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Story as Meaning Making

CREATE, June 2012

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Story as Meaning- Making

Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona

Stories are woven so tightly into the fabric of our everyday lives that it’s easy to overlook their significance in framing how we think about ourselves and the world. They fill every part of our daily lives as we talk about events and people, read books and news reports, gossip, send text messages, listen to music, watch video clips, and catch up on a favorite television show. We live storied lives.

Stories are thus much more than a book or narrative--they are the way our minds make sense of our lives and world. We work at understanding events and people by constructing stories to interpret what is occurring around us. In turn, these stories create our views of the world and the lens through which we construct meaning about ourselves and others. We also tell stories to make connections, form relationships, and create community with others.

Despite the significant ways in which stories frame our world views and identities, their role in making sense of life is often not recognized or valued. In schools, students are given access to stories primarily through literature but the focus is not on the value of the stories themselves. Instead, literature is used to teach something else—reading skills, critical thinking, writing models, historical events, mathematical concepts. The many different forms in which stories are commonly told and shared outside of schools are also often not recognized or valued within classrooms.

If we step back from the pressure of tests and standards and consider why story matters and the ways in which story is thinking and meaning-making, we have time to reconsider and recapture the role of story in our classrooms.

But first, a story…

The Story of Three Kingdoms (1995), written by Walter Dean Myers and illustrated by Ashley Bryan, tells of a time long ago when the world was divided into the three kingdoms of forest, sea, and sky, each ruled by a creature so powerful that people lived in fear. Because the People did not have the strength of Elephant, the ferocity of Shark, or the ability to fly like Hawk, they were forced to do their bidding.

One day, Elephant fell into a deep pit in the ground and could not pull himself out. That night as the People sat around the fire, one told a story about moving a large stone that stood in the place where a group wanted to build a village. What one person could not do alone, many people pulling together were able to accomplish. They told the story over and over and “the idea warmed in the minds of the People and they knew it was good.” The next day, they were able to pull Elephant out with vines and he promised to share the forest with them from that time on.

Sometime later, the People were suffering because Shark would not allow them to fish for food. As they sat around the fire, a woman told a story about how her grandmother accidentally dropped a woven mat into a small stream. A lizard swam into the weaving and was not able to escape. Again the People “warmed the idea carefully in their minds, and knew it was good.” And so the next day, they wove a large net and dropped it into the water to entangle Shark. He could not free himself and so finally promised to share the sea with them.

Hawk watched these events and taunted the People as he flew above them, certain that his kingdom was the greatest. And even though the People trembled, they now knew what to do and so gathered around the fire to tell stories. Finally, one told the story of a child trying to catch a butterfly. After many attempts, the child was able to do so by waiting until the butterfly came to rest. This story “warmed in the minds of the People and they knew the idea was good.” The next day, they waited until Hawk came to rest on a branch of his favorite tree and threw a loop of vines around his neck. When he was unable to free himself, Hawk agreed to share the air.

The People gathered to celebrate around the fire, telling stories about the events and chanting that they were now masters of the earth. As they told the stories, however, they realized that they did not need to rule the earth. Their strength came from the wisdom gained from telling stories. Instead of ruling the earth, they could use stories and wisdom to share the earth.

And from that day on, the People remembered to sit by the fire and tell stories, “never forgetting that in the stories could be found wisdom and in wisdom, strength.”

Stories Frame Our Thinking and Interactions

Story is the way we make sense of the world. Harold Rosen (1986) argues that stories are a way to move from the chaotic “stuff” of daily life into understanding. An endless flow of experiences surround us on a daily basis, and we invent beginnings and endings to organize our experiences by creating a meaningful sequence of facts and interpretations. Stories impose order and coherence on that stream of experiences and allow us to work out significance. Stories thus provide a means of structuring and reflecting on our experiences (Bruner, 1988). We tell our stories to others to invite them to consider our meanings and to construct their own, as well as to better understand those experiences ourselves. We listen to other’s stories to try on another way of thinking and living in the world. It’s a very different experience to be told a story about another place and time than to be told a set of facts about that place.

The story of the three kingdoms reminds us that stories are what distinguish us from other living beings – stories make us human. The nature of a life is that it’s a story.

Story is thus a mode of knowing--one of the primary ways in which we think and construct meaning from our experiences. Story captures the richness and nuances of human life, accommodating the ambiguity and complexity of situations in the multiplicity of meanings inherent to any story (Carter, 1993). Although traditionally thought is seen as an instrument of reason, there are forms of thought that are narrative in nature rather than logical. Barbara Hardy (1968) believes that story is a primary act of mind,

For we dream, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative. In order to really live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future. (p.5)

Our views of the world are a web of interconnected stories; a distillation of all the stories we have shared. We connect to these interconnected past stories in order to understand new experiences (Rosen, 1986). This web of stories becomes our interpretive lens for new experiences so that story is our means of constructing the world, making meaning of our lives, and creating funds of knowledge.

Rosen (1986) also points out that the distinction between expository text and narrative text and between theories and stories is an artificial one. He argues that theories are just bigger stories. Scientists, for example, create a theory by using current information to tell a story that provides an explanation of a natural phenomenon, such as black holes. They change their stories over time as new information and perspectives become available. A story is thus a theory of something, what we tell and how we tell it reveals what we believe (Carter, 1993).

Stories of the past are particularly significant in framing our thinking about the world. Milton Meltzer (1981), the author of many nonfiction history books on social issues, argues that history is memory, consisting of stories about our past that provide us with a sense of humanity. Without these stories of the past, we are nothing, adrift and unable to compare and contrast our current experiences with the past in order to make sense of those experiences. We are locked in the current moment, deprived of memory, and so blinded from understanding the present. Meltzer argues that governments in totalitarian countries thus outlaw the collective memory. In our society, we neglect it, and so fail to see ourselves as part of a larger continuum of life that stretches far behind us and far ahead as well. We need stories of the past to locate ourselves and to envision a reason to take action for social change to create a better world. Without the stories of the past, we are unable to see the possibility of change.

The ways in which we create and tell stories are culturally-based. Our human need to story our experiences may be universal but there is no one way to tell stories (Bruchac, 2003). Our stories are always intertextualized and interwoven with the stories that exist within our own cultures both in content and in the style and structure of the telling. All children come to school with stories, although the types of stories that they are familiar with and the ways in which they tell stories may be quite different from school norms. Shirley Brice Heath (1983), for example, found that children coming from a particular African American community had learned to tell fanciful stories in order to get adult attention and to aggressively push their way into conversations. These children were viewed as rude and as telling “tall tales” at school, a misunderstanding of the cultural context of their homes and stories by teachers. The challenge for teachers is not to judge children by what they are lacking, but instead evaluate their strengths related to the stories they are bringing to school from their families and communities. If the culture of the community is to enter the culture of the school, that community’s stories must enter as a valued form of making meaning.

Stories as Wisdom

Stories summon us to wisdom, strength, and delight and make the richness of imagination available to all of us. We engage in story to understand ourselves and our world as well as to envision a better world and to take action that makes a difference. Stories have the power to direct and change our lives and world—if we provide the time and space necessary for their role in meaning-making. Story is at the heart of who we each are as human beings. They are our memory and identity – “for in the stories could be found wisdom and in wisdom, strength.”


Bruchac, J. (2003). Our stories remember. Golden, CO: Fulcrum

Bruner, J. (1988). Research currents: Life as narrative. Language Arts, 65(6), 574-583.

Carter, K. (1993). The place of story in the study of teaching and teacher education. Educational Researcher, 22(1), 5-12.

Hardy, B. (1968). Towards a poetics of fiction: An approach through narrative. Novel: A

Forum on Fiction, 2(1), 5-14.

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Meltzer, M. (1981). Beyond the span of a single life. In B. Hearne (Ed.), Celebrating children’s

books (pp. 87-96). New York: Lothrop.

Myers, W. D. ((1995). The story of three kingdoms. Ill. A. Bryan. New York: HarperCollins.

Rosen, H. (1986). Stories and meanings. London: NATE.

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