Storytelling: The Glorious Uncertainties (and Possibilities!) of English Language Arts
A Plea for What is and What Could Be
Lauren Sele
The University of Calgary


A girl walks quickly into an English 30 classroom. Almost late, she sits down at her desk
and looks hurriedly up at the whiteboard. Seeing the large black message written in the top right
corner she opens her bag, finds her book, and starts to read.

English Language Arts is needed to teach the promise, hope, and benefits of ambiguity.
We need it to understand that something does not have to be proven empirically or be given the
status of intrinsic truth and to show us the possibility of belief in something more. Golsby-Smith
(2011) writes that “if we cannot depend upon a direct relationship between text and meaning,
then we should refocus our energies on deciphering the meaning of meaning, the way social
meanings are constructed…The text in this view becomes instrumental, ideological” (p. 310).
Refusing to understand story using the same logic of science-based truth determination opens it
up to a whole world of contested meanings. In that storied process of learning to read context
and apply personal perspective, we learn also that finding or proving something truthful under
the rules of science is not the end goal. It is not a win. Searching for the meaning of a passage
in English Language Arts suggests that truth or meaning is an evolving process and one that is
dependent upon our position and experiences in the world. English Language Arts teaches us
that our perception evolves. Through letting go of an absolute belief in a single truth and turning
away from attempting to craft an empirically sound singular reading we open ourselves to the
possibility of so much more. We encounter the possibility of finding ourselves somewhere in a
Feeling rushed, a girl finds her seat in a Grade 12 English class. Reaching through the pit
of her bag her fingers find the soft pages of her book. Pulling it loose from between two heavy


textbooks, she relaxes into her hardback chair and feels for the dog-ear. Story begins. Not
really. Story picks up from where she left it. Maybe it continues when she stops? Her eyes
jump from word to word, steadying themselves on the lovingly familiar and tracing over the
parts she knows well. Home after time away. She knows this place, her place. The pages
widen, the class walls dissolve, and the story of her at her desk fades into something else.

If not orientated around the belief in a fixed canon and the assumed primacy of ‘good’
literature, English and what is considered worth teaching can exist in a place that grows
organically with and attempts to stretch beyond an understanding of our own standpoint. This
does not require emphatically dropping all canonical works in favour of modernist pieces. It
does also not necessitate choosing literature for its emphasis on difference or counter viewpoints
just because they exist in the margins. Instead, it demands an acknowledgement that the English
language is not static and, consequently, that literature and the perspectives produced through it
should not be considered fixed either. Thus, “if languages themselves are ecosystemic and
historical phenomena, then pedagogy and curriculum likewise need to be framed as dynamic
open systems” (Luke, 2004, p. 87). Playing witness to how language and meaning exist and
grow in the world, as well as recognizing how time and place guide the way we read and write
creates English as a subject in constant applicability. It makes story the place where we
constitute and argue meaning. In this light English becomes more about drawing connective
lines between our past and present and less about rote skills and competencies that need to be
accomplished. It privileges the fluidity and endlessness of story.



Brushing past the front corner seat she hustles her way to the back of the classroom. She
trips a bit on the way. Quickly, quietly, she slips her book from her bag to the desk. Pictures
more than words. Dialogue boxes and brash lines depicting motion push the plot forward. She
cups her elbow around the pages and bends them slightly, twists them into her sightline. For her
eyes only. Like coveting something stolen, she reads as quietly and invisibly as possible for the
required twenty minutes.

If we understand English as happily mutable we can further understand the way it invites
a constant redefining of what in fact an English class looks like. Taking another step, if perceive
the core of reading, writing, and making meaning to be a process of personal definition as well as
cultural contextualization, we can assume that more voices enrich how we encounter a text and
how we conceive it sits in the world. Through participation in this process that decenters the
primacy of a single, dominant reading we can actually make it better. The more voices that tell
it, the interesting the story becomes. Rhetoric, the back and forth needed to construct meaning
within an English classroom can accomplish this. For Golsby-Smith (2011), the benefits of
pulling apart and discussing these plural readings becomes a practice in calling out the right and
wrong. Golsby-Smith (2011) writes that it is “an inherently ethical task, since rather than insist
on certain readings (and writing) that we deem ethically supportable, we instead seek to
constitute a posture that permits all kinds of ‘others’ to speak” (p. 313). Normalizing the
existence of plural readings and the subsequent rhetorical discussion required to pull out all the
ways we read invites and almost demands that students fill the spaces given to their voices. We
need English Language Arts because a story gets better the more we tell it and retelling it in our


own words and understanding how that figures into the larger constructs of time and place gets to
the heart of questions of privilege. We need English class because it presumes and attaches a
sort of moral imperative to the need for all to tell their story.

Uncharacteristically late, she smiles quickly at her group and sits down. All four already
have their books out and have found their pages. They smile empathetically in response and then
each return to their own world. She finds her book, her notes, and begins to read. In her mind
she enters different a time and place. Not English 30. It is real though, it happened. She thinks
of her own existence. This desk is comfortable. She thinks of the stories her classmates tell, of
forced migration, the farce of choice. Of lives decided on paper, stickers slid into passport
pages, and freedom pulled apart in a cost/benefit analysis that opens up a different world. She
feels the weight of these stories, their push to be told, and how her own voice sits somewhere
between them. The time elapsed, the faces of her group look up. They share what seems to be a
simultaneous intake of breath and then begin to tell.

Oriented towards students and student participation, English class and the needed
storytelling that exists within it privileges the students’ roles as meaning-makers. It provides
students a space to better understand how they fit into a piece of literature and where those words
and ideas subsequently live in the social and cultural history of their world. We need this kind of
storytelling because it helps students understand themselves. English Language Arts gives
opportunity for students to control the production of meaning and, through the accumulation of
their thoughts and ideas, become critical examiners of their own story. McCormick (2011)


describes the way something similar can be accomplished through transmediation. Taking apart
and reconfiguring a piece of literature deemed important enough for discussion in English
Language Arts unravels the power relationship between teacher, student, and acceptable
readings. McCormick (2011) explains that in translating a piece of work from one form of
media to another “students cannot rely on prescribed answers when they translate meaning into a
new system. Translation forces them to conform to ambiguity” (p. 581). This breaks down the
hierarchal boundaries between author and reader, demanding students create their own works
based off their own understanding. It gives them the space to question the ideas and
presumptions found in the work they transmediate, demonstrating the possibilities that instances
of multiple truths hold.


Relevant to the here and now of the world we live in, English Language Arts demands we
question the stories we recognize and examine the possibilities contained in the stories we do
not. Removing the canonical centrality of Western European texts and reading them with an eye


to how representations of the Other are produced builds a kind of critical practice needed for a
connective human existence in and outside of the classroom. It cultivates a kind of mindful lens
through which to examine and contextualize much of the dominant culture that flows through our
everyday. Miller (2000), in discussing the need for evaluative readings that open us to
misrepresentations of marginality, invites English classrooms to explore and identify a “willful
critical blindness” (p. 35). Miller (2000) describes these as “habits, manners and political
agenda’…that have contributed to an objectified Africanist persona as "reined-in, bound,
suppressed, and repressed darkness” (p. 35). Within an English classroom this can mean looking
at specific instances of othering and working to uncover how people of colour are constructed
and storied though dominant Western European narrative. Reading and pulling apart literature
written by and from perspectives traditionally marginalized also makes possible an important
discussion of the stories we tell. This gives space for the emergence of counter stories which,
when entering a space traditionally framed by a primarily Western European discourse, become
less oppositional and on the outside, and more side by side in a holistic, yet incredibly varied
perspective of what really is. This practice of recognition, of mindful integration and critical
reading, can extend beyond the school and become a way through which students continuously
examine their own positions. They can learn to question and make visible points of privilege and
understand the flow of power. In all instances, storytelling becomes a way in which we come to
know ourselves. The stories we tell and retell change the way we story ourselves in the world.
It is like reading with glasses she cannot take off. Hurriedly, she grabs her book from her
bag and begins a descent. Nothing is without meaning. She scans words, images, descriptions.
She can’t forget the coded implications of black and white. This is opening up, this knowing


where she is and the lines of time and space that connect, but delineate. Conscious knowing.
Deepest friendships built on histories that intersect rather unpleasantly. Hard to think about, but
harder to deny. It is about ownership. Knowing where you stand, where in the book (and the
world!) you sit and what being an ally really means. She knows that stories can be measured in
weight, that they can be something you carry. This hi-def perception of meaning, what is being
said is as important as what is being left out, regardless of intention. In this way, there is nothing
silent about reading.

Again with the applicability of English Language Arts. Enter technology. What certain
stories may lose in their appearance of not being traditionally classroom suited, they gain in their
potential for engagement and connection. Technology-based texts, various forms of social
media, and other electronic phenomena underscore large chunks of current youth culture. To
ignore how these communicative mediums inform students’ presentation of self misses
completely two potentially crucial points of classroom connection. Refusing to acknowledge
just how prevalent technologically based forms are thus also means refusing to recognize a
potential entry point into student engagement. Building a lesson off a platform students enjoy
and are familiar with can make a discussion of potentially difficult topics easier and more
comfortable. Additionally, leaving the stories told by technology outside the classroom does not
allow for the practice of reading them critically. Unexamined texts, including Facebook posts,
tweets, and the like, present sites of uncontested meaning. Until questioned they can, like any
form of traditional text, host undue assumptions of universal truths. Too, as Luke (2004) points
out, texts stemming from new technologies present interesting places of language and meaning
creation: “children and adults are using the new technologies to in-vent hybrid new genres,


textual practices, and semiotic forms at homes and in chatrooms, in arcades and shopping malls,
and sometimes, in schools” (p. 93). Integrating technology based texts does not necessitate
moving completely away from what can then be understood as more traditional, static forms of
literature, but instead advocates for a kind of integration. Our world has changed and so has the
ways in which we communicate with and through it. Thus, we need English classrooms as
spaces to address and contextualize this. We need to examine all the ways we tell stories and to
ensure these stories get the aesthetic, ethical, and critical examination they warrant.

In considering that we think of and see the world through language, we need a place
where the actual words and their meaning can be contested. We need space to critique the
framework upon which we tell our stories and how language figures into our construction of self.


Miller (2000) explains that “language is the place . . . where our sense of ourselves, our
subjectivity, is constructed” (p. 38) and additionally that “subjectivity is produced in a whole
range of discursive practices - economic, social and political - the meanings of which are a
constant site of struggle over power” (p. 38). Language is thus not neutral and neither is the way
in which it informs our impressions of ourselves as well as others. We need to understand how
language has named us and how we build our identities upon that which has been defined by
words and associated meanings. Too, we need to examine how our subjectivity has been
informed by the names we have not chosen and the words we have been made to carry around.
English Language Arts can teach this. English Language Arts should teach this. Through
critiquing our stories and the language that carries them we can better understand our words as
contested, as products of particular social, cultural, and political leanings, and as legacies of
stories themselves. Words both do and do not define who we feel we are and who we position
our selves to be. It is our language and we are de/empowered by it.

A girl (white/middleclass/female/gifted) walks quickly into an English 30 classroom
(rows/teacher-at-front/small-windows). Almost late, she sits down at her desk and looks
hurriedly up at the whiteboard (copy-it-all-down/here-the-story-begins). Seeing the large black
message written in the top right corner (where-things-should-begin), she opens her bag, finds her
book, and starts to read (good-literature/leveled-book/canonical/classic/more-questions-thananswers/story).



To wonder about the relevance of English brings with that vicious circle of thought so
many good questions. I would argue though that none answer by assuming we do away with
English Language Arts entirely. We are our stories and we need a place to examine how, why,
and through what means we tell them. What we study in English class matters. How we study
English matters. Critical thought matters. So do all of our stories and how we sit with them in
the world. There are few right answers in English and that is a good thing! Without the benefits
of English Language Arts instruction, without having learned what I have through all the years
about literature, meaning, context, aesthetics and the rest, I would not be able to put together a
proper case supporting the need to study a language. And that really, that notion that without it
we could not argue our case to be without it, could have been the entirety of this paper.


Golby-Smith, S. (2011). From the boundaries: rhetoric and knowledge in secondary English
classrooms. Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, 18(3), 309-318. doi:
Luke, A. (2004). At last: the trouble with English. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(1),
85-95. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40171653
McCormick, J. (2011). Transmediation in the language arts classroom: creating contexts for
analysis and ambiguity. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(8), 579-587. doi:
Miller, J. (2000). English education in-the-making. English Education, 33(1), 34-50. Retrieved
from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40173047 . Accessed: 25/01/2015 19:44