I woke up this morning to find pictures on Facebook of my son’s car being towed from LAX. Later I will call him and say, “Tell me a story about your car,” and he will begin, “Okay, so I was at the airport. . .” And pretty soon I’ll have all the details this mother’s heart craves.
It’s a habit that began years ago. Instead of demanding that he tell me what happened, or peppering him with a dozen questions, I simply spoke the neutral, non-threatening words, “Tell me a story.” That told him that I already had some info, so he might as well come clean. If he didn’t know–or pretended not to know–I’d add “. . .about the broken light fixture” or “. . .about the email I got from your teacher.” “Oh, yeah that,” he’d say. “Okay, so here’s the deal. . .”
I use this technique in my classroom when I come across two students fighting, or when I have a student whose homework looks suspicious. “Tell me a story about why I saw you kicking him.” “Tell me a story about why there’s no work shown on these math problems.” If I meet resistance, I may give a little shrug to show it’s not that big of deal and add, “I was just wondering what happened here.” Most students will capitulate at that point , and then we can move on the the next step.
But I don’t use it only for problems or negative situations. It works just as well if there’s good news to share. Quiet or shy students are put at ease because they’ve been invited to tell their stories in their own way. I keep interruptions to a minimum, maybe just giving an encouraging “wow” or “mm-hmm” to keep them going. Chatty, boisterous storytellers are excited to have a captive audience (though they don’t need much encouragement to tell their stories). Whether they’re eager or reluctant, they get to be heard and I get to hear what’s on their hearts and minds.
Parents of middle schoolers sometimes complain that their kids don’t talk to them. This can be due to a fear of parents “going off” (overreacting) or frustration because they can’t finish their story without being interrupted. Students sometimes tell me they don’t think their parents are all that interested in listening to them. Try taking a more relaxed approach and simply saying, “Tell me a story.” You may be surprised at all you can learn, especially if you listen until the very end without interrupting.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a (Facetime) call to make. My son has a story to tell me.