Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2007 Issue »

    From the Editors: Stories That Teach

    The Role of “Voices Inside Schools” in the Harvard Educational Review [FULL TEXT]

    The Editors
    In this issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we offer our readers a collection of Voices Inside Schools (VIS) essays. We define VIS essays as the personal stories of those who are working, teaching, and learning in educational settings within and outside of schools — teachers, children, administrators, counselors, social workers, and others — whose voices might not otherwise gain the attention of practitioners, policymakers, and researchers. While educational researchers seek and share knowledge through carefully designed studies and refereed journals, there are few forums for educators outside of the research community to share their experiences and wisdom. By publishing VIS essays in the Harvard Educational Review, we strive to spark inter-textual conversations, and to encourage connections among the often disconnected enterprises of teaching, learning, and research.

    VIS essays demonstrate that practitioner knowledge and wisdom are often transmitted most effectively through stories. Storytelling — an ancient method of conveying ideas and images — is educative in that it allows individuals to share personal experiences with others and make ideas part of the collective knowledge of a community (McEwan & Egan, 1995; Mello, 2001). Stories lie at the center of folklore and religion; they frame our individual and group identities and are embedded in our familial and national histories (Jung, 1969; Riessman, 2003). Stories are hailed by practitioners and theorists as important teaching tools that assist in psychosocial and imaginative growth (Applebee, 1978; Bettelheim, 1977; Bruner, 1990; Favat, 1977). They lie at the heart of meaning-making and the broader enterprise of education.

    Much has been written about the roles that storytelling and narrative play in teaching and learning (Bruner, 2003; McEwan & Egan, 1995; Paley, 2004; Wilhelm, 1996). It is no stretch of the imagination to think of teachers as storytellers, and to think of classrooms as places where stories are constructed, shared, analyzed, and ultimately incorporated into the growing consciousness of each student. The power of stories is reflected in a quote from Philip Jackson on the role that narrative plays in teaching: “Stories do not simply contain knowledge, they are themselves the knowledge we want students to possess” (1995, p. 5, original emphasis). From news stories, to history lessons, to morality tales and fables, stories are used every day in classrooms as vehicles for communicating particular lessons. However, stories can also communicate knowledge about classrooms themselves. Much can be learned from the close observation and documentation of our daily teaching and learning activities. VIS essays allow educators to share insights about their work by drawing upon the understanding they have gained from experience.

    Moreover, stories have always been a primary means for educational practitioners to share and build knowledge. In publishing VIS essays that use stories told by educators to further the collective understanding of teaching and learning, we acknowledge the various ways in which educational information can be shared. VIS essays introduce participants as characters, transmit lessons through those characters’ relationships, and capture the epiphanies that arise during the daily ebb and flow of classroom life. In recent years, feminist and social theorists have emphasized the importance of memory as a mechanism for uncovering both individual and social practice (Dillabough, 2000). When VIS authors share their individual memories of educational practice, they not only surface the hidden structures embedded in collective memories, but they also become agents in the construction of professional knowledge intended to influence educators’ daily work.

    We value VIS essays because they are powerful, visceral, and immediately recognizable to the reader. Although we place special emphasis on articles that report the findings from rigorous studies, we are careful to note that traditional research articles are merely one form of understanding the world of education. HER’s VIS category creates a space for stories of curiosity and surprise in which both teachers and students sometimes struggle to define exactly how or why a lesson worked. One of the authors for this issue admitted that she wasn’t quite sure why her lessons seemed to work. We quickly realized that asking for more explanation seemed akin to asking a professional athlete to describe muscle contractions as a way of understanding how to hit a home run. This author instead talked about the need for practice, trial and error, and making the lesson “your own.” The Editors agreed that the power of sharing such narratives sometimes comes not from dissecting and explaining why instructional methods work, but from letting the stories become part of our intuitive understanding of how learning occurs.

    At a time when the enterprise of teaching and learning has become increasingly focused on quantifiable student outcomes, we present these VIS essays because each offers additional ways to engage in conversations about the form and function of education. In this issue we acknowledge and honor the voices of individual educators by creating a space for their personal stories to be heard. We invite our readers to allow these stories to expand, complicate, and refine how they understand the world of education.


    Applebee, A. N. (1978). The child’s concept of story: Ages two to seventeen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Bettelheim, B. (1977). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.

    Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Bruner, J. S. (2003). Making stories: Literature, law, life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Dillabough, J. A. (2000). Women in teacher education: Their struggles for inclusion as “citizen workers” in late modernity. In M. Arnot & J. A. Dillabough (Eds.), Challenging democracy: International perspectives on gender, education, and citizenship. London: Routledge-Falmer.

    Favat, F. A. (1977). Child and tale: The origins of interest. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

    Jackson, P. W. (1995). On the place of narrative in teaching. In H. McEwan & K. Egan (Eds.), Narrative in teaching, learning, and research. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Jung, C. G. (1969). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    McEwan, H., & Egan, K. (1995). Narrative in teaching, learning, and research. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Mello, R. (2001). The power of storytelling: How oral narratives influence children’s relationships in classrooms. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 2(1), 1–14.

    Paley, V. G. (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

    Riessman, C. K. (2003). Narrative analysis. In M. S. Lewis-Beck, A. E. Bryman, & T. F. Liao (Eds.), The Sage encyclopedia of social science research methods (pp. 705–709). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

    Wilhelm, J. D. (1996). “You gotta be the book”: Teaching engaged and reflective reading with adolescents. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
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    Summer 2007 Issue


    From the Editors: Stories That Teach
    The Role of “Voices Inside Schools” in the Harvard Educational Review [FULL TEXT]
    The Editors
    Goldilocks and Her Sister
    An Anecdotal Guide to the Doll Corner
    Vivian Gussin Paley
    On Jorge Becoming a Boy
    A Counselor’s Perspective
    Travis Wright
    Teaching How Language Reveals Character
    Margaret Metzger
    Developing Imagination, Creativity, and Literacy through Collaborative Storymaking: A Way of Knowing
    Nancy King

    Book Notes

    Taught by America
    Sarah Sentilles

    All American Yemeni Girls
    Loukia K. Sarroub

    The Renewal of Society through Education
    Nicholas C. Brown

    Keepin’ It Real
    Prudence Carter

    The Science of Reading
    edited by Margaret J. Snowling and Charles Hulme