin his training for City Year, so I'm feeling perhaps a bit lonely but also ready to get back to my other home in Japan. Just a week and a half away...

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