Conference paper no. K1 Lives in School: The Interwoven Lives of Children and Teachers Presented by Jean Clandinin Lives in School: The Interwoven Lives of Children and Teachers1


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Lives in School: The Interwoven Lives of Children and Teachers

Presented by
Jean Clandinin

Lives in School: The Interwoven Lives of Children and Teachers1
Dr. Jean Clandinin

Thomas King, a professor of English at the University of Guelph in Canada, whose father was Cherokee and whose mother was Greek, wrote in his book The Truth about Stories that “once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world. So you have to be careful with the stories that you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.” (King, 2003, p. 10)

In what follows I tell you two stories. The two stories of curriculum making are ones that researchers, Janice Huber, Shaun Murphy, Marni Pearce, Anne Murray-Orr, Vera Caine, Marilyn Huber, Pam Steeves and I tell out of our research over several years in two Canadian multicultural urban schools. They are partial stories, as all stories are partial, and they have been both carefully composed and selected. They say as much about me and the other researchers as they do about the children and the teachers. I tell them here in order to say something about curriculum making on two school landscapes, landscapes increasingly structured by plotlines focused on achievement testing. In telling them, I make a case for why it is important to attend to lives in school.

The first story is composed around the curriculum experiences of a child Janice Huber and I worked with in a grade 3/4 multicultural inner city classroom at City Heights School a few years ago. We called the child Lia. Lia was a new immigrant from Somalia to Canada; Emily is a teacher we know well. Janice and I worked in the classroom on a part time basis over more than one school year. This story of curriculum making is told in midyear, looking temporally back to the start of the school year.

We’re gathered in the cozy corner on this cold January afternoon. It is close to the end of the day and we’ve gathered to share literature. Children work each day with literature, gathering with one another in spaces throughout the room and into the hallway, sharing books and talking about their connections with the stories. Today it’s Lia’s turn to share and she pulls out Whoever You Are (Fox, 1997) to read a few pages of it to her classmates. We smile as we watch for this is a book Lia has shared before, several times. Lia often talked about liking this book because it included “more than white people.” We think back to that early September morning when the children were gathered in the cozy corner. Emily, the teacher, gathered the children as part of a classroom rhythm during which she shared a piece of literature as an entry point and invitation for the children to write, draw, and paint about their similarities and differences. It was early in the year and Emily wanted the children to find ways to think about who they were in relation to other children in their classroom. She chose a colourful children’s book, Whoever You Are. Emily had chosen this book as a way to begin the year making a space for the children to talk about who they were. On that September morning we had no idea that this book would become so important to the curriculum that Lia was making in this multicultural classroom. (Interim research text, January, 2000)

I ask you to hold that story in your mind as I tell you a second story. The second story comes from more recent work in another urban multicultural school, Ravine Elementary School, where a group of researchers, including me, worked with some children, parents, teachers and school administrators for almost two years. The following story involves the work of Vera Caine and her work alongside Kristi and 14 boys in a grade 3-4 learning strategies special education class.

As Vera entered into the classroom, Kristi was in the midst of a provincially mandated social studies curriculum unit on community. Vera was trying out her ideas about a visual narrative inquiry methodology (Caine, 2002) and wanted to work in a collaborative way with the boys as they composed field texts of their experiences together. Those field texts were photographs and the boys’ accounts of those photographs. She gave each child a camera and asked them to take photographs of community in their lives. They took the cameras with them for a couple of weeks. When the children returned their cameras and film, Vera sent the film out to be developed.
I had a particular interest in Vera’s and the children’s visual narrative inquiry and often stopped down to talk with Kristi, Vera, and the children in the classroom when Vera was in the school. As soon as I knew the children’s photographs were back from the developers, I stopped down to speak with Kristi and to see the children’s photographs. I asked to see Josh’s. As Kristi searched for the photographs she told me she thought Josh had “not understood the task. He must just have taken pictures of the first things he saw.” I understood Kristi’s comment to mean that Josh misunderstood that he was to take photographs of community. Kristi understood community in the way it was outlined in the provincial curriculum guide, that is, as good and services, as resources, as dependence and interdependence. As Kristi flipped through all the children’s photographs we looked quickly at photographs of schools, churches, supermarkets, gas stations, and hospitals. Kristi spoke of how the children who took these photographs understood the photography assignment as well as the concept of community. Josh, she thought, did not.

Kristi located Josh’s photographs and Kristi and I looked at them together. As Kristi and I flipped through Josh’s photographs, I noticed two in particular. One pictured three small smiling children of Aboriginal heritage on a sofa. I thought the children were about two years old and younger; they were sitting in a row in what was clearly a posed picture. The second photograph was of three guitars carefully positioned leaning against the same sofa. The photograph was carefully composed. Both photographs appeared to me to be striking examples of photography. I felt the sense of aesthetic composition and care that went into each photograph design. Later, after Vera talked with each boy, I asked her what Josh said about the two photographs. Vera said he described the three children on the sofa as his younger sister and her two small cousins. Sometimes his mother’s sister comes over and the three children play together. He spoke of the three guitars as being a community because “one belongs to my dad, one to my uncle, and one is mine, and sometimes we play together.” (Interim research text, November, 2002)

Stories told from the midst
This work is positioned within a tradition of curriculum studies grounded in John Dewey’s (1938) ideas of experience and Joseph Schwab’s (1969) ideas of curriculum commonplaces. Curriculum commonplaces, teacher, subject matter, milieu, and learner, “are a set of factors or determinants that occur in statements about the aims, content and methods of the curriculum. Taken as a whole they serve to bound the set of statements identified as being curricular” (Connelly and Clandinin, 1988, p. 84). In the early work in which I was involved (Clandinin and Connelly, 1992), the starting point for our studies was the teacher and the expression of each teacher’s personal practical knowledge in his/her classroom practice. Later we (Clandinin and Connelly, 1995) shifted our attention to the professional knowledge landscape in order to attend to the social, cultural and institutional contexts of schools and we attended with our starting points as both teacher and milieu. We worked from:

a Deweyan view of the curriculum from a teacher’s vantage point (Clandinin, 1986; Connelly & Clandinin, 1988). Dewey’s (1938) notion of ‘situation’ and ‘experience’ enabled us to imagine the teacher not so much as a maker of curriculum but as a part of it and to imagine a place for contexts, culture (Dewey’s notion of interaction), and temporality (both past and future contained in Dewey’s notion ‘continuity’). (Clandinin & Connelly, 1992, p. 365)

We suggested that curriculum “might be viewed as an account of teachers’ and children’s lives together in schools and classrooms . . . [In this view of curriculum making] the teacher is seen as an integral part of the curricular process … in which teacher, learners, subject matter and milieu are in dynamic interaction” (1992, p. 392). At that time, we drew attention to the centrality of lives in the negotiation of curriculum making and wrote of curriculum “ as a course of life” (p. 393).

It was not until more recent work, however, that I and others began to attend more multiperspectivally, trying to attend to the interaction of the commonplaces of particular children and teachers’ lives within particular milieux or contexts. By entering into relationships with particular children and teachers, we wanted to understand curriculum as a course of life as lives were being lived. From within these relationships, we began to understand how curriculum could be seen as a curriculum of lives, teachers’ lives and children’s lives. Thinking in this way, of course, made the composition of life identities, what we understand narratively as stories to live by (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999), central in the process of curriculum making. The stories of Lia and Josh came out of this research work.
Curriculum making in Lia’s story
Returning to the story of Lia and the book Whoever You Are, we see the negotiation of a curriculum of Lia’s life. We see the rhythm of a classroom life in which shared reading, a time when children shifted from quiet, on their own reading to sitting side by side or against one another in groups to read, was part of the daily rhythm. The choice of what was read in shared reading often spilled over from the quiet reading as some children brought those books to the small group space of shared reading.

After Emily introduced the book Whoever You Are, Lia had an opportunity to read and discuss that book multiple times over the course of the year. Shared reading eventually flowed into a time when the whole class gathered to celebrate the literature they read, to talk about ideas, to read pages loved because of language, ideas, or images, to sing, and to act out favourite parts of text. Even in January, Lia was continuing to share parts of Whoever You Are when the class celebrated literature.

The spaces Emily made through literature, gatherings, and conversations enabled the beginning of a negotiation of Lia’s life in her curriculum making. As Lia talked about the story book there was a sense of a meeting of her life stories with the lives of the characters. It included, she said, “more than white people.” In her continued returnings, Lia seemed to be awakening to how the classroom presence and honoring of a book that contained characters like her was threaded into possible new tellings of who she was. As she carried this book with her and frequently shared it, she engaged in possible experimentations with who she was. She was able to see children who physically resembled her; to see that children had similarities and were worthy of love, and was able to see what was possible in this new country in which she found herself. As we worked alongside Lia over a school year, we began to see how these experimentations became new tellings of her stories to live by, her unfolding identity. We could say her identity and the in-classroom curriculum making were negotiated as her life stories bumped against the lived and told stories of her teacher.
When we worked with Lia and her teacher we attended mostly to what happened on the in-classroom place. However we realized teacher’s stories to live by were nested within stories of school and school stories and when we moved to the second school, Ravine Elementary where we came to know Josh, we negotiated permission to work both on in-classroom and out-of-classroom places in order to understand how the out-of-classroom places, the school milieu, were shaping children’s and teachers’ curriculum making and, in that way, their identities, their lives.
Curriculum making in Josh’s story

We see in Josh’s photographs a sense of how his story to live by of community is one threaded around plotlines of relationships, extended families and of seeing himself and all people as related. When asked by Vera to work within a space to hear his and the other children’s stories of community, Josh whole-heartedly entered that space, setting aside what he had been taught in the mandated curriculum, filling it with stories of his life, stories of his dad, his uncle, his cousins, his younger sister, his aunt, his home, all as expressions of his knowing of community. The space Vera and Josh negotiated allowed Josh to feel safe to make visible a competing story of community, one that he lives by.

Josh’s story bumped against his teacher’s story and the mandated curriculum and created a tension as she dismissed his work as an expression of his not understanding the task nor the concept of community. It was Vera, working alongside the children, who stayed with the visual narrative inquiry and with negotiating a curriculum of lives. She pushed to have the children compose books in which the photographs were mounted and in which they told their stories. After looking at the photographs and recognizing my own felt tensions that because Josh’s photographs fell outside the acceptable outcome for the mandated curriculum they might not be valued, I encouraged Jeannette, the school principal, to become involved. I told Jeannette I saw Josh’s photographs as an important embodied expression of his story of community, a story that needed to find a place in the classroom story. Jeannette, the school principal, supported Vera in interrupting the mandated dominant story of community as well as the story of school in which boys in a learning strategies classroom have difficulty expressing themselves in written forms. Without this kind of support, I wonder if Josh’s story to live by, a competing story to the mandated curriculum, would have been expressed. I also wonder if without this kind of support, his story might have been turned into a conflicting story and stopped.

What is not in the story as I first told it was that some weeks later at a school wide open house for children, parents, and visitors, Kristi displayed the children visual narrative books of community. It was one of only a few displays of academic work set amidst penny carnival stands, silent auctions, and bake sale items. The work was proudly displayed as the work of the boys in the learning strategies classroom. As I wandered through the carnival, chatting with teachers and parents and members of the research group, three other staff members independently approached me and told me to go and look at the amazing visual narrative books created by the boys in the learning strategies classroom. In that moment, I realized that the story of who the boys were in the school context had been interrupted, at least for that time.

Reflecting on tensions
Our research group reflected on the place of tension in the negotiation of a curriculum of lives. In the first story with Lia as a central character, the focus is mainly on the negotiation of lives between Emily, the teacher, and Lia. At least in this story there is little sense of tension between the child’s life and the mandated curriculum. In the story with Josh as a central character, there is tension. Working alongside Kristi, Vera, and Josh, the tension was recognized and Jeannette worked to keep the space open for negotiating the curriculum of Josh’s life. Jeannette supported the negotiation of a curriculum of lives and was comfortable with attending to tension and the ways it interrupted the mandated curriculum and the story of school of boys in a learning strategies classroom.
Why listen to stories? Why stories?
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. “I will tell you something about stories,” the Laguna storyteller Leslie Silko reminds us, “They aren’t just entertainment/Don’t be fooled/They are all we have, you see/All we have to fight off/Illness and death. You don’t have anything/ If you don’t have the stories.” (King, 2003, p. 92)

Jerome Bruner writes that “if you look at how people actually live their lives, they do a lot of things that prevent their seeing the narrative structures that characterize their lives. Mostly, they don’t look, don’t pause to look.” (Bruner, 2002, p. 8) Bruner would, perhaps, respond to Silko by saying that not only do we not have the stories, we are not in the habit of even trying to learn the stories by attending to our own lives in the living and telling. This is one reason we give for engaging with others in narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) so that we can, by slowing down lives, pause and look to see the narrative structures that characterize ours’ and others’ lives.

King quotes the Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri as saying
In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted-knowingly or unknowingly-in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives. (King, 2003, p.153)
All three writers, from diverse contexts, echo my own thoughts about why it is so important to attend to children’s and teachers’ stories. Perhaps in listening and attending to children’s stories, as they live with teachers in schools, we can create conditions that allow children to compose other stories of themselves, to change the stories they live by. Perhaps in listening and attending to teachers’ stories, we can create conditions that allow us to give them back their stories and perhaps help them see the social, cultural, and institutional stories they, and we, work within and that shape all of us. And perhaps we can begin to work together to change those social, cultural and institutional narratives.

King, Silko, Bruner, Okri and others help me think about the why of my work. Why do I think hearing and listening and attending to the tensions as children’s and teachers’ stories rub up against each other and against school stories and stories of school is important? What can we learn about curriculum making? What can we learn about negotiating a curriculum of lives by living alongside and listening in all the ways we listen to the stories of teachers and children as they live their lives nested within school stories and stories of school, subject matter stories and stories of subject matter?

Seeing Big, Seeing Small

Maxine Greene in Releasing the Imagination (1995) captured our imagination about how we might give an account of our work when she wrote of seeing small and seeing big. She wrote,

To see things or people small, one chooses to see from a detached point of view, to watch behaviours from the perspective of a system, to be concerned with trends and tendencies rather than the intentionality and concreteness of everyday life. To see things or people big, one must resist viewing other human beings as mere objects or chess pieces and view them in their integrity and particularity instead. One must see from the point of view of the participant in the midst of what is happening if one is to be privy to the plans people make, the initiatives they take, the uncertainties they face.

When applied to schooling, the vision that sees things big brings us in close contact with details and with particularities that cannot be reduced to statistics or even to the measurable. (Greene, 1995, p. 10)

When we see small, we see a phenomenon such as schooling with patterns or trends, as Greene suggested, through the “lenses of a system—a vantage point of power or existing ideologies” (p. 11). This system view is primarily a technical view. While seeing small allows us to see behaviours from the perspective of systems, it does not allow us to see people in their integrity and particularity. Of course, Greene does not speak of seeing big or seeing small narratively. As I played with Greene’s ideas, I realized we could see small narratively or we could see big narratively.

The stories I have told of curriculum making are, in one way, about seeing big narratively, about seeing things and people big in narrative terms. However, I think it is important that I do not reject seeing small. Greene (1995) challenged us to “learn how to move back and forth, to comprehend the domains of policy and long-term planning while also attending to particular children, situation-specific undertakings, the unmeasurable, and the unique” (p. 11). This time of blurred boundaries, of the need to attend to the particulars of unfolding lives but also to the larger social, cultural and institutional plotlines, is a time to learn to move back and forth from seeing small narratively-- from the perspective of systems, to seeing big narratively---from the perspective of the particular lives of children like Lia and Josh, of teachers like Emily and Kristi, of administrators like Jeannette and researchers such as ourselves.

I could argue that in each storied moment in the lives of Lia and Josh, Emily and Kristi, we can see enacted the “small” perspective of the system. Indeed, I often take this approach to try to see small within the moment of the big, to see the institutional, cultural, social within the lives of people.
I want to take a slightly different approach here, the one Maxine Greene suggests and one that allows me to speak to the trends and patterns around school leaving rates, achievement test scores and truancy patterns, the stuff of seeing small, without losing sight of seeing big, of keeping what I said earlier about curriculum making as the negotiation of the particular lives of children and teachers in mind. It is in this shifting back and forth that we can begin to understand how boundaries are blurred, indeed how boundaries need to be blurred, if we are to make sense of schools and schooling in these times of reform.
I want to bring Thomas King’s words back into the discussion as he reminds me to move away from dichotomies, even the dichotomy of seeing big and seeing small. He writes,
You’ll recognize this pairing as a dichotomy, the elemental structure of Western society. And cranky old Jacques Derrida notwithstanding, we do love our dichotomies. Rich/poor, white/black, strong/weak, right/wrong, culture/nature, male/female, written/oral, civilized/barbaric, success/failure, individual/communal. We trust easy oppositions. We are suspicious of complexities, distrustful of contradictions, fearful of enigmas. (King, 2003, p. 25)
Even the dichotomy of seeing big and seeing small is an easy opposition. Stories are a way of staying open to those complexities, those contradictions, those enigmas. Stories are a way of blurring boundaries.

Studying other research on seeing small

John Smyth came home to the University of Alberta when we were in the midst of engaging in the work with Josh, Kristi, Jeannette and other children and teachers at Ravine Elementary. He spoke of his work on the Australian patterns and trends around students’ school completion (Smyth et al, 2004). He spoke at a time when Canada and particularly Alberta, the province where I live and where Ravine Elementary is located, was deep into implementing more and more achievement testing. The dominant narrative of measuring school success through achievement testing and using testing to control and monitor the mandated curriculum was becoming increasingly entrenched. The government and many school districts were claiming high standards and rising test scores. The institutional narrative that was not getting much play in Alberta at the time, except in teachers’ and principals’ stories I and other members of the research team were hearing, was of the rapidly rising school dropout rate. John’s work, drawing on the work of American researcher Michelle Fine and others, made us wonder about what was happening in Canada, particularly in Alberta. As we placed the teachers’ and principals’ stories we were hearing within the Canadian statistics on seeing small, we realized the patterns in Canada were similar to the Australian patterns John was noting. In Alberta, the province where provincially mandated achievement testing has held sway for the longest period of time, has, in the Canadian context, the highest achievement test scores and the highest school-leaving rate. Roughly one out of three Alberta students who begin high school do not complete high school in three years. This does not include those students who drop out in junior high school.

Smyth et al (2004) in their studies of high school leavers and high school stayers shifted between seeing big and seeing small as they studied the patterns and trends and also conducted interviews with 209 youth, some school leavers and some school stayers. They wrote of the need to “interrupt stereotypes of early school leavers” (p. 15) because the stereotypes were problematic as they “homogenize” (p 16) those who leave school early, “naturalize” (p. 16) early school leaving as “just the way things are” (p. 16) and “rationalize school leaving, relying on moral boundaries of deservedness that threads research and policies” (Fine as cited in Smyth et al 2004, p. 16).
Findings from our Canadian statistics are remarkably consistent with Smyth et al’s findings. Youth in Canada are also dropping out, drifting off, and being excluded at a rising rate.
Seeing big in our study
We did not work with high-school aged youth. We worked with a small number of children who ranged in age from 6 to 13, with a few teachers, administrators, and parents in two urban elementary schools over a period of several years. Yet, as we shifted our lenses between seeing small narratively and seeing big narratively, we began to see how the plotlines in the children’s and teachers’ negotiation of a curriculum of lives became more sharply illuminated.

For example, we wonder if Josh has already drifted off, finding it difficult to compose a life that makes sense within a dominant story of curriculum that excludes him. Already positioned as an uncertain character in the story of school, he may have already sensed that he did not fit the possible plotlines for those characters named “good” students. And what of Lia who searched for books and other materials in which she could find possible representations of who she might be. Finding such a book as Whoever you are and a teacher who was open to these possible constructions of who she was, she holds onto the space. However, we wonder if she too will eventually feel excluded by the story of school and whether she too might drift off.

We realize, of course, that there is no way of predicting how the lives of these two children and the other children we came to know at City Heights School and Ravine Elementary School will move forward into the future. As Huber wrote of her own identity making, she noted “the multiplicity of relational positioning, shaped by temporal horizons, continues to unfold” (2000, p. 124). We cannot predict how multiple contexts, in and out of school, and multiple positionings within these multiple contexts will continue to shape and be shaped by each of the children we came to know as stories to live by in the midst at these schools.

However, reading the words of youth in Smyth et al’s (2004) book filled our minds with the uncertainty and necessary acknowledgement of not knowing who these children were becoming. While we realized that “describing dropouts as helpless, trouble making, incipient welfare recipients, or delinquents shifts attention away from the educational institutions from which these youth flee” (Fine and Rosenberg, 1983, p. 257), we also realized it is not enough to just attend to the children’s stories in these stories of curriculum making. We also needed to attend to teachers, administrators, parents and others’ stories to live by that are part of the ongoing negotiation of curriculum making. In this work on curriculum making as the negotiation of lives, of identity making, we wanted to see big because we wanted to attend to individual lives, lives in motions. We also wanted to attend to the intersections of diverse lives of those positioned differently on school landscapes, the spaces where lives bumped against each other creating tensions. In this study of curriculum making, we needed to attend to the bumping places but, thinking narratively about the experienced curriculum, we also needed to attend to each life that was part of creating a particular bump. We took a multiperspectival approach in our seeing big. We attended to the stories of both children and teachers and the institutional story that shaped both. This complex interplay of stories—children’s stories, stories of children, teachers’ stories, stories of teachers, school stories, stories of school, families’ stories, stories of families—are always moving, changing, shifting as one story calls forth an expression of someone’s knowing that subsequently calls forth another’s and so on.

Moving between seeing small and seeing big/blurring the boundaries
Greene (1995) wrote about shifting between seeing small and seeing big as “granting a usefulness to the disinterest of seeing things small at the same time that it opens to and validates the passion for seeing things close up and large. For this passion is the doorway for imagination; here is the possibility of looking at things as if they could be otherwise... Looking at things large is what moves us on to reform”. (p. 16)

When I began, I said I wanted to tell you these stories of curriculum making because I wanted to tell you something about what we learned about curriculum making as teachers work with children of diversity in our schools where the dominant plotline is increasingly focused on achievement testing. In the U. S. and increasingly so in Canada, particularly in Alberta, the province where I live, our schools are being shaped by reform plotlines of high stakes achievement testing. Policies and practices in the U.S. are designed to set in place strict outcomes, powerful surveillance and monitoring mechanisms and punitive measures if outcomes are not met. While in Canada we are not yet at a place where such surveillance and monitoring are in place to try to correct what are seen as problems identified by seeing small through the system lenses used in the U.S., we do see some policies and practices that suggest a similar “categorizing and stigmatizing [of] young people, their lifestyles and their families as the ‘problem’ (Fine as cited in Smyth et al, 2004, p. 9). Attendance is more closely monitored using technological means. Individual student truancy that reaches certain levels is often dealt with first by the school principal and, if deemed serious enough, by attendance boards. Schools with lower than expected or falling achievement test scores are more closely watched with requisite monitoring strategies put in place. Superintendents and consultants are brought in to monitor school performance when achievement scores fall or stay the same, that is, do not rise. Increasingly teachers’ professional growth plans are checked with reference to government approved lists of knowledge, skills and attitudes. We wondered if we, too, would soon notice what Ancess (2003) has noticed in American schools, that is, “The current score-driven high stakes standardized test movement where only scores matter, further undermines intellectual development. Instead of more powerful teaching for in-depth understanding which high standards should imply, all test preparation curriculum prevails” (p. 2). In American schools, “teachers in high-stakes testing states were more likely than those in other states to report that the curriculum is distorted by tests…[teachers said] they teach in ways that contradict their idea of ‘sound instructional practice’” (Darling-Hammond & Rustique-Forrester, 2005, p. 299)

It is important to stop for a moment to think about what was happening in schools before this latest reform push. I do not wish to imply that before these new high stakes achievement testing reforms were put in place that there were no problems. There were problems. Children and youth were already leaving schools. A curriculum of lives may have been being negotiated but for many children and teachers it was not a curriculum that was attentive to their lives. I feel, however, that the latest reform movements move teachers and schools even further away from the possibility of negotiating a curriculum of lives, a curriculum attentive to the multiple increasingly diverse lives of those who live in schools. I do not think this increased focus on testing, monitoring, and control will have the desired impact to allow us, as Greene (1995) suggested, a “doorway for imagination…the possibility of looking at things as if they could be otherwise” (p. 16).
Imagining a counterstory

Greene (1995) calls us to use our passion for change as a doorway for imagining how things could be otherwise. As I consider Greene’s metaphor of a doorway for imagining, I draw on Sarbin’s notion of imaginings as “storied constructions” or “emplotted narratives that carry implications of causality and duration” (2004, p.11). For Sarbin, imagining is a series of “narratively constructed events” (p. 11) that serve to “liberate human beings from the constraints of the immediate environment” (p. 11) How might we both attend to the seeing big of our work with the children, teachers, families and administrators at schools like Ravine Elementary and City Heights School as well as to the seeing small that led to school reform focused on managing, controlling, and monitoring schools and achievement testing to help us learn more about curriculum as the negotiation of lives, the negotiation of identities. How can we use both seeing big and seeing small to imagine a counterstory that will better enable curriculum making as the more thoughtful negotiation of lives?

Lindemann Nelson (1995) writes of counterstories constructed against the grain of the taken for granted institutional narrative. Counterstories are narratives designed to subvert, to shift and to change. Lindemann Nelson defined a counterstory as “a story that contributes to the moral self-definition of its teller by undermining a dominant story, undoing it and retelling it in such a way as to invite new interpretations and conclusions” (p. 23). Counterstories are, in some ways, imagined reform narratives. They are narratives composed to shift the taken-for-granted institutional narratives. And so, in our work, we are beginning a storied construction by drawing together what we know to compose a counterstory, a story of school composed around the plotline of negotiating a curriculum of lives, a curriculum attentive to the lives of the teachers, children, families, and administrators who live on particular school landscapes at particular times.
Imagine, as we do, that each of the teachers, administrators, children and families “come to the landscape living and telling a complex set of interwoven stories of themselves…Their individual stories are shaped by living in a narrative landscape with its own network of stories.” As they “live together in a landscape, each with their own stories in a landscape of stories,” stories of school and school stories begin to emerge that draw from the web of stories. “These stories are rooted temporally as individual stories shift and change in response to changing events and circumstances. Changes in the story of school and school stories ripple through the school and influence the whole web of stories” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1998, pp 160-161).

Further, imagine as we do, that curriculum can be understood as the interaction of four curriculum commonplaces—learner, teacher, subject matter, and milieu (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988). In order to understand the negotiation of a curriculum, we need to attend to each commonplace in relation with the others, in shifting relational ways. To understand teachers, we need to understand each teacher’s personal practical knowledge, his/her embodied, narrative, moral, emotional, and relational knowledge as it is expressed in practice. We need to attend to the different kinds of stories—secret, sacred, and cover stories—as we attend to stories of teachers and teachers’ stories. To understand children, we need to understand children’s knowledge as nested knowledge, nested in the relational knowing between teachers and children (Lyons, 1990; Murphy, 2004). Like their teachers, children also hold and express their knowledge in secret and cover stories and we need to learn to attend to the secret and cover stories that children live in school. Children’s stories and stories of children also shape the negotiation of a curriculum of lives.

We also need to attend to the nested milieus, in-classroom places, out-of-classroom places, out-of-school places, storied places filled with stories of teachers, teacher stories, stories of school, school stories, stories of families, and families’ stories. In other places (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995) we described the out-of-classroom places as shaped by what is funnelled onto the landscape via a metaphoric conduit. We also need to attend to this funnelled-in prescriptive knowledge. And, of course, diverse subject matters are also part of the interaction within a negotiation of a curriculum of lives.
Within this complex fluid mix, lives are what become central. Lives, people’s experiences, who each of us are, and who we are becoming are central. Questions of person-making and world-making become central concerns in this counterstory we are composing. By imagining our counterstory and the place of a curriculum of lives within it, we are drawing attention to the importance of staying wakeful to the experience children and families are living both in and out of schools, to the dreams children hold for their lives, to the dreams families hold for their children’s lives, to the gaps, silences and exclusions shaped in the bumping places of children and families' experiences in schools. The negotiation of a curriculum of lives that stays wakeful in these ways is, then, itself, a kind of living, evolving, shifting counterstory of reform; a counterstory of reform that seeks to engage children like Lia and Josh so that their lives, their knowledge, their capacities and their dreams do not drop out of sight.

The negotiation of a curriculum of lives that continuously seeks to re-form, to re-make the silences, to hear and to learn from children’s secret and cover stories about the tensions they experience as they compose their lives in schools, will, we imagine, be complex, tension-filled, and challenging. It becomes even more complex, tension-filled, and challenging when we also continue to attend to the stories of teachers and administrators.

Lindemann Nelson (1995) points out that counterstories are told:
to resist the authoritarian notion of the ‘sure interpreter’. A counterstory that merely inverts existing orders of dominance and submission, seeking to overthrow a reigning interpreter only to put another in his place, is not as good as a counterstory that forbears. And as a most pernicious consequence of authoritarianism is to flatten out or exaggerate differences among people and so to marginalize them, a counterstory that understand, celebrates, and sometimes argues with those differences is a morally better—as well as a more accurate—story than one that does not. (p. 38)
We wonder how this counterstory can live alongside the existing stories of school, with the existing stories of curriculum making. What will give it staying power, allow it to be a counterstory that is not silenced?

Within the counterstory, children’s and families’ life experiences become the central moving force. The plotline of this imagined counterstory must find ways of engaging those lives in ways that compose stories of school that are respectful, meaningful, and educative for all participants. We realize that what we are imagining requires radical shifts in the story of school but we also realize that too many schools now are not educative places for children, youth, and families nor for their teachers and administrators. We see this in the trends and patterns of school leaving, of truancy, of families seeking home schooling, and of families searching for alternative forms of education. We see it in the high attrition rates as teachers leave teaching. We see it in the tensions emerging for children, families, teachers, and administrators at Ravine Elementary School and City Heights School. We need to imagine negotiating curricula, negotiating reform, so lives can be composed with plotlines that allow students, families, teachers, and administrators to live lives of hope and dignity.

I want to return to Thomas King’s words in this ending piece. He was writing on the topic of ethics when he wrote the following words but he could have been writing about how we think about curriculum making and the difficulties of shifting the story of curriculum making in schools.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be displeased with the ‘environmental ethics’ we have or the ‘business ethics’ or the ‘political ethics’ or any of the myriad of other codes of conduct suggested by our actions. After all, we’ve created them. We’ve created the stories that allow them to exist and flourish. They didn’t come out of nowhere. They didn’t arrive from another planet.

Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.

We could tell ourselves stories about community and co-operation. We do that, you know. From time to time…….So perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps we do have the kind of ethics we imagine we have. Maybe they’re just not steady. Not dependable. Ethics of the moment. Potential ethics. Ethics we can draw on when we feel the need to do so. Ethics that can be wrapped in newspaper and stored in the freezer. Seasonal ethics. Annuals rather than perennials. (King, 2003, p. 164)

Maybe for those of us wanting to tell a different story of curriculum making, one that is more about negotiation, respect and openness to multiple voices, we need to learn how to make our stories dependable and steady. Perhaps we need to heed King’s words. King described himself as a “hopeful pessimist” (King, 2003, p.92). He wrote knowing that none of the stories he told would change the world. But he wrote in the hope that they would.” I too write out of passion and a deep hope that the stories I tell will change the world, at least in some small way, a way that might help schools become more educative places for all children, teachers, families and administrators.


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1 This paper draws heavily on a forthcoming book by Clandinin, D.J., Huber, J., Huber, M., Murphy, M.S., Murray-Orr, A., Pearce, M., & Steeves, P.


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