guest written by Wim Coleman of Chiron Books.
To continue my thoughts on narrative in the classroom, I’ll begin (appropriately) with a story.
When I was a college sophomore theater student, I belonged to a small acting group called ETC—The Educational Theater Company. Our job was to put on scenes in classrooms all over the college campus (and sometimes in nearby public schools) at a moment’s notice. Most of the work requested from us was predictable—scenes from classic plays, readers theater performances of fiction and poetry, all that sort of thing. But occasionally, we’d get an assignment that was obviously meant to stump us.
For example, an English Comp instructor asked us to come into his classroom and perform a piece about footnotes, informing students fully about style, format, punctuation, etc. The instructor chortled when he made the request. I’m sure he came up with other plans for that class period, doubtful that we would even show up.
But we surprised him and ourselves, using no media except our own bodies. We created a madcap sketch that portrayed self-creating footnotes, full of slapstick conflict. To be honest, we stole liberally from the late comic genius Victor Borges’s mimed and vocalized “phonetic punctuation.” The result was hilarious—and informative. Our sketch was no substitute for The Chicago Manual of Style or The MLA Handbook, but students left the classroom with an enriched understanding of footnotes—and refreshed by hearty laughter.
Our “Footnotes Sketch” became a campus hit. Instructors in all departments demanded that we perform it several times a week—somewhat to my chagrin, as my brilliant portrayal of Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie went largely unrequested. ETC wasn’t easily stumped after all.
This anecdote, though true, may seem rather fanciful and digressive. It is. It’s also dead serious and to the point. Nietzsche wrote of “the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” That’s exactly the spirit I’m here to pursue. My point is that storytelling can enrich any topic in any discipline or class subject—at least I like to think so.
Can such methods be used to teach, say, math? I’ll pass over this question quickly. Math was and is my worst subject, I’m ashamed to say, and I’ve never tried to create any storied teaching materials for it. Nevertheless, I’ll toss out an idea and see if it has any legs.
Say you’re teaching basic coordinate graphing. Mightn’t the x-axis and the y-axis be portrayed as living characters, perhaps with strong disagreements about the data they’re trying to present—not just the raw information, but its meaning? Mightn’t their conflicts be dramatized through dialogue and physical action? And what about the points of data that go into the graph? Are they easily herded and arranged there, or do they put up a bit of a fight? And how can they first be drawn out of hiding?
I’ve never created any storytelling materials about biology either, but I’d like to give it a try. The natural world is rich in stories. The recent passing of the great biologist Lynn Margulis brings one readily to mind. Margulis’s major breakthrough concerned the origin of eukaryotic cells—highly complex cells with nuclei, as opposed to simpler prokaryotic cells such as bacteria. The appearance of eukaryotic cells was a major event in evolutionary history, allowing multicellular organisms like ourselves to eventually appear. But how did eukaryotic cells come to be? Such an evolutionary leap seems to defy imagination.
Margulis’s theory was beautifully simple—and if I may say so, poignantly moving. Once upon a time primeval, two simple prokaryotic cells met. One became engulfed by the other. But instead of mutual destruction, cooperation ensued, and the two cells learned to serve one another. Over millions of years, this process led to eukaryotic cells. Margulis’s idea (which itself seemed all-too-fanciful at the time) bore empirical fruit. Mitochondria and organelles are now recognized to have originated by such a process.
What a drama, eh? And why not stage it in a biology class, either as a scripted sketch or an improvisation? The two cells are characters. They collide and one becomes entangled in the other. They both panic. Can they survive this entanglement? They both fear strangulation. No strangulation ensues, and panic turns to paranoia. The outer cell fears that the engulfed cell will act as a deadly parasite, while engulfed cell fears being digested whole. They make peace and soon realize that they have something to offer one another. The surrounding cell can offer protection, while the engulfed cell can serve as a power source—a primitive mitochondrion. They continue through their lives, much stronger and fitter than before, chatting excitedly about what their union may mean to their progeny down through the ages.
Such a sketch can do more than merely illustrate this model, known as endosymbiotic theory. Margulis controversially claimed that her discovery challenged the Neo-Darwinian assumption that all evolutionary advances come from an endless struggle for survival. As Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan put it, “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.” The classroom sketch may stir a debate as to whether Margulis was right, or whether the endosymbiotic origin of eukaryotic cells actually shows good old-fashioned Survival of the Fittest in action.
To sum up a bit…
Classroom stories may be assigned either individually or in groups. The stories themselves may take the forms of written narratives or dialogues, dramatic improvisations, or rehearsed scripts that can be read at students’ desks or performed in front of the classroom. These days, I’m especially excited about videos. Kids have video cameras even in their cell phones, and many computers these days come with editing software.
In my next blog, I’ll suggest classroom story ideas in subjects that I’m closer to: Literature and History.
About the author: Wim Coleman is a playwright whose works have won national awards and have been presented in New York and Los Angeles, and he is an award-winning poet. He has also been a teacher, and has degrees in Theater, Literature, and Education. He usually writes in collaboration with his wife, Pat Perrin. Together, they have well over 100 publications. They publish independently for young people through ChironBooks. Wim and Pat lived in various parts of the United States before spending thirteen years in San Miguel de Allende, where they created and administered the San Miguel PEN Scholarship Program for at-risk students. They also adopted their daughter, Monse, there. All three of them now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You canlearn more about Wim and his work at his website.