Voices in Education

In the Digital Age, Stories Matter More Than Ever
In the digital era, stories still matter. As educators debate the proper balance of fiction versus nonfiction, stories are increasingly being shared using the social Web. Yet even as stories, ideas, and people circulate globally with increased speed, distance, and intensity, age-old systems of inequality and oppression remain. Young people who do not see themselves reflected in dominant narratives are increasingly using the tools of social media to read and write the self into existence, bending our twenty-first-century world toward textual justice.

Some young people have always had to imagine themselves into stories that excluded them. This was because historically, stories that were sanctioned as canonical assumed a White male readership as their imagined audience. In the past, it was necessary for people from the margins to identify with and comprehend officially sanctioned stories just to survive. Whether literary prose, religious metaphors, or edicts and laws, would-be readers and writers from nondominant groups had to accommodate textual erasure and misrepresentation while reading.

It can be argued that those from nondominant groups have done the work of making their humanity legible through counterstories since antiquity. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the social Web is being used for counterstorytelling today. Just as publications from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to David Walker’s An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World directly challenged privilege, supremacy, and institutional power through the use of the printing press, the mass leveraging of social media has led scholars, activists, artists, and writers of all ages to tell new, powerful stories—to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “I put myself back into the narrative.” Perhaps the most seismic example of this has been the Black Lives Matter movement, launched by three Black queer women who came of age using the social Web.

In light of the ways that textual transformations are opening up how stories may be told, shared, and revised, and the historical antecedents for such restorying work, we are interested in the ways today’s students are engaging in reading practices that position them at the center of their literate worlds. Our work highlights the ways youth agentively create counterstories that assert, I exist, I matter, and I am here.

What it would look like if schools encouraged young people to take ownership over stories? How might we encourage young people today to read and write themselves into existence—no matter who they are?

About the Author: Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is an assistant professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Amy Stornaiuolo is an assistant professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. They are the authors of “Restorying the Self: Bending Toward Textual Justice,” featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Harvard Educational Review.