Tell Me a Story: The Power of Narrative in the Practice of Teaching Art

Article excerpt

Narrative is a form of discourse that "encode[s] and encrypt[s] the norms, values, and ideologies of the social order" (Friedman, 1998, p. 8). These values may be represented in many ways, including culturally learned codes, myths, and stories which reveal popular attitudes about gender, race, ethnicity, or education. As a mirror of culture, narrative appears in visual images and reflects the attitudes of society as well as the personal opinions and interests of artists and of those who use images to teach. Within the literature of art education there are many references to narrative that focus on how the stories of both teachers and students affect teaching and the making of art (Kellman, 1995, 1998; Smith-Shank, 1993; Stokrocki, 1994; Zimmerman & Stankiewicz, 1982, 1985). However, very few discuss the role of narrative in the practice of teaching. This article focuses on narrative as discourse and suggests how it might be used by teachers to encourage students to think more critically and to understand the role of art in their own lives and culture.

In Maxine Greene's words:

We take classroom discourse to be at the very heart of the teaching-learning process, as it represents the meaning systems mutually constructed by teachers and their students.... The power of narrative and dialogue as contributors to reflective awareness in teacher and students is that they provide opportunities for deepened relations with others and serve as spring boards of ethical actions.... Understanding the narrative and contextual dimensions of human actors can lead to new insight, compassionate judgment and the creation of shared knowledge and meanings that can inform professional practice. (Greene, 1991, p. 8)

In this passage, Greene alerts us to the importance of narrative in the classroom. She tells us that narrative contributes to learning by fostering deeper awareness and by assisting students in their search for personal meaning and social ethics. However, in the classroom, narrative is a powerful but possibly under-utilized component of discourse.

The Study of Discourse, Narrative, and Story

Metaphorically, discourse is a philosophical umbrella that encompasses narrative and other forms of communication such as dialogue or conversation. The study of narrative is only a part of the much larger field of discourse, so one of the problems in describing how narrative works in the classroom is to understand the many interpretations of discourse. Schiffrin, Tannen and Hamilton (2001) write that current discourse research encompasses a variety of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, and cognitive and social psychology, and that definitions of terms, analytical models, and approaches to the study of discourse are both emerging and extending as those disciplines adapt the study of discourse to their own particular needs. Although discourse has multiple definitions, according to Schiffrin, Tannen & Hamilton (2001), those definitions fall into three main categories: "(1) anything beyond the sentence; (2) language use; and (3) a broader range of social practice that includes nonlinguistic and nonspecific instances of language" (p. 1).

While the literature of art education has addressed the study of discourse through each of these perspectives (see Zander, 2002), in this study, I will describe narrative through this third category of discursive research in which meaning is thought to be negotiated within a social context and through social interaction. This sociolinguistic point of view takes into account the multiple levels of understanding when people communicate (Fiske, 1996; Gumperz, 1982; Hymes, 1974, 1986; McEwan & Egan, 1995; Tannen, 1984, 1993). Within these philosophical underpinnings, narrative is understood as a discursive strategy in which speakers create their own histories about the past (including the immediate past) and the audience interprets them based on individual experience (Norrick, 1997; Ochs, Smith &Taylor, 1989; Schiffrin, 1984). …


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