RemarksJoy Hakim Receipt Of The 1997 Michener Prize In Writing
James Michener was a great teacher and a great teller of stories , so I feel particularly honored to receive the Michener Award , especially as I believe those two skills of his – - teaching and storytelling – - linked together , have the potential to transform learning . It is the storyteller’s job to make the world around us understandable . Think of teaching and storytelling as entwined disciplines and you will bring coherence and inspiration to your classrooms . Finding the story in a subject is to discover its essence . If we can train our students to pattern the world into stories we can turn them into powerful , analytical learners . Jerome Bruner , the renowned educational psychologist , wrote in a recent book , ‘ human beings make sense of the world by telling stories about it – - by using the narrative mode for construing real ity . Tales are tools , he says , ‘ of meaning making . . . We live in a sea of stories . ‘ Learning to swim in that sea is what school and the ‘ culture of education is all about . ‘ Stories demand intellectual work . They have a beginning , a middle , and an end . You have to pay attention to follow a story and , if it’s any good at all , it leaves you with something to think about . Why did this tale lead where it did ? Could it have gone elsewhere ? What were the actions of the people involved ? How would you have behaved in their place ? The interesting thing about the questions that stories ask is that they don’t have pat answers . But the kind of teaching that has defined recent decades is memorize – the – answer teaching . We don’t often provoke profound questioning with that kind of teaching . Only rarely are we Socratic . We tell kids answers . Our children are used to textbooks and tests that demand one sure answer . But life – - which is a story – - isn’t like that . It’s complex . It’s interesting . It’s layered . The children I know – - and they include inner – city kids – - are thirsting for real world stories . Sophisticated stories . Stories that ring with truth . They can handle them and the questions they raise . I’ve visited a whole lot of classrooms : as a teacher , a parent , and especially as a writer . One journalistic assignment took me to a kindergarten on Chicago’s South Side where I watched a young teacher read a real document from ancient Egypt recounting the story of a farmer who was arrested and went on trial for stealing grain . The five year olds followed the tale avidly – - so did I . One of them had an uncle who’d gone on trial . We heard all about it . The point : this was an actual historic account used to introduce a different culture and to provoke discussion and thought . It worked . And it wasn’t dumbed down for these inner – city children . I hear some teachers and administrators say that children can’t understand original documents . That they can’t or won ‘t read them . That material has to be watered – down . Phooey . Of course the selections have to be well chosen . But try a real diary from the past . Kids can relate . Written material doesn’t always have to be age – specific . That same farmer’s account can be read in graduate school where , clearly , it will be perceived differently . But the kindergarten teacher was wise enough to recognize that the words didn’t have to be changed for her young learners . Those five – year – olds did miss some of the details in the story of the farmer’s trial . That’s okay . They got the main idea . And their minds were stretched . I meet teachers – - usually very conscientious teachers – - who are afraid to let their students read anything that they won’t understand completely . They have a tendency to do the work for their students . I advocate teacher laziness . Let your students do the sweating , let them search out answers . As long as they keep reading , don’t worry . And despite its bad press , history is a natural way to get kids to read . History is not dull – - quite the contrary – - it’s about the human drama – - it’s about heroes and villains and actions and adventures – - they all just happen to be true . I get letters from children all the time and they tell me they love to read history . ‘ I liked your book because what you tell really happened . ‘ said one 10 – year – old who wrote me . Many others have echoed those words . The tradition of narrative history goes back to Homer , and Gilgamesh , and the beginnings of time . But what about stories . Sure , they’re fun – - but is having fun the same as learning . Are we pandering to children if we think of history as a storytelling venture ? I believe quite the contrary . I think the imagination that good stories and good history demand is actually what learning is all about . A litany of the details of Abraham Lincoln’s life is not very interesting .
But imagine yourself living with your family in winter in an open three – sided hut with a fire going on the fourth side of the hut . When the wind blows , the flames and sparks head your way . When it rains or snows you get wet and cold . Can you imagine yourself there ? How did Abe Lincoln manage to get from that hut to the Presidency ? Try that with your students ; they’ll want to know more about the 16th president . I’d like to quote Kieran Egan . He’s a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and the author of Imagination in Teaching and Learning , and another book called Teaching As Storytelling – - both books that I commend to you . Egan believes that schools need to concern themselves with much more than just developing reasoning powers – - that the minds that we admire most are those that are imaginative – - that can take creative leaps . He says that ability is developed best through stories . We seem to discount stories as anti – intellectual . Egan says something quite different – - he says that they are a very sophisticated way of developing both intellect and imagination . In addition , he talks of the importance of memory . ‘ Recent research , ‘ says Egan , ‘ has confirmed what myth – users knew long ago – - that we can remember a set of vivid events plotted into a story much better than we can remember lists or sets of explicit directions . ‘ But is memory important in this age of electronic wizardry ? Can’t we just ask the computer anything we want to remember ? Not quite . Imagination relies on memory to supply its raw materials . What most of us call knowledge is the product of our memory . It’s what we know . We need a body of knowledge , we also need imagination to use it well . It is the ability to order the world into meaningful patterns or stories that makes for great creative intellect . Good minds see connections – - that is the skill we need to develop in our children – - yet we rarely even think in those terms . History is one way to do it , and we blow it in most schools . We don’t have to . At the end of the last century , most school students read hi story written by good writers . One of them was an author named Charles Coffin . If you ever see one of his books in a used bookstore , buy it . Coffin was a storyteller and his readers remembered what they read . Coffin demanded thinking . Somehow we got away from that tradition . It was during the Depression and perhaps it was because we were desperate for new deals . So we denigrated books of narrative and replaced them with insipid texts . We were misguided . It’s easy to do the kind of writing you find in most textbooks today . They are litanies of facts . Just one dull sentence after another . And , mostly , that’s the writing style we expect from our students . How boring . Writing stories is much harder . But much more rewarding . And storytelling comes naturally to most of us . Ask any four year old to describe an occurrence and you’ll get the whole story – - sometimes more than you want to hear – - kids have a head start on the technique . One of the things that has stunned me in visiting classrooms is to discover that many of our schools are anti – reading places . Teachers complain that children don’t want to read , TV gets blamed , but I’m seeing something very different – - something that I find alarming – - and I believe it is related to that loss of story in our school books . A good book , well designed , should be read from chapter to chapter . All are part of a complete whole . But , again and again , I see teachers who break up books , who assign chapters out of context , who don’t seem to understand that history’s events are part of a dramatic story , who don’t expect their students to read a whole book . They teach units which float in isolation , and they assemble bits and pieces of reading from here and there . They don’t think of history as a patterned whole or of a book as a constructed whole – - nor do their students . And they don’t recognize that books can’t be served up in hacked pieces and have much meaning . This kind of teaching is done with the best of intentions . The pressure is to teach for a test . The isolated bits are selected to relate to the test . But the system doesn’t work – - as our test scores indicate . And those teachers are missing an opportunity to teach reading and thinking skills as well as the social sciences . Is that done to books of fiction ? I don’t know , but I do know that many educators have yet to discover that good non – fiction is not inferior to good fiction .
Forty years ago , fiction was the biggest book selling category ; today , far and away , it is non – fiction . Non – fiction has become the literary form of the Information Age . It’s the kind of reading your 21st century kids will have to do – - and do well . And we hardly teach them how . Reading non – fiction is different from reading fiction . It takes different skills . We need to teach those skills . James Michener is often overlooked or undervalued in that transition which took us , as readers , from the novel beside the bed to the book of information on the bedstand . He was a novelist but he packed his books with factual details . A reviewer for The Economist made the point : ‘ You might read ` War and Peace ‘ to find out about Natasha , Pierre and Andrey . You read ` Hawaii ‘ to find out about Hawaii . ‘ Michener began his career as a textbook editor and a teacher , and he was on the scene when our textbooks began to change , when they went from the good books of the Coffin era to the dreary mind – numbing texts of recent decades . In a 1996 book called This Noble Land he talked about that experience . Here are his words : ‘ I spent many happy years as a textbook editor at one of the premier New York publishing companies , Macmillan , where I helped produce textbooks in a variety of subjects for use in schools across the nation . While I was at Macmillan a radical new discipline began to dominate the writing of schoolbooks . A highly regarded educator and psychologist , Edward Lee Thorndike , compiled a list of words and the frequencies with which they occ urred in everyday American life : newspapers , popular books , advertisements , etc . From these basic data he published a list , sharply restricted , which he said ought to determine whether a specific word should be used in writing for children . . . ‘ We editors worked under the tyranny of that list . . . this was the beginning of the continuing process known as ` dumbing down the curriculum . ‘ Before Thorndike , I had helped publish a series of succesful textbooks in which I had used a very wide vocabulary , but when I was restricted by Thorndike , what I had once helped write as a book suitable for students in the sixth grade gradually became a book intended for grades seven through eight . Texts originally for the middle grades began to be certified as being appropriate for high school students , and what used to be a high school text appeared as a college text . The entire educational process was watered down , level by level . ‘ That kind of watering down has meant that few good writers will write textbooks . For the most part , textbook houses pay professors to put their names on textbooks – - but those used in elementary or middle schools are hardly ever actually written by the people whose names are on the cover . The intent is to deceive teachers and parents , and it works . The average social studies text may actually be written by fifteen or twenty freelance writers who sometimes get no credit at all in the book . It’s a terrible practice , it produces poorly written books , and it impacts on your classrooms every day . As we enter this new age where information and the ability to find and use it are dominating business and thinking , this subject that we all care about – - social studies – - needs to become a key discipline We have been neglecting history and other information – heavy subjects at our peril . We have been turning out students who are like amnesiacs – - they don’t know who they are or from where they’ve come – - because they don’t know their history . They don’t know how to research . They don’t know how to gather diverse information and use it effectively . Writing history will do it . And , when I use that word ‘ history ‘ I use it in the broadest sense – - in the social studies sense – - embracing economics , geography , sociology and all the disciplines that help us understand what happened yesterday and the day before and thus give us guidance as we face tomorrow . Our schools will be well served if this subject of ours centers curricula in the new century . In most of our classrooms today , language arts doesn’t relate to science , or to music , or to math – - each is taught in isolation from the other – - and yet we all know that it is connections that make learning exciting . History and the Social Studies – - with its wonderful stories – - can make those connections – - it can tie a curriculum together .
The demographers are telling us that we will soon be a nation where today’s minorities will be in the majority . What will we then have in common ? What will be the glue that binds us together ? Our national story . It is the one thing we all share . I’ve tried to write books that celebrate that story . The U.S . history I’ve written is grounded in respect and admiration for our system of government . I believe that approach is appropriate for children . But I also think we can take pride in our history . Yes , it has some shameful moments – - more than a few of them – - I don’t ignore them . But , for the most part , ours is the story of a diverse people guided by some remarkable founding ideas . We have perfection as our goal : liberty and justice for all . Can we attain it ? Of course not . But the story of our struggle in that direction is – - as the kids say – - awesome . I thank you sincerely for honoring these books – - I’d like to think that James Michener would approve .