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Time for Stories, Part 2

Part 2 of 2: Dale Worsley, editor and co-author of, Journeys in Communities of Practice: Stories and Strategies of Professional Inquiry from Around the World, gives an engaging and interesting insight into the editor process on this publication.

journeyscommunities-finalMy reason for asking for my colleagues’ time on this was to test out my own hypothesis that meaningful, well-told stories have a unique power not only to instruct us but to give us courage in a way that mere information cannot when we face times of change. Having worked with IB Publishing’s Acquisitions Editor, Allie McKay, to gather such stories from schools around the world, I had edited the stories into our book. Now was the high-stakes moment of truth: Would reading them be worth the time of busy, preoccupied educators? Why spend time on all the nuances of a narrative when you could just read a formula or scan some bullet points?

As the book’s editor, I knew the stories well. I knew that I had to select one that would speak to these educators with their particular needs as they faced their own unique challenges. A couple of weeks before the seminar was scheduled I picked one by Isabel Searson, Principal at Taejon Christian School in Korea, titled “A Communal Commitment to Excel.” I chose it because of the practical ways a very lofty vision had been achieved. But the night before the seminar, I changed my mind. Enough practical structures had been put in place to keep progress going at Westinghouse for a while. The teacher teams had started their meetings and had been struggling to function effectively as they confronted issues of team leadership, quirky personalities, and passionate differences. We could return to Isabel’s story for structural ideas later. What we needed now was something to heal and inspire in the heat of battle.

A story by another New York school of poverty seemed the better choice for this moment. Written by Principal Tashón Haywood, Assistant Principal Rory Parnell and Staff Developer Elizabeth Fox, it chronicled a hero’s tale of teachers struggling against all odds to settle their differences and function together in service to their challenging population of scholars. The title itself, “Shifting Power”, captured perfectly the “shift” that Janine had identified.

I knew from experience not to ask that seminar participants read the story ahead of time. When we finally got settled into our cool, quiet conference room, we followed the protocol of reading without speaking and distracting each other. As we read, I wondered what my friends were thinking about the story. Were they having the same reactions as me–joy at the successes, fear and trembling at the conflicts? A couple of us finished earlier than the others, including me. I went back and began to read again, pulling yet more meaning from the story. I was glad it had gone through so many drafts and was written so compellingly.

I clocked the time it was taking. We were half an hour into our allotted two hours before we were all finished reading and ready to talk. This was a lot of time in this frenetic Information Technology age of ours. All had been gripped, it seemed. So far so good.

Reminding everyone that our purpose was to enlarge our understanding of the text, not come to any particular interpretation, we began our conversation. Referring to the time frame of the story, we discussed how teaming takes time, how teams change constantly even though members stay the same. Insights relevant to our work poured out: the many dimensions of people’s lives make it necessary to check in and connect before undertaking an important task. This personal touch is important to building the trust that makes teams work. Likewise, the team is like an organism with its own health issues that need to be examined. Part of being an effective faculty member is being reflective. Delegation is critical, but depends on trust, which can be ruined if you do something for someone when they could do it on their own–so it takes trust to shift power.

The dialogue had been flowing dynamically for an hour or so when Janine asked, during a pause, “Did we get away from where you want it to go?” She was worried we hadn’t referred back to the text in some time. Internally I answered her with an emphatic “NO!”. We had started deep and gone deeper throughout, making new connections with each other along the way. Even so, I thought it would be interesting to look at the text again. When we did, we saw that our conversation paralleled the story uncannily, and had throughout explored the same theme of “shifting power”.

To me, the process had been a rewarding one, but what did the others think? These were some of their observations:

“It is much easier to read a text on school change in narrative, rather than purely explanatory, form. It is more authentic, and therefore more meaningful. The story shows how change evolves in true time.”

“The strategies side-bars in the book were helpful. They drove home the points made by the story, illuminated the lesson or strategy to be used.”

“The story form illustrates the reflective practice of teaching. It is a true model that is easier to digest and understand than informational texts.”

“It was important that the text was appropriate to our school, and spoke to the next steps we need to take, considering the socio-cultural background of the students and staff here.”

All of this was a terrific affirmation of the premise of the book: that schools could teach each other powerfully through stories of their successful communal journeys. This being the first “reviews” of its usefulness, I was very happy indeed.

But we had begun the seminar with the bottom-line inquiry question, “Is it worth the time of busy educators to stop, read and explore this through stories?”

This was the cause of my wet armpits as I waited for Janine’s answer. Finally, after what seemed an eternity of deliberation to me, she said, “On a professional and personal level…yes.” With that sentence I relaxed.

Janine elaborated, “…because we don’t have enough time to explore our reactions to texts and hear from each other. We expect students to read texts but don’t take time out ourselves. If as administrators we’re not modeling it for our teachers, how can we expect it to trickle down to our classrooms?”

When Janine had first entered the conference room for the seminar, she was clearly shaken by an event that had just taken place in her office. She refused, however, to postpone the seminar. Her final evaluative comment on reading the story together was therefore the most affirmative to me: “Sitting quietly allows me to process.”

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