First Person

The Power of Story in the Classroom

—Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
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There is something incredibly compelling about a well-told story. In fact, it is one of the most powerful tools we possess. For most of human history, oral stories were the primary way that knowledge and tradition were passed down through generations. But the modern classroom is often devoid of stories. Information is most often delivered through bland lectures and textbooks, only to be discarded.

As a high school history and English teacher in Michigan, I am always trying to connect my students’ learning to stories outside the classroom. I teach using many elements of project-based learning, but try to fuse the elements of a story into the subject matter of every unit. Every story must have an exposition, a beginning that starts the adventure.

Finding the Spark

When I met a refugee named Danysa through a local social-work agency several years ago, I asked if she would be willing to share her story with my students. I wanted them to learn more about Danysa’s experience and see what they could do to help refugees like her assimilate to the city they now call home.

Danysa was forced to escape to a refugee camp in Kenya during the Rwandan genocide, and lived there for years on rice and corn. When she arrived in Grand Rapids more than a decade later, she had never heard of snow. She’d never used a light switch or a microwave. For many refugees who come to the United States, struggling to adapt to the modern technological world is very common.

My students were moved by Danysa’s tale of survival. Her experience left them unsettled, introducing a conflict that disrupted their ordinary world and set them on a journey to solve it.

And as their teacher, I provided them with a space to do so. My classroom was no longer four walls where they learned history and language arts. Instead, it became a setting for a plot to unfold. The plight of local refugees and their struggles became much more real to them—so much so that they decided to take action.

The Plot Unfolds

Sometimes the tie between stories and projects is strong and seamless. Other times it takes creativity to connect the two. The first step of the planning process is to determine an interesting theme around curriculum standards.

I ask myself, "What is a major lesson I want my students to take away from this story?" Once I have a climax, I work backward. I try to devise what we need throughout the entire story, or unit, to get to that big moment and resolve the conflict—an authentic task for them to complete to learn the material.

After my students met Danysa, they were inspired to create tools for refugees to use during the transition to life in America, such as how-to flashcards, instructional videos, and cookbooks. They still wrote essays, read articles, and took tests, but it was not grades or even the learning that motivated their hard work. It was the fact that they were a part of an unfolding story with real conflict in a real setting.

They didn’t simply obtain and regurgitate information; they experienced the rising action of brainstorming about and creating the new tools. To help them understand the plot, we studied the world history of refugees and the industrial revolution through traditional methods like lectures and reading. At the end of the project, they presented their resources to a social-work agency that now uses the tools on a daily basis. My students felt the satisfaction of resolving the conflict in front of them—which included discussion and reflection about the effectiveness of their project.

The Science Behind the Story

Stories not only provide entertainment and connection; they have the power to help students absorb information in a lasting way. Research shows that story-centered learning makes knowledge gained in the classroom more memorable. A group of neuroscience researchers from Princeton University discovered a phenomenon called neural coupling. When a person hears a well-told story, his brain physically reacts in the same areas as the storyteller’s brain did when he had the actual experience. At a chemical level, one cannot tell the difference between the two brains after both have heard or experienced the story.

This is why tying the elements of story into any classroom is vital. All teachers must help students prepare for standardized tests, and using stories is key for that knowledge retention. Even after the test, the information is not forgotten, but seared into their brains for a lifetime. This is not to say traditional teaching methods need to be abandoned, but direct instruction and individual assignments can exist within stories to give meaning and purpose.

Inspired Learning

Many teachers struggle to make lessons exciting and engaging, myself included. But I found that when my students see themselves as heroes actively seeking a resolution to an actual problem, they develop in ways that previous students never did when I had them sit and listen to a lecture for 45 minutes.

Now, I hear that students voluntarily stay up late to meet deadlines and meet with their group members on weekends to put extra work into a project. I watch them take ownership of their learning. When students are empowered to create real change, they often rise to the occasion.

Stories move and shape us, transforming how we view the world, and engaging us in a way nothing else can—whether it’s ancient cave drawings, Homer’s The Odyssey, a work by Shakespeare, or The Hunger Games. Why not make your own class into one?

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