Storytelling as an Instructional Tool

By Liz Prather, CCIRA 2020 Featured Speaker

We are “storytelling animals,” says author Jonathan Gottschall (2012) in his book of the same title. “Story is the glue of human social life.” In every known human culture,
storytelling binds communities with gossip, warning, and instruction. Stories help us make sense of our existence.

Writer and teacher Joy Hakim (2010) has spent a lifetime writing textbooks that sound like storybooks. During her acceptance speech for the 1997 James A Michener Prize in Writing, she said, “It is the storyteller’s job to make the world around us understandable. Think of teaching and storytelling as entwined disciplines and you will bring coherence and inspiration to your classrooms. Finding the story in a subject is to discover its essence. If we can train our students to pattern the world into stories we can turn them into powerful, analytical learners.”

This quote has been one of my instructional north stars since discovering it, and I have come to depend on storytelling as one of the most powerful instructional tools at my disposal. Developing the art of storytelling costs nothing, requires no real training, and can be impromptu.

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Photo by Mike Erskine via Unsplash

So how can a teacher use this most basic of communicative stances in the
classroom to engage students? Here are three ways I use this potent tool.

1) Tell a story of your own struggle.
Introducing a writing mini-lesson with a story about my own writing process is
incredibly powerful. Telling a story from my own experience does a couple of things: it makes it permissible to talk about process as well as the product of writing; it shows students I’m vulnerable to the slippery, often frustrating nature of writing; and it shows them that writing is a valuable, worthy activity, not just something we do for school. It also gives me a certain amount of credibility if I’ve done something that I’m asking them to do. When I’m teaching students the rhetorical moves of an argumentative text, I share with them the letters I write to my legislative representatives that are, in essence, mini-arguments with claims, counter-claims, and evidence. I model my process, show them a real-world example of writing, and share my misgivings and successes with them. I tell them about what led me to write the letter and what I hope the response will be. Whether you teach Math or Agriculture or French, you can share with your students a story of your own struggle to master or even attempt the content and/or the skill you are asking them to attempt.

2) Tell a story that creates context for your content.
If I assign a reading to my students, I like to introduce the reading with a story about the author, and if I can find a story about the work that we are reading, even better. If we are studying James Baldwin, for example, telling the story of his love-hate relationship with America or his childhood or his family is a great place to start. With a little research, you can find many stories about the personal lives of writers and poets and how those events influenced their work. These human stories make the writer real to the students in a way that merely reading a work would not. Telling a story that provides context and engages my students with the writer as a person who may have experienced the same frustrations as they have as a writer.

3) Dedicate time in your classroom for storytelling.
One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill. My classroom has
a closet in the back. After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories. The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark. There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones. After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again. “We should do this every Friday,” somebody said. “Can we?”another student asked. “I like that idea,” I said. Telling stories to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to tell stories to each other can be an even more powerful one, both as a speaking and listening activity and a way to build community.

Gottschall, Jonathon. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.
New York: Mariner Books.

Hakim, Joy. 1997. Acceptance speech upon receipt of the 1997 James A. Michener
Prize in Writing. Accessed June 23, 2019. http://gos.sbc.edu/h/hakim.html

Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin. She is the author of Project-Based Learning: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose.

Author: CCIRAblog

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