Winning the Story Wars for Congregational Learning
Our world is badly in need of solutions in so many spheres – economic, social and environmental to name just a few. The ability to dream up and spread these solutions lives or dies on the ability to tell great stories that inspire people to think differently. Nothing is more urgent than that right now. Winning The Story Wars, Jonah Sachs
How are we doing in the Story Wars of Congregational Education? Until we craft a new story that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue we can’t break down the limitations of imagination. Without imagination, without lifting our eyes to hear what’s possible, we’re in mitzrayim-a narrow place.
You can’t just tell a new story. You have to earn one. In New York we are earning a new story: one life at a time. So at our Yachdav yearly Gathering of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations, in May, at the City Winery, each of the fifty congregations who have created new models of Jewish education are telling the story of one person or one family whose life has changed because of the powerful educational and communal experiences they have had.
We’re telling the story in a way that sticks. Anna Marx, the media and marketing project director for our department, gave us a template for story telling used by the experts in story changing. The template, known as the hero’s journey, is regularly used in literature, and advertising to show struggle and triumph. That’s the key, to tell the story so the reader can experience the lows and highs too.
Try it with your team. What’s the struggle and the triumph? What’s enabled the person to overcome the challenges?
And this is a story about changing people’s lives now. We don’t know where a child or family will be in five or ten years. At least I’m going to humbly say I don’t. But we can say over six months or a year, we know someone well enough, we’ve been involved deeply enough by inviting/accompanying them on an adventure-we've supported them and watched them grow so that they are richer than when it all started. That’s a story we are achieving. That’s the way to win the Story Wars.
Below is an explanation and example of the elements of the Hero’s story or
This is the world your learner lives in. In this template, something isn’t right with the
world, but your learner doesn’t yet know he can change that. So you are asking yourself,
what is the challenge this learner is facing in their lives?
Example from literature: Harry Potter sees injustice in the world but doesn’t
believe he has any power to fight it.
Example in the real world: Seth is in middle school, on the verge of adolescence,
but has not yet had opportunities to mark his independence. He has heard about
“social action” but doesn’t believe he is big enough or able to help others.
CALL TO ADVENTURE & MEETING THE MENTOR
The next part of telling the story of your learner includes something or someone enticing
your learner to go on a journey – a challenge – that she will most likely refuse at first. The
mentor or teacher will offer her a gift (like learning or a skill, or an experience) for the
Example from literature: Harry meets Hagrid (mentor) who invites him to attend
Hogwarts (the journey) and takes him to buy a wand (the gift).
Example in the real world: Seth is invited to join a Social Action model (the
journey). He doesn’t want to go; it interferes with his sports practice. He meets the
Coalition Educator (mentor) who hands him a journal (the gift) – the tool he will use
to reflect on his experiences and relate them to the Jewish learning happening
between service projects.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
The next phase of the story includes how the learner leaves her comfortable Ordinary
World behind and cross over into the “special world” where the journey begins. xample in Literature: Harry Potter must rush through a seemingly solid wall to
enter Platform 9¾ and then takes a train to the mysterious Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry is nervous; he wonders if he is the only person on
the train that has never experienced magic before.
Example in the real world: Seth’s mother drops him off in an unfamiliar place, not
the classroom where he went to Sunday school, but a public school in need of great
repair, a place very different from his own school grounds. He feels uncomfortable
here, not sure what to make of the experience.
Here is the meat of the story. What challenges does the learner face? What must he do that
enables growth? Note that the learner must do the act of maturing, the mentor/teacher and
only support him on the own journey.
Example in Literature: Harry is sure that someone has a dangerous object (the
Sorcerer’s Stone) and must be stopped. He spends a long time working out where
the stone is hidden. Once he solves the puzzle, no grownup wizards are available to
help him. So, he and his friends bravely enter a dangerous and difficult labyrinth of
magical obstacles to try to stop the villain before it’s too late.
Example in the Real World: Guided by his Coalition Educator, Seth visits many
sites where people are in need of help – a school in need of
repair, a soup kitchen, a child care center at a battered women’s
shelter. The amount of need and despair in the world become
overwhelming. He feels small and helpless, but determined to be a
part of repairing the world. Seth knows more about the world now
and is beginning to learn actions that can make a difference.
Coming to the end of the telling of the story: What will your learner bring back at the end of
her journey? The struggle will ultimately lead to a new kind of gift or skill( lived action,
belief, relationships, knowledge), one that she can take with her in life.
Example in Literature: Harry defeats Voldemort, brings back the stone, and is
rewarded for his bravery with the House Cup. His true treasure is friendship and
self-worth, both of which he had never experienced previously in his life.
Example in the Real World: Seth chooses to continue going to the day care center
where the children love to sing with him. He continues to volunteer outside of the ocial Action model, on his own, without his Coalition Educator. He no longer feels
overwhelmed by the needs in the world; he feels an important part of its repair.
And Seth is beginning to feel a new confidence.
THE ROAD BACK
Now the story ends: Your learner’s journey is represented by a circle. The end is his/her
return to the Ordinary World. But, now he is wiser and more mature. The Ordinary World
feels a little smaller than when he started.
Example in Literature: Harry rides the train back to Kings Cross station where his
family waits for him. He feels self-assured and secure with friends and magical skills.
His family that once seemed evil now looks timid and silly.
Example in the Real World: When he explains to his friends
where he goes on Thursday afternoons, Seth says, “This is what
it means to be Jewish. I cannot solve all the world’s problems,
but I am a part of making the world a better place.”