It’s suddenly in vogue to gather and tell stories as part of an organization’s larger strategy to build an audience and effect change. On one level, I love this development — indeed, I’ve been gathering people’s stories about their most powerful learning experiences for years, which has resulted in a website, a radio story series, and even a book (proceeds of which do not go to me, by the way).
I’ve done this because I believe that before we can solve the riddle of how to provide every child with a great education, we need to develop a deeper understand of what great teaching and learning really looks like — and requires. That is the motive. Over time I’ve also reflected a lot on the core elements of a great story — one that can inspire and edify — and tried to apply those principles in the current 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill. Like all things, it’s a work in progress, but we’re clearly onto something — as the appeal of this Prezi attests.
Yesterday, however, I received an email from Michelle Rhee’s organization, Students First, relating to an effort underway there to gather people’s stories about why they choose to put students first. We’re told that Michelle nodded along as she read “the same frustrations and motivations that drive me to action reflected in their responses.” And we’re told that 100 lucky submitters will receive a signed copy of her new memoir, Radical.
I clicked on the link to read the stories, and a couple of things became quite clear: first, these are not stories. People aren’t being asked — nor are they being given space — to share a personal narrative; they’re being given an opportunity to reaffirm the professional rationale of Students First. And second, it’s clear that organizations like Students First don’t actually give a damn about individual people’s stories. They care about selling books, acquiring new email addresses and demonstrating the reach of their current network.
Those things, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily bad strategy — and they certainly aren’t evil. What they are, however, is indicative of Michelle Rhee’s impersonal approach to systemic change. And I can’t think of anything more ironic than a nationally-known “radical” reformer for schools — the most personal public space that exists outside the family in our society — who believes that, in the end, something as sacred as a person’s personal story is little more than a convenient framing device for giving away free books and building out an email list.
(This article also appeared on Huffington Post.)