by Betty Ray
Once upon a time . . .
There were very special people. These were the bards, sorcerers, and magicians who conjured webs of intrigue and excitement; treachery and death; rebirth and forgiveness.
These people were our writers, filmmakers, musicians and folklorists — the keepers of our social and psychological well-being. Their words created our cultural narrative, guided us through adversity, and illuminated the darkest caverns of our collective subconscious. They helped us navigate to happily ever after.
Then . . .
Along came the internet. In the mid-nineties — the dawn of the internet — blogging software made it easy for anyone to publish their stories to a global audience. Today, we live in a world where the average first world teenager has more video production capacity in her pocket than all three TV networks circa 1955, combined.
So our stories – our cultural mythologies – which were once the domain of a handful of beknighted, priestly, or just plain lucky people, are now in the hands of the masses.
This democratization of storytelling engages our kids at new levels. But it also means that everyone is a storyteller. And when everyone is a storyteller, our cultural narrative begins to shift from a sweeping epic hero’s journey to “here’s me @ the zoo.”
Now, when it comes to a cultural narrative, the sheer volume of “me at the zoo” videos is enough to make a literate person initiate preparations for the impending apocalypse. These stories are often narcissistic, badly shot, cruel, or just plain dumb. For every 1,000 Greatest Proposal Ever!!! videos there are 300,000 #epic fails. If this is our cultural narrative, we’re clearly doomed.
But before you flee to rural Montana and stockpile canned goods, consider that there may be another way of looking at this: Maybe our cultural narrative is shifting, and these DIY videos are the baby steps?
I believe that our 21st century heroes need different skills and abilities than those of yore, and thus our cultural narratives must change. We need narratives that helps us orient in an increasingly complex world. We need flexibility to deal with ever-changing social and technological landscapes.
We need to reframe the terms of the battle from “us vs. them” to “where do we share a common goal, and how can we collaborate to create something bigger than each of us?”
I am not advocating that we give up Homer or Star Wars; it is critical that students are exposed to meaningful heroics and story so they know what they look like. But, as educators, we can build upon these great works of literature – and deepen students’ empathy – by helping them to design their own stories and place themselves in the role of protagonist.
When students are their own protagonists, they get first-hand experience reflecting on their choices, identifying and overcoming their own obstacles, and knowing their own strengths and limitations.
They get first-hand experience being a hero.
Of course, the social storyweb creates all kinds of new quests for our young heroes. We have new issues of identity and digital citizenship. (What is “real”? How do I know whom I can trust?) And as our ability to self-express becomes limitless, our privacy is increasingly negotiable. (Is it convenient or creepy that Google and Facebook know more about me than my husband does?) And, finally, what can we do together to make the world a better place?
Our young heroes of today need new experiences, myths and tools to help them be successful in the new realities of the 21st century, So this is a call to all of us who write, who teach writing and work with writers: How might we help kids to take a more active role in shaping their own heroes journeys?