Friday, March 26, 2021

Saving the Heart of a School Year With the Power of Story


On March 13th of last year, I said “so long for now” to my transitional kindergarteners/kindergarteners in Los Angeles.  It was supposed to be for two weeks, but doubt tugged at the edges of my mind.  I stayed late that day and collected everything that meant anything to me and packed it into my car.  I really wasn’t sure when we were coming back.

Even the thought of two weeks online without any preparation or direction was daunting.  How would I preserve the heart of my little community that we had worked so hard to nurture? 

My wide-eyed, five-year-olds had spent six months  learning to connect, communicate, and create together.  Stories kept them bound to each other. Braided together by three-quarters of a year,  they had learned that their stories were valuable and listening to each other’s stories was equally so.  We had created an artery from which those stories flowed straight to the heart of our class, keeping us alive and nourished.

The expectations for teachers on that first Monday of virtual class, March 16, 2020 were high but undefined, ambiguous, and undetermined. There was no roadmap. No guideposts. No precedence that we knew of (a year later it turns out that this is not the first time in history that schools were shuttered because of a pandemic.)  I didn’t even have the proper technology to switch to virtual teaching. 

But, when it comes to children, it’s often very simple.  As long as you speak to their hearts and can hear their hearts beat back,  you can’t go wrong.  Those last three months were painful for all of us. The  simple answer at the time was to hold onto storytelling.  It was our life raft that we rode to the other side.

I began the new school year in August with the same intent, creating a new artery with a different set of young storytellers.  Beginning with four and five-year-olds who had never been in formal school was like the cliché, “building the plane while flying it.” 

I did not have the advantage of beginning with a group of students in-person and finishing up online.  This was a whole new frontier. How could I bring this group together and create cohesion amongst young children who were still at the beginning of their development in terms of social skills? Most importantly, could I save the school year with the power of story? Could we build that artery like I had the year before? I was unsure.

I am a big believer in the power of story and so my lack of direction led me to my most basic core value as both a teacher and an author.  Stories are the only thing we leave behind when our time on this earth has been completed.  The stories other people tell about us and the life we led is our only true legacy after we are long gone.  Learning to tell our stories and to recognize the stories of others is the essence of humanity.

Stories define us and dare us to dream.  They simultaneously connect us to each other and allow us to shine individually as we explore our own narratives.  Stories are perhaps the most powerful thing that humans create.  They are what set us apart from other species.  They are how we communicate to each other, to our young, and across generations and centuries.  They defy time and space.

 I believe that the art of storytelling is the most basic skill that children need.  Most academic subjects flow from story and narrative. And so, I travelled deep down to the memory of the lifeblood that flowed through that artery that  I had created the year before under much different circumstances. When faced with the dilemma of what I would teach my young students  virtually, my path led me back to keeping our humanity.  Preserving our humanity with stories that flowed through the artery would sustain us and learning lessons that reached beyond, writing, and arithmetic would save the heart of our education. 

The media says that we have lost a year of learning,  but I disagree.    

The students in my class this year have learned to tell their stories to each other. We have not lost.  We have gained. I believe we have gained  back our heart in education. I believe we have  preserved our humanity. What really makes us human? Standards and tests? Data and criteria? Or stories that create a rich tapestry of existence.

 My students paused and observed things around them that they would never have noticed in the hustle and bustle of their typical lives. Our community has been able to notice the details of their personal stories that they usually don’t have time for, as life rushes by.  More importantly, we have grown our relationships and have created rich narratives.  

We have not lost. Perhaps we have shed the things that have cluttered the “being” part of human being and travelled down to our true heart where stories keep us alive and will for generations to come . . . and then some.

Stories are the lifeblood that flow through the artery. They feed the heart of education which is our humanity. Isn’t that the true purpose of education?  I’d like to think so.

Posted by Zeena M. Pliska

For more information about my picture books and teaching experiences click

If the videos don't play for you above.  You can click on them below.

And if the picture book trailer for Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story from my previous post didn't play, you can click on the link below.

Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story 

Written by Zeena M. Pliska and illustrated by Fiona Halliday

Published by Page Street Kids

Video created by  Kyle Ragsdale


Carmela Martino said...

Zeena, what a marvelous post! Thank you for sharing:
"We had created an artery from which those stories flowed straight to the heart of our class, keeping us alive and nourished."
I'm so glad you were able to repeat that process this school year too. Your experience gives me hope during this stressful time.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Thank you for showing us the very heart of your teaching, Zeena. Beautifully written.

Linda Mitchell said...

Amen and amen. I love how much your beliefs in this post support what I also feel. The only way to lead learners to curiosity is through storytelling and creativity. Thank you for building up these little ones.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

I love your thoughts about the power of stories and how they connect us. Valerie Bolling introduced me to Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story after she saw monarchs mentioned in my Twitter profile. What a small world--I'm happy to see you here!

zeena said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments! They warm my heart.