Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

The Story of Learning

When I was a little girl, I was captivated by stories. I would climb up into a tree house my dad had built, high in a backyard tree, and hide there with a book, wrapped in stories of other places, other times, other adventures. I also loved to write stories. I had stacks of spiral notebooks filled with my creations, mostly about girls dealing with the daily challenges that I faced, such as friendship troubles, boy troubles, bullying, and personality conflicts with teachers. There was something about writing down those stories, really a mirror of my own story, that seemed to help my young psyche process the difficulties that I was facing in my own life.

As I grew up, stories continued to play an important part in my life. As a high school and college student, I reread the Lord of the Rings triology once a year, an annual ritual that reminded me of an essential truth I always wanted to remember, that, as Samwise Gamgee would say, “there is good in this world,… and it’s worth fighting for.” As an adult, I shared my love of story with my children. We read many books and series together, from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter to Laura Ingals Wilder’s Little House stories and Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series. We rolicked through magic lands, the frontier, and elementary school together. Learning the stories of others brought our own stories into a new perspective, taught us to see things from a different point of view, gave us a way to look into a world that we hadn’t encountered in our own lives.

As a practitioner of school psychology, I’ve had the privilege of learning the stories of parents, teachers, and children struggling to make school a positive experience for their child or themselves. I’ve walked with families as they realize their child is differently abled, and school may always be a challenge for them. I’ve sat with teachers who struggled to make their classrooms a place of welcome and support for the variety of children who join their classes each day. I’ve listened to teenagers trying to figure out how to use their talents and find their way in difficult circumstances not of their own making. And as a psychology professor, I strive to help my students begin to understand the importance of sharing their own stories and seeking out those of others. For I’ve come to believe, in all my years of sharing stories, that story is the key to learning.

The process of learning fascinates me, both as a psychologist and an educator. One of the questions that has driven my work for the past twenty years is, “How do people learn best?” I wanted to help the children and teens that I worked with in the public schools find a way to see school as a place of fun and learning. I want to help the college students I work with embrace the joy of learning, and the opportunities they have to wrestle with the big questions of life during their time in college. In 2015 I read Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc., in which he describes the ways the he and his colleagues at Pixar and later Disney Animation worked to develop a corporate culture of creativity. As I read about the way that Catmull, John Lasseter, and others purposefully formed a business culture that used creative practices, I began to wonder how these same ideas might apply to learning, and particularly to learning in the context of higher education.

In her article, The Essential Role of Storytelling in the Search for TruthLise Saffran writes that it is important for all storytellers to be true to their own “values, perceptions and culture” as a part of the stories that we tell. As we teach our students, it’s important for educators to be authentic, to own our stories and perspectives, to help our students do the same, and to learn to listen openly to the stories that others have to tell. Are our institutions of higher learning authentically owning their own stories? Are they sharing those with students, allowing them to understand the journey and development of the institution itself, and thus able to find their place within that story? When we approach learning as a story that we seek to understand, it can open our hearts and minds to those questions that intrigued us as children, and those that intrigue us still. It can open our hearts and mind to authentic engagement and learning, growth and critical thinking, creativity and communication, all concepts that are crucial to the success both in and of higher education.

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2017 by in Creativity, edu, Education and Learning and tagged , , , , .
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