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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: Connecting Literacy and the Arts with Susan MacKay

Connecting LIteracy and the ArtsToday on the podcast we’re exploring the stories we tell, and how we can create a classroom community that builds space for everyone’s story. 


Download a sample chapter of Story Workshop

We're joined today by Susan Harris MacKay. Susan is a national speaker, former classroom teacher and Pedagogical Director the Portland Children’s Museum and Opal School, and recently established the Center for Playful Inquiry. Her new book is called Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers, where she lays the framework for a structure that honors students’ stories as part of their literary lives.

We began our conversation by asking, What is the connection between literacy and the arts? 


Below is a transcript of this episode.

Susan: I think it's probably impossible to even respond to that question without first talking a little bit about Opal School and what that place is, because I think the question came out of the place, the context. And so Opal School is this tiny little school that was a program of the Portland Children's Museum and a public school in Portland, Oregon. And it serves about 125 children between the ages of three and 11. And the school was started actually as its own question. There was a team of people who had been to visit the municipally funded pre-primary schools in Reggio, Emilia in Italy, and had seen the just amazing sophisticated expressions that were coming out of the work of these very, very young children.

And they wondered what the implications of the kinds of conditions that were being created there might be for American public elementary school. So from that question, this team of folks created the school with a mission to really strengthen education, particularly public education, by provoking fresh ideas, concerning environments where imagination and creativity and the wonder of learning thrive.

And so, it's right there in the mission of the school to create a laboratory of research that was focused on those things about imagination and wonder and the wonder of learning. And so when Judy Graves, who was the founder of the school asked this question, I remember it so clearly as it was just one of those moments in a staff meeting. The very beginning of the year, I was about to teach first grade with some kindergartners sprinkled in there. And she just asked the teacher, she invited the teachers to go find out what's the relationship between literacy and the arts?

These schools in Reggio are... This is where that whole idea of The 100 Languages of Children comes from. And that notion that the youngest children, every child from the moment that they're born, come into the world wanting to express themselves and having really the means to do so. And as they get a little older, of course, start to make their mark with a scrape in the dirt or a crayon if they're lucky. And those are all these efforts to just say, "I am. I exist here." And those marks and those pictures and those sculptures and collages that very young children create are all filled with meaning and efforts to communicate.

And so writing is another aspect of that. So part of the question was about, how do we bring all that other kinds of mark-making into the Writing Workshop and help get all that mark-making to help children express themselves in writing, which is the goal of exiting elementary school as being confident as a writer.

So anyway, we started to play with that idea and that was about... Those kids that we worked with that year, I think have all graduated from college by now. It's a long time ago, but the questions we were asking about literacy and the arts and writing and evolved over time and took shape in different people's classrooms. We learned more and more about the role of play and meaning making and just continued the process ever since then. It's not the kind of thing that we ever intended to land on an answer for, but that would just keep us asking more and more questions like that.

Steph: So you just mentioned this connection to their Writing Workshop and a little later in your book, you talk about this early interest of yours in the Writing Workshop model and how it led you to the Story Workshop. So can you talk a little bit more about that connection and then I guess, plainly what is a Story Workshop?

Susan: Yeah, that's a good question. Yeah. I never thought I'd be a teacher really, but I really enjoyed children. And when I was in college, I think I was a sophomore. I found out that I could do some field work and field work would be something like I could go into a classroom and be with children. And I didn't really know anything more than that, but that sounded better than sitting in a classroom myself. So I got connected with the education department and was handed these two books. I didn't know at the time what she was putting in my hand were early books by Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins. And I remember I opened up those books and I just... I fell into them so hard. And what it was, was this incredibly, just this huge idea that children have the right to tell their stories in school, to actually share their own experiences and that they could learn how to write by being in classrooms that were inviting them to share and to tell their story.

And so I remember I went into this classroom. It was in Poughkeepsie, New York in the Poughkeepsie public schools and the teacher when I got there was glad to have an extra pair of hands. She gave me one of her reading groups and I looked up on the wall and these were the reading groups that were ability grouped and she gave me her, what she called Knight Riders Express. These groups were all named after TV shows. Knight Riders Express to The Smurfs. So I was grateful to just get to work with this group of kids and I remember so well the day I sat down at the table with them and I said we were going to do some writing. And they all got up and left. These were six-year-olds, I think, but they came right back.

And what they had brought with them was their handwriting books and a pencil. And they were so dutifully ready to do their writing, and I just was so struck by that idea that when I said writing to them, it didn't even occur to them that it might be something that was from them. And that it was just handwriting. And I remember it took a little while to figure out how to invite them to just share their experiences, share their perspective and whatever was on their mind. But I remember at the end of whatever our time was together, they did a little sharing and it was just an experience that really formed my perspective on the possibilities here and the need as well.

So Writer's Workshop was really the whole reason and all that research that Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins were starting to write about. I mean, that was why I became a teacher. I really understood that if I could get into a classroom and support one child to be able to walk into the world knowing that what they had to say about what they experienced in the world was important and influential and really mattered, that that was a real contribution. Story Workshop was really modeled on what we knew about Writer's Workshop. So I think initially it was really like, "Okay, we have a mini lesson. So what's the role of the arts in the mini lesson? Okay. So what's the role of the arts in independent writing?" And just trying to watch what happened when we had more paint or more clay or some blocks available.

And the children started to tell us a lot about what happened for them when they were playing and working with materials. We would hear something like a child say, "Well, when the blocks were in front of me, I could remember the mountain," or they would talk. They gave us the language that we still use. When I'm using these materials, a story will wake up in my mind. They were very articulate about how the materials helped them really have something to write about and have something that they wanted to communicate. So over time, we started to have more definition to what all the parts of Story Workshop are. That's how the book is structured.

Starts with a preparation. We stepped back from any interaction with the children at all and think about the kind of environment that we want to create for their stories, to wake up their stories, to welcome their stories in. And those environments are built with a really strong attention to the aesthetic quality of the environment.

The effort is very much grounded in an attempt to really turn up the volume on the perceptual experiences that our children are having, because we know that the more sensitive they are, the more opportunity they have to see possibilities to use their senses, the more language they're going to have. And as they have these playful experiences through the arts or materials or just something that feels really good, we all know the difference between sitting in an environment that wakes you up and then sitting in an environment that makes you sit still and tone down. We want them awake and sharing with each other.

So preparation is a lot focused on that. How can the environment itself help draw out the stories we already know children have certainly brought with them to school and wake them up some more? But it's also about teachers preparing themselves for doing the research for listening to the stories that the children have and want to share.

And so they're preparing themselves for their research, for their ability to capture what the children are sharing. And obviously for setting their own intentions about what they want to have happen, what their expectations are for the work. And then from there, it really does follow through a really similar process of any kind of workshop with a whole group, a provocation with independent creation time and with reflection and sharing at the end so that children can come together and see the relationship between their stories and their peer's stories.

Steph: It sounds like a really empowering process for the students. And you have this quote in the book, you say, "Story Workshop is designed to create conditions for children to think about and make stories from the world they have experienced." So what effect does that have on kids and how does it support their emotional and their intellectual growth?

Susan: I mean, those questions are at the heart of the whole reason for doing the work. We're all telling stories all the time and we're all the protagonists of our own stories. As we construct the reality that we live in and the stories of our lives, we tell that story with ourselves. And that's just an ongoing process that happens whether we invite it to happen or not. So as the protagonist of my own story and when I walk into a classroom and I start to find out that my story doesn't seem to fit with the story that I'm being told or being told that I need to learn in school. If I can't see myself and my own story reflected in the content or the images around the classroom, I still am going to take that experience in and it's going to influence the way that I see myself as a protagonist in the story that I'm telling.

And likewise, if the story that I'm telling matches all of what looks to be normal and right in school, then I'm going to have less and less capacity, maybe motivation, maybe understanding that there are all these other stories out there in the world too. When we invite children's stories into school, because we know that they're already telling their story, we communicate to children that they really, really matter. And it's probably just as simple as that. Human beings, we do these amazing things. We tell stories, we play. Human beings have more play behaviors than any other species because we have the fewest instinctive behaviors. And so when we meet up with uncertainty, we have this strategy that's evolved in our species, which is play that allows us to enter into uncertain spaces and figure out what to do next.

And then we have story that is this way of navigating through all the possibilities that we encounter. There's an endless cacophony of possible images or sensory stimulus or feelings or experiences. And we need something to help us find a way to move through all of that mess. And so story's the tool that we have to do that and we have the capacity to use these abstract symbol systems that include writing, but include a lot of other kinds of expressions to help us take what we're experiencing inside ourselves and turn it out into the world so that other people can see what we see. So we can see ourselves what we see, but we can also hear what other people see in what we see. And in that sense, move closer towards a secure sense of belonging and mattering.

And so, making space for all that stuff in the classroom seems to me to be one of the most important opportunities that we have as classroom teachers to really do something about all the disconnections that we see all around us in the world and have the classroom become a place where we practice, not just the autonomy of voice and choice, but really I think Story Workshop brings us into this intersection that I imagine between where agency and empathy meet up with each other. And if agency is really a sense of not only that I can do things, but that I have a right to do things and I have the tools I need to do things, then I also am doing all that in a community of folks that have the same right as I do to do all of those things. Then empathy is a necessary part of the experience because I understand that that is going to be a continual negotiation between me and everybody else that I'm working with.

And in that practice of negotiating our different perspectives and our different ways of seeing the world, then we have this practice of moving together towards something that none of us could have constructed without the other. It's a big project to create a classroom community that really recognizes that this process of inter-subjective, it's a traffic jam. Loris Malaguzzi was the founder of the schools in Reggio Emilia and he said, "But that should be the goal of the classroom is to create a New York City traffic jam in terms of ideas and perspectives and feelings and the new information that the world brings to us." And so we bring it to the classroom all the time. So started workshops about trying to navigate all that

Steph: Well and speaking of navigating things and thinking about narrative and story as a tool to validate and imagine, what role do you think stories play in our current classroom spaces, which all continue to be impacted by the pandemic?

Susan: Well, there's one story that scares me that I'm hearing way too much, which is this myth of the idea that children are falling behind and falling behind because of this pandemic, which is I think a disaster brewing because of all the potential for blame and fear and need for control that that's coughing up. I'm afraid, I guess, that children are going to bear the brunt of all this fear.

You all did a great podcast a couple of weeks ago about healing. I mean, you do great podcasts all the time, but there's a great podcast about healing in the classroom. And it was really relevant to what's going on right now. And it made me, when I listened to it, I thought a lot about Story Workshop as a real practice of healing, a real invitation for not just the children, but the adults as well, to find a way to explore the experiences that we've all had over the the last few years.

I mean, your last question you asked about the place of emotion and intellect, and that kind of learning, that's just human learning. Emotion intellect doesn't separate in the human. Human beings, they want to and need to, and have a right to just be human. A human is that just intersection of all that stuff, it can't be taken apart. And so we can't do social emotional at two and reading at 10 and expect that those things are going to hang back together again in a healthy and constructive way, or in a way that we know what to do when they bump into each other. I think there's this real opportunity here.

If we can invite children into spaces where they're allowed to tell their story, which might show up in ways that we don't expect, they'll have a million different ways of showing us the experiences that they've had, and maybe it's something direct and it may not be. But in giving them space to negotiate that experience with each other, I mean, we've all been isolated in our homes and with our families, all of us struggling to do this really hard work of living through a kind of uncertainty that we haven't lived through so collectively and so obviously in any of our lifetimes.

So what happens if the teachers acknowledge that for themselves and that the children are invited into this new space that allows them to work together, to hear their experiences with each other and including the adult and find that it's such a common experience probably for so many of us? We've all experienced loss and what it means to survive and probably what it means to lose people you love or jobs that you love or homes that you love. Why would we expect the classroom to be anything other than a place where we come together to really think about that? And in doing that, learn how to lean into each other so that we know better how to move forward together in the future.

So I'm hopeful that teachers will get the support they need it may not come from their school district or even maybe from the families they're working with, but maybe there's a way that we can really be supporting each other to really normalize the not knowing, to understand that any kind of standardization, that's the stuff that's not normal. It's not normal. It's fictional for people to be standardized. Nobody works that way. And so, so how can we use this just complete meltdown to reconstruct a healthier, from a healthier position? We all feel it. We all know.

Steph: I love everything you just said and this question is going to sound like a total pivot now, but switching gears just a little bit to talk about the amazing resources that come with this book, besides just all the amazing writing in the book, you have all these fantastic videos. So could you talk briefly about what readers who buy this book will find in those videos?

Susan: Yeah, that was such a gift from Heinemann who was so supportive at advising us on how to produce these videos. So what people get to see, it's really real. And what I tried to do was pull... There's a lot of children's own words and dialogue and transcript in the book. And I tried to take dialogue or the transcripts out of moments that were filmed so that people can read a little bit in the context of maybe the theory of practice or whatever in the book. And then actually go watch that thing happen in the context of the classroom. And then get to hear the teachers themselves talk a little bit about their thinking and their experience. And so some of the videos are that and some are just an attempt to show how different Story Workshop looks with different aged children or in different classrooms.

Really one of my favorite, favorite things about the whole book is the interviews that we did with different teachers who are practicing Story Workshop in all different kinds of environments, so that people who pick up the book understand that this really isn't a suggestion to replicate anything. It's not a script. It's not something you have to follow in any linear fashion. If you're really interested in supporting children with more materials and that's where you want to start, great. Start there and see what happens. If you just want to work on asking children more open-ended questions, great. There's support there. There's so many different ways to step forward in this work.

And if you're interested in it at all and interested especially in just how do you help yourself move from a model that is about getting children to learn content that you want them to have and to know, to creating conditions to draw what they already know out of them. So we can do a better job finding the best ways to attach new information. This is all about creating those kinds of conditions to make that possible.

Steph: How do you hope this book will be used in the world?

Susan: Well, I guess I hope in some ways that it'll do for somebody what those Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins books did for me once a long time ago, which was to inspire me, to tickle my imagination, to give me new memories of what might be possible in school, what might be possible for children and teachers and the relationship. You have to be able to imagine new possibilities in order to think about what might be possible. And you have to do that before you can make anything actual. So I hope that that will happen. The book is just just thick with pictures from Opal School, but also from lots of other schools. And that's so deliberate because it's in those images that I think or I hope people will start to imagine other ways that classrooms can look, other questions children can be asked, other opportunities that they might not have thought of.

As we're taping this, I found out a week ago that Opal School is another one of the casualties of the pandemic and it will close in June. And so I'm so grateful that this work that is really a product of all the people and children and families that I had the privilege of working with at Opal, little seeds that are now going to go out in the world and plant. And I hope that will be meaningful to people.

The thing that I hope more than anything maybe is that when we talk about how we want school to be a place of joy, that we realized that joy only happens when there's the whole full range of emotions are welcomed into our experience. And so, how can the invitation for children to bring their experiences and perspectives and differences into the classroom become a place where we become more comfortable with uncertainty and with conflict and tension, and start to really understand that it's the work of practicing our way through those conflicts and through those tensions that really release the joy? Joy doesn't happen without learning how to do that work together and that's really what it's all about.

MacKay Headshot Small Graphic for BlogA teacher for 25 years, Susan Harris MacKay most recently served as Pedagogical Director at Opal School  in Portland, Oregon, where the idea of story workshop began in her classroom.  As a national speaker, she has inspired thousands of teachers to expand their use of play, the arts, and inquiry to support children’s rights to high quality educational environments upon which our democracy depends.

Susan and long-time Opal School colleague, Matt Karlsen have established the Center for Playful Inquiry to extend the work and research they began at Opal through varied opportunities for professional development. One such project is Story Workshop Studio, a membership community gathering educators from around the world to strengthen a collective commitment to conditions that support playful inquiry and the rights of children. You can join them at centerforplayfulinquiry.com and keep up with them on social media @playfulinquiry

Topics: Podcast, Writing Workshop, Heinemann Podcast, Literacy, Story Workshop, Susan MacKay

Date Published: 04/15/21

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