By Sue Wenger, Lucy Tyson and Mike Hilbert, Shaping Your Life Facilitators
Imagine life without stories. It’s hard to do. There would be no chapter books with broken spines from being read over and over again. Never would we know the triumph or agony on stage and screen that bring us to tears. And how would we comfort our little ones if we couldn’t say, “You know, when I was about your age…” ? Storytelling is a uniquely human activity. It entertains, builds connections, deepens understanding, and stands the test of time. In the Shaping Your Life Program, we have been trying to incorporate storytelling into some of what we do.
On Thursdays, we primarily focus on the humanities but we also spend time developing life skills that will serve the 15-18-year-old group members as they prepare for adulthood. Recently we had the teens write resumes that they can use as they apply for paid work, internships, and volunteer opportunities. We also practiced writing cover letters to accompany their resumes. Around the time of our cover letter drafting, NPR published an interesting article that suggested doing away with the traditional letter that opens with, “Dear Sir or Madam…I am writing to apply for ___ job.” The authors of the article were the folks who would be reading all of the incoming letters for a very popular internship at NPR. They talked about how dreadfully boring those formulaic, traditional letters can be. They made a compelling argument for telling a story instead. They ask the questions: Why start the letter saying that you are applying for a job? Doesn't the fact that you’ve included your resume show your intent? They assert that telling the story of what drives your interest, what experiences prepare you for the opportunity, and what makes their organization the best fit for you, is the best way to stand out from the crowd. Following their advice, we tried it out. As Facilitators, we saw a lot more interest and creativity from the young people as they crafted these stories. The exercise allowed one young person to relive the joy of learning to sail and caused her to rethink her summertime job aspirations to include going after a job in the marina teaching children to sail instead of a job on the boardwalk.
Another way that we have tried to incorporate storytelling is in the Symposium. As part of preparing to graduate from OC, senior members of the group spend months researching a topic of their choice, writing papers, and preparing a TED talk-like presentation for the OC community. The youth sometimes have a hard time making the transition from the research paper to the presentation. It can be tempting to turn one’s paper into a slide show, taking word-for-word portions of the paper and turning them into text-heavy slides. We try different ways of explaining how the presentation is not the paper, not a paraphrase; it is a reimagining of their research. This year we tried to encourage the young people to think of their presentation as story-telling. We suggested that they think of their presentation as the story of what drew them to the topic, the account of the journey of their research, the conflict of their central question, and the conclusions that they came to. The assumption is that if they tell a compelling story, the audience is bound to enjoy it and learn from it.
One of the ways that we incorporated the idea of storytelling on Tuesdays (math and science focus) was to consider a couple of questions from the What if? book by Randall Munroe. We gave the youth the option of pondering and answering one of two questions found in the book. The first was, “How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of the deepest spot in the ocean?” The second was, “How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York?” Questions such as these, hypothetical and absurd, generate great excitement precisely because they are so hypothetical and absurd. They free the young person to think outside of the box about how they want to approach answering the question with no concern if they are getting the “right” answer, because there is no “right” answer—the situation never has, nor ever will, exist. This exercise allows each teen to tell a story, the story of their logic and problem solving. Although a “right” answer might not exist per se, the youth come to value the application of sound reasoning and collaboration with others, their ultimate goal being to convince fellow group members in the end that their final calculation has the ring of legitimacy. Your math story becomes your argument.
To begin the activity, we, as Facilitators, asked them to write down what information they think they would need in order to answer the question. This was to be the beginning of their story, the basis for their line of reasoning. Second, they were to write down where they would go to find out this information. This exercise was to help cement the legitimacy of their reasoning. Are the facts and figures that they are citing ones that can be trusted? Interestingly, we noticed that, at times, different youth were actually using the same sites, even when their storylines differed a bit from one another. Then, armed with this background, they went about calculating and analyzing as they saw fit. This often proved both exhilarating and challenging at the same time. It was exhilarating, because it was fun to think through all of the factors that would play into their calculations, but it was also challenging because sometimes, in their excitement, they would not keep up with the documentation necessary for them to follow their reasoning later in a step-by-step fashion. As a result, sometimes their formulas, labels, and units of measure would get detached from the numbers or would not be included at all. The youth would often recognize this in hindsight when it came time to explain their thinking on the board to their peers. “How did I get from A to Z?” They learned that telling a story with numbers requires the same level of precision and attention to detail as it would if they were writing a story in words.
Another approach to learning how to tell a story is to learn how others have told stories from the past to the present and see how thinking has developed over time. This has been the approach in the Molecular Biology Choice offered this spring, a ten-week introduction to DNA, its structure and biochemistry, and its applications in medicine, criminal justice, evolution, and ethics. To begin the unit, the youth read two original journal articles from 1953 written by the Nobel Prize-winning “fathers of DNA,” James Watson and Francis Crick. For me (Sue), seeing the level of interest and excitement that this generated in the youth was really exhilarating for me. In the articles, Watson and Crick laid out the first coherent storyline for the structure and replication of DNA. Their heavy reliance on others’ experiments in building their model highlighted the collaborative nature of science and how research is an unending story line where scientists add bits and pieces to the narrative. With highlighters and ballpoint pens in hand, the youth interacted with the material readily, formulating innumerable questions about what Watson and Crick were saying and wanting to know more and more about the experiments and biochemistry underlying their assumptions. Even though this particular part of the story was over 60 years old, the youth saw it with fresh eyes in a way that could never be gained from a textbook. From that start, we then continued the storyline of discoveries related to DNA and its functioning until we arrived at the present day with all of the fascinating storylines that now captivate and challenge the scientific community, ethical watchdogs, and all of us at large. How is DNA used to track and thwart disease epidemics? How can DNA be used to solve a murder mystery? How can we trace our ancestral line using DNA? And where must ethical boundaries be drawn concerning human DNA editing? The storyline took on even greater real-world relevance when the group received a visit from Josh Tyson (OC Dad and Lucy’s husband), a DNA analyst for the Philadelphia police who works with DNA on a daily basis at the Philadelphia Forensic Science Bureau.
So through crafting their own mathematical and reasoning stories using the “What if?” prompts and following the story of the discovery of DNA, in addition to incorporating storytelling in more untraditional settings like cover letters and research papers, the SYL youth were able to expand their horizons of storytelling this year.