Our Stories are Data, Too
by Stefanie Whitney
I remember the day I unearthed my father’s report cards from a cardboard box in my parent’s basement. I was old enough to have felt failure in school but not wise enough to anticipate my dad’s reaction to us stumbling upon evidence of his formative years. I felt relief and recognized common ground. Maybe some of my math struggles were actually genetic? Dad did not share my feelings. As I waved his dusty cards in the air, his discontent was as palpable as my relief.
We all have stories that bolster our belief systems.
I cannot recall how old I was when my mom first described herself as not very “school smart.” I do recall, however, how firmly she believed in this story regardless of how fervently I disagreed. Her proof? Report cards. Flimsy little pieces of paper that manage to fortify entire perceptions of self.
I could tell countless stories about both of my parents’ experiences as learners. About the lasting impression grades made on them. How their experiences in school influenced my own, and how learning was often reduced to letters on a crumpled piece of paper. I feel compelled to proclaim, unequivocally, that my parents are and were wise, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring folk. I was supported, encouraged, and challenged throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years. My parents were also deeply impacted by a grading system; so much depends upon…. I’d like to sit down with William Carlos Williams and compare notes.
And while my parents’ stories are not mine to share, I do have one story of my own to offer. This story stands out among many, in part, because it represents the lasting imprint of a lifetime of being graded.
From November 28, 2016 through the end of January 2017, I took a leave of absence from my position as a high school English teacher. I left the classroom so I could return home and spend time with my mom during what we believed would be her last Christmas. We had big plans: a 45th wedding anniversary celebration (December 10), a Christmas Eve pajama party, baking all the cookies, wrapping the tree in mom’s favorite white lights, and sharing space with one another as often and as long as we could.
On Wednesday, November 30, 2016, seizures changed the landscape of that leave.
Mom remained with us for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I was an untrained hospice nurse, a grieving daughter, and a student trying not to fail in a system I had been conditioned to prioritize. I was in week 7 of a 9 week course for the Educational Leadership program in which I had enrolled eight months prior.
We had only two more weeks. During this time, I stayed awake at night with my dad, sister, and husband to hold our breaths when mom’s labored. By day, I helped take care, entreating moments of lucidity--when mom would return behind her smiling eyes. In spare moments when she slept, I wrote papers, read textbooks, and tried to prepare for a test that required rote memorization.
Finally, admitting I needed help, I reached out to my professor and asked for more time to take an online multiple choice exam on which I needed an 85% to pass the course. I could try three times before being marked a failure. Because my parents lived too far out in the country, no Verizon wifi booster could procure a strong enough connection to take the exam at home. To this, my professor offered the idea of “coffee shops with internet access.” So, when mom was resting, my husband and I drove 15 miles to the local Perkins in the midst of an early December snowstorm. After internet drops interrupted and consequently eliminated rounds one and two, this was my third and final opportunity. We sat in a side booth, me wearing headphones to drown out the noise of stranded motorists, as spotty wifi and shock carried me through a “successful” third attempt.
Now, I just had to write two short essays to be finished with this class. And I had done the math. I asked my professor to allow me to forgo those essays, and I’d take the 'B'. We knew the time was nearing. I no longer had the mental bandwidth to write any more about the effectiveness of data used in peer-reviewed papers. I had done enough. My professor, however, had not done the math. According to his calculations, I would need to write at least one more essay to earn a 'B'.
Consequently, in between helping plan my mom’s funeral and going through boxes of pictures, I wrote a paper.
I submitted the essay one day later than the brief extension given to me. One day late because, on the due date, I was attending my mom’s funeral. I apologized for my delay and awaited his response. It came 48 hours later: “I did the math wrong; you didn’t actually need the paper.”
I have to tell you: I don’t know this professor’s stories. I don’t know why he felt bound to an “accountability” system that felt so dehumanizing. I do know he was not a bad person; he had a kind smile, apologized when he floundered with technology, and cared about his content.
I also have to tell you that there are questions I still ask myself. Could I have dropped this course and taken it later? Yes. Of course, I had that option--at the cost of retaking a class without my peer group and graduating a semester later. I’m not sure whether it was any one of these factors or a strong fear of failure that most encouraged me to power through. What if mom left while I was away? I carried that worry with me every moment I was away from home and ceaselessly called to check in.
Still today, this story is hard for me to tell. In part, because I feel like I made poor decisions. I should have had the wherewithal to stand up for myself, to recognize no grade was worth the personal cost. How was I so distracted by an arbitrary grading system during one of the most difficult times of my life? A system I no longer believed in, yet somehow was still bound by.
I offer this story as the most stubborn data point in my personal belief system. For so many reasons beyond the obvious, this story does not center a person who benefited from a successful grading system. At 39 years old, I struggled to self-advocate with the most understandable reasons against an enduring and flawed system; yet, I expect teenagers to have the capacity to self-advocate against this same system?
I also tell this story because we are emerging (albeit very, very slowly) from a collectively painful time in our world; one that, for many, resulted in both personal and professional hardships.
In this moment, a quote by Sarah Wilson, author of This One Wild and Precious Life, takes up space in my mind:
“Life has been fundamentally interrupted and all of us here have been given the most glorious opportunity to take an inventory of it. We now have a choice--collectively and individually. We can go back to our old ways. Or we can move forward into something wild, mature, and humanized.”
My fundamental interruption occurred five years ago. Whether five years, five months, or five minutes, this idea of a more humanized world speaks to the disrupted part of my conscience and heart.
Humanized. Human-centered. This concept seems so logical. But I have to ask:
If we are not centering humans, then what are we centering?
I have been asked a time or two for data to back up systemic shifts that I have come to champion. I understand why this question is asked, as we use satellite data--a term used by Safir and Dugan in Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation--often in education. Grades, graduation rates, attendance, anonymous surveys--these all fit into the category of satellite data. Useful, for sure, as this data points us in a direction. But what does the satellite data we most study tell us about what we most value?
I offer this: satellite data is not human-centered data.
Human-centered. A term I recently heard used by Cornelius Minor, educator, author, and equitable literacy reformer, as he described the concept of equitable grading:
“I am always striving for grading policies that are human-centered. And if they are human-centered, they are by nature anti-racist, they are by nature anti-ableist, they are by nature anti-homophobic or anti-classist….When I think about any anti-racist grading policy, or any grading policy that is human-centered, it really sees the human first. And by seeing the human first, it is a grading policy that centers growth over random measures of compliance.”
I have come to believe the data that most moves us to change might actually be our own: our own stories, fears, failures, and self-perceptions. Owning them, dusting off the moldy shame, sharing them with others, and finding common ground and humanity in one another’s stories. These approaches to storytelling and story listening allow us to see the human first. To be seen first as a human.
We all have stories. Stories that bolster our belief systems.
Our stories are the data that we most lean on when staring down a challenging situation.
Regarding stories, in her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown references the work of neurologist and novelist Robert Burton:
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns….Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them...even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’”
I have made all kinds of assumptions about my professor and others with whom I may disagree. In fact, I’m remarkably good (relative term) at creatively filling in the gaps of so many stories. It’s faster and easier, right? To fill in the gaps with what I think I know rather than sit beside someone and find out truths. But it seems to me that being human-centered is about taking the time to understand one another’s stories rather than filling in the gaps with assumptions.
I don’t pretend this is easy; I don’t pretend to have mastered this approach. But I do offer my personal story as one reason why I stand so firmly in my beliefs.
I know you too have stories that fuel your belief systems. Perhaps you will join me in sharing your stories, and to seek out and carefully listen to the stories of others. All the while wondering:
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