The recent push toward the exclusive use of analytical and informational texts under Common Core was thought to make students better thinkers and prepare them for college. But experts say this approach is missing a major key to literacy education.
Carol Barash, CEO of Story2, and David E. Kirkland, assistant professor in New York University's Department of Teaching and Learning, have dedicated a significant amount of time studying the importance of the art of storytelling on student success.
Barash said despite attempts to increase cognitive ability, the current emphasis on critical and analytical writing, as dictated by the Common Core standards, actually “uses less of the brain” than a story approach to literacy.
“Storytelling is a much more complicated process,” she said. “Your emotions are triggered, the responses associated with those emotions are triggered, and you want to take action. There’s this very complex mental process that goes on … that critical and analytical writing isn’t doing.”
David E. Kirkland, agreed. “I think a lot of this drive in moving away from storytelling is misplaced, and I think the impetus and the thing that’s pushing us away from story in this assessment environment is this idea that college readiness … is not rooted in story,” he said, calling “that kind of pragmatism” misplaced.
“There’s this idea that if you root school in college and career readiness … that you’ll create a level playing field and equity,” he said. “Well the thing that we miss out on is that within communities, African-American communities or Latino communities, storytelling is the achieved way of getting communication.”
“With this push to introduce quality and exposure … we’ve worked counter-intuitively to prevent [these students] from gaining those literacies and skills and information that they would have attained … if we rooted literacy and literacy learning in some of these common vernacular practices,” Kirkland said.
In addition to just enabling students to connect more with the text, reading and writing stories provides students with more of “what is needed increasingly for complex communication skills,” said Barash, who believes a more collaborative approach to literacy — which is what storytelling entails — will better equip students for the 21st century workforce.
Storytelling is “a very expansive way to teach” reading and writing, she continued. “When you learn how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, a five page essay, a novel using the storytelling” model, “it’s the most complicated and also the most innate form of” communication, said Barash.
Culturally-relevant pedagogy is critical
“While the impulse might be good-intentioned to create … explicit instruction through informational text, the result is going to be disastrous in that many of these informational texts won’t be relevant to the ways that many of our young people indigenously learn,” said Kirkland.
Barash agreed, saying a shift toward more analytical thinking has to include the complex processing that storytelling as a literary device brings.
But not just that, said Kirkland, it enables an opportunity to draw in “culturally-relevant pedagogy,” which experts are increasingly recognizing as important.
One way to do this is through the continued use of literary fiction in the classroom, which often resonates with students on a human level. But another, said Kirkland, is by using hip-hop to engage students as active participants in reading and writing.
Hip-hop, he said, is not just relevant to students of color — it is engrained in the culture of a generation. Whether white or black, affluent or wealthy, rural, suburban or urban, students embrace and respond to the art form in ways they don’t respond to much else.
“It’s hard to disentangle youth culture or talk about young people without talking about hip-hop,” he said. “Culturally relevant pedagogy is around teaching where young people are. If young people are in hip-hop, then the conversation … certainly at this point in our nation’s history revolves around hip-hop.”
For students who may seem to have very little interest in English class, incorporating contemporary lyric analysis as a way to break down tone, metaphor and other elements of writing adds nuance to a task students need to master to be successful.
“They’re laying on those texts analysis, analytical skills that they can lay onto other texts,” he said, “helping students find their voice to become better writers.”
The reason is simple: Incorporating culturally-relevant texts will help engage all students and provide a more equitable experience, Kirkland said.
“Students gain valuable analytical skills from interpreting texts,” he said. “I can say with some confidence that we know particular approaches to hip-hop in the classroom stimulate not only youth learning, but also their involvement, their active engagement in class.”
“We use other texts in the classroom, other stories, and kids aren’t reading them. If I’m trying to teach a kid to read, and I’m using texts that they’re not reading, I’m not serving them,” he continued.
“We’ve got good evidence now that when hip-hop is used in a classroom in a way that is compelling, in a way that appreciates, affirms and respects youth culture … when [students] get to engage texts that affirm not only their interest, but their culture, they learn from it,” he said.
“Beyond just having hip-hop in the classroom because it’s a good idea, in terms of student learning, we have to interrupt the conversation and ask the question whose stories get to make it to the classroom in the first place.”
Barash said the use of story actually helps make students better writers and speakers.
“When you start with oral storytelling and you start with the content of your own life, then you’re able to help students that are otherwise struggling with writing,” said Barash.
"Externalizing speech and thinking about it in relation to a written story helps many people to become more confident and successful speakers," she said.
Through empowering students to find their voices through culturally relevant texts, "they begin to heighten the way that they speak," said Barash. "They learn to bring that punch, that vigor in the way they’re speaking into their writing."
And the ability to write and speak more effectively will be essential to their development as productive citizens in a 21st century economy, she said.
“I think one of the big ideas is that as schools shift, learning shifts to more problem-solving based approaches, it also requires more evidence-based writing, and storytelling is more evidence-based writing. Storytelling based writing methodology fits very well around the directions they’re going in education,” said Barash.