Are You Telling Stories in the Classroom?

January 10, 2018

I’m not speaking of lying or delivering fake news, I’m talking about an actual story. Consider this: A story communicates something, by definition, and can entertain, amuse, delight, divert, provoke, offend, disturb, disappoint, but in all, a story can instruct. There’s a lot of background to storytelling—the what and how to use in lecture, but let’s first discuss the why.

There are five parts to a story: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. This is all fine and good, but a story delivered in the classroom, regardless of one of these single parts or its sum thereof, can be the spark to help students remember and recall information in a new way, and enable them to grasp the material. Stories can make a subject accessible and even interesting (even the required course everyone loves to hate). It can provide value, turn something abstract or obscure into something concrete.  It can transport something dull into something vibrant and stimulating. People live in stories, whether it be books, newspapers, movies, podcasts… Netflix binge-watching, anyone?  We aren’t just reading or watching or listening to people talk or observing colorful images dance across the screen, we are absorbing a story as it unfolds. Humans want to be intrigued, reeled in, tightly wound with no place to go but further in.  We get to consume, hear a tale unravel. We get to learn something.

I like to avoid phrases like “meaning-making,” but that’s what a story can do for students—it allows them to listen, learn, remember. It doesn’t have to be all the material or even just one part, it can be some tangential story about what happened to you in the line at the grocery store last week or what you thought of the new Star Wars movie or that weird thing that happened to you in your sophomore year of college. Just draw the association, make it connect. If you’re still not convinced, read these five short and succinct reasons why you should incorporate storytelling in your classroom.

1)    Stories make a subject relatable and accessible to students. It can pave the way, introduce a concept, invite in, and most importantly, engage. (your students may have their own stories to share, too.)

2)    Stories can pique interest, or demonstrate relevance, in a subject that students usually dislike, or worse, find mind-numbing. A story can also spike interest on the first day of class, setting the tone, or it can liven up the slump that hits in the middle of the semester.

3)    Stories build meaning-making (there’s that word again), helping students to recall the information later.  How many times have you recalled some bit of information because it was delivered through the device of a story?

4)    Stories forge, or repave, paths to material that students already thought they knew, making way for new perspectives, connections, and experiences to develop through someone else’s story.

5)    Stories make a subject approachable. This is different than making a subject accessible, in that you can gingerly erect a bridge across a formerly dark abyss of the unknown, guiding your students into new territory, or a particular idea, or a complicated issue. A storyteller in the classroom is like the subject-whisperer to the weary student.

So how do you tell a story?  How do you engage your students in material they need to learn in your course via relevance, perspective shifting/building, remembering?  Did you know you are probably already telling stories? This blog is meant to help you make conscious what you are already doing subconsciously, and therefore have greater control over how you use stories to foster student learning. Give your students the opportunity to connect to the material in a logical way, an emotional way, through someone else’s lens, as you deliver your next lecture—or, in other words, the next time you spin a tale.