Welcome to the first blog post from soulstoriesdna.com! My name is Dr. Cristina James, and as an English teacher, curriculum coordinator, and academic dean of long standing at The Benjamin School, a private PreK 3- 12 school in southern Florida, I am always looking for new curricular innovations to make learning meaningful, interactive, and dynamic.
To me, curriculum is meaningful when it disrupts the normal classroom activities and the students’ expectations of what is going to constitute their English assignments. So, enough with student PowerPoints depicting the themes in To Kill A Mockingbird! Enough with the dioramas depicting East Egg in The Great Gatsby that all the dads made anyway! We need to shake up our classrooms and our students and surprise them and fill them with wonder.
Believe me that nothing will disrupt your students’ thinking more than telling them that they are not going to write the regular old critical essay about the book they are reading in class, but that they are going to write about what they care about and then speak their truth aloud to their school, the community at large and, through the use of the TEDx youth platform, the world.
They’ll give you that Scooby Doo look of incredulity. You know the one: when Scooby says:RUOH? This translates from Scooby Doo to Middle School English roughly as: “Who me? I’m only 12. I don’t want to speak to a crowd! I don’t want to talk in front of people!” But that’s when you disrupt them even further and say, “Sure you do! And when they tell you speaking in front of crowds isn’t their thing, you tell them, “All the more reason to face your fears and get up there!”
Now that you’ve got their attention, you mention that when they deliver that talk, they are going to be on a platform that has hosted such luminaries as the magician David Blaine and Bill Clinton and Bono! Yup, that’s right. Tell them they are not just going to give a speech in assembly, but that they are going to deliver a TEDx youth talk. It will make them crazy–but you’ll have their attention!
Start showing them TED and TEDx talks that speak to them. Haul out the classics like Dyana Nyad’s Never Ever Give Up and Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and then start to show them ones by kids their age. All of a sudden, you are going to find yourself with a group of kids who are no longer just disrupted like Scooby, but are likewise filled with aspiration at the idea of getting ready to take the stage at their own licensed TEDx event and share their ideas.
That is the reason this website is called soulstoriesdna.com. I am always searching and refining how to teach students how to write the soul story that comes from deep inside of them, so deep it is part of their DNA, but DNA also stands for “Disrupt and Aspire.”
I write to you now having just wrapped our second annual student driven TEDxThe BenjaminSchool event Muthos. This website and this blog will chart my journey getting students ready for that event, but this website is not at all a how to on running a TEDX youth event. You can read the TEDX manual if you want to do that, In fact it’s not about the event at all. The TEDx youth event is really just the party that celebrates the culmination of the soul story curriculum we use in our classes to evince these TEDx talks from our middle school writers and speakers.
Soulstory dna is about the work that must come before such an event: being a writing teacher and champion of one’s student, accessing those ideas inside of them that lead to inspired writing. There is no doubt that the prospect and promise of taking those ideas onto a stage where they will be heard fuels the enthusiasm for the writing process, but accessing their soul stories to begin with is what I’m all about.
Getting your students to find and write and speak their soul stories teaches them the value of their voice, of transferring that voice to the written page, of transferring that written page to the realm of oratory, of stepping out of their comfort zones, of espousing self-acceptance and acceptance of others, and of inaugurating a positive digital footprint. So get ready to learn all about soul stories and how you can use them too in your curriculum!