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Storytelling in the Classroom as a Teaching Strategy

Jordan Catapano

 

President Obama spoke at my college once, the night before he was elected into congress. Upon reaching the room containing the overflow crowd where I was standing, he had but a few minutes left to speak—so he told us a story. Even though he had just spent the last 40 minutes speaking to another room full of supporters, it was interesting that out of all the things he could’ve talked about, he chose to speak from the heart.

And it’s strange—I’ve noticed that many of my former students will come back and ask, “Do you still tell your class that story about …?”

Of all the knowledge that I attempted to instill in their minds, those goofy stories I told from time to time seemed to leave the longest-lasting impression.

There’s something about stories that stick with us. Something about an organized narrative teaching strategy that serves as a unique kind of glue, lingering with us long after the facts and formulas fade away. It’s exactly this kind of adhesive that I want to leverage for my own students, weaving the skills and information they need together with the magic of storytelling. But despite how magnetic these teaching strategy narratives may be, it can be difficult to pry time away from our busy day-to-day lesson plans. So how do we make it work?

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Teaching Strategies to Include Stories

Should we schedule time for it, or should it be organic? Should we attach requirements to storytelling, or simply allow it for fun? Honestly, there’s no right or wrong way to include them. Here are a few simple approaches you might take to include storytelling in your classroom:

Share your own stories, just for fun: Tell them about when you were their age, about times you failed, succeeded, or about memorable lessons you learned. This builds a strong connection between you and your classroom, letting them know that you can relate to them, and vice versa.

Use stories as introductions: Just as we encourage students to use attention-getting devices for their essays and speeches, we can use the same technique as educators. Begin class with an interesting story, but one that is relevant to the lecture’s focus.

Use stories as illustrations: When you’re hammering through a relatively difficult concept with your class, one easy way to explain it is to illustrate the concept with a story. When facts and figures won’t do, simple narratives sometimes can.

Tie storytelling to learning goals: We want our students to develop listening skills, and we can incorporate storytelling into the larger picture of achieving these outcomes.

Tell stories to engage reluctant learners: Some students experience difficulty connecting to drab textbooks or abstract concepts. However, those same learners typically have little struggle connecting to stories. Through telling stories, you make life and learning more relevant, giving reluctant learners a better angle of engagement.

Types of Stories

There are several different types of stories you could potentially tell in your classroom. Harbor knowledge of each type, so if you’re lacking in one kind, you can replace it with another.

  • A true story from your own life.
  • A true story from the life of someone you know, like a friend, family member, or neighbor.
  • A true story from the news or a current event.
  • A story that took place sometime in history.
  • A fictional story, with made up characters or events.
  • An “Imagine if …” story that sets up a hypothetical situation.

Of course, there are various genres and styles of storytelling, but the above list represents the essential variety that you might incorporate into the classroom.

Why Storytelling Works

In its simplest form, storytelling remains a powerful element of communication, with the narrative being equally as compelling as essays and textbooks. They humanize learning. It offers us the opportunity to connect to like-minded characters, or see the world literally from within someone else’s skin. Stories touch our emotions and make us laugh, cry, fear, and get angry—a sharp contrast to a plain old presentation.

Plus, no matter how organized or detailed a textbook might be, there’s something about the shape of a narrative—the exposition, the problem, the quest for a solution, the resolution—that resonates with our mental makeup.

Have Students Tell Their Stories

As you incorporate your own stories, recognize how they connect with students on a different level. But why keep the power of storytelling to yourself? You can also actively help students become their own powerful storytellers, too!

Allow students to write, illustrate, and tell their own tales. The way you incorporate this may vary depending on your curricular goals, but it is essential that children understand how to tell a good story and how this relates to effectively accomplishing an objective. Students can use stories in their essays and argumentation—they can help in remembering processes or formulas, or connecting events with one another. The opportunities are endless, and easy to employ.

How do YOU incorporate storytelling in the classroom? Share your ideas with us in the comments below!

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Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com