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Stories stick with students

Do you want to connect with students? Consider how storytelling can bridge the gap.

6 min read




Recently, two educators that I had not seen in over a year asked me about my tomatoes. I was taken aback because I couldn’t figure out how they knew I grew tomatoes.

It turned out that they had previously attended my presentation about the importance of school culture when considering bullying prevention. I had used a story about the difference between my brother-in-law’s tomatoes (planted in fertile soil) and my tomatoes (planted in depleted soil). His tomatoes were more plentiful than mine despite the fact that I used all the latest gardening techniques. I used this story to convey the idea that school culture (rich soil) was more important than any program in reducing and preventing bullying. A year later those at that presentation remembered who I was, my story and the concept it conveyed. 

I shouldn’t have been surprised: stories stick while bullet points quickly fade away.

Storytelling, however, is not a prominent feature of the pedagogy in our schools. Students are captive audiences who have to sit and listen, so educators have not had to engage and sustain their attention. In addition, teachers often feel that their stories are at best entertaining diversions from the main objectives of their lessons. Most instructional protocols for evaluating lessons do not emphasize the use of stories. Nor will you find many teacher preparation courses on storytelling. Ironically, there are such courses in MBA programs. I also doubt that storytelling is on the list of “evidence based” best practices. This lack of institutional recognition and endorsement, however, should not prevent educators from using storytelling as a powerful tool for teaching and connecting with students.

So with the summer break soon upon us, I propose that educators consider recollecting, recording and strategically assigning pertinent stories to the key concepts of the content that they teach to their students.

Here are some compelling reasons for investing the time in such an enterprise:

Stories are how we make sense of the world. We are wired for hearing and telling stories. There is research demonstrating greater brain activation for stories than for information alone. Our identity itself is the story we tell ourselves about who we are; it is our version of our past experiences tied together into a personal narrative.

Stories have stood the test of time for distilling the wisdom of the ages. Parables, myths, legends, fairytales and fables have contained wisdom and knowledge passed from generation to generation. These stories when heard at different stages of our lives reveal new layers of meaning over time. They are reference points for navigating our lives.

Stories provide an organizing lens and framework for concepts and ideas. Since stories are easier to remember than just facts, figures or abstract concepts, they are an entrance point for understanding new ideas or previously unconnected concepts.

Stories humanize and connect teachers to students. Teachers and adults in general can appear to be “finished products” to students. The best way to reveal their struggles and mistakes is by sharing personal stories.  When students feel connected to teachers, they are more open to learning from them. Genuine stories offer hope and inspiration to students.

Stories engage the whole person-heart and mind integrated. The term “social emotional learning” is a redundancy. Learning should involve a whole person’s heart and mind. Curiosity, passion, frustration, discovery, persistence are not intellectual experiences, they are human and personal adventures. This is the type of learning that lives within us rather than the type that dissipates after the test or course is over.

Recommendations for incorporating stories into lessons:

Be intentional. Finding useful stories can’t be left to chance. I have written three professional books and challenged myself to think of a relevant story to begin every chapter. At first I didn’t think I could find enough stories, but I always did. I made sure to give myself time to reflect and made sure I carried a pocket notebook and a pen with me. The right story always emerged over time.

Think small. Sometimes we are deterred from looking for stories because we think that they have to be compelling ones. Sometimes the best stories are simple non-dramatic ones because they are common to what every person experiences.  It is the connection to ideas that makes them “stick” with our audience.

Practice. Thinking of and connecting stories to ideas and concepts is a skill that can be cultivated over time. Since our lives are stories (once the here and now is past), we have an abundance of them at our disposal. We can learn to find them and connect them to the right ideas.

Take it one at a time over time. Don’t think that every lesson requires a story. Thinking that way can be deterrence to using them. Set a modest goal of one story per week or even a month. Teaching is long career so adding a few per year will give you quite a collection over time.

Ask others for their stories to add to your collection. Other people’s stories can be used besides your own. You can tell the story of how you heard the story. Interactions with students are a great source of stories.

Teaching and learning is ultimately the process of people working together to discover the meaning and purpose of their lives. Sharing our stories and the stories that comprise our world help us see and understand our differences and our common humanity. 

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin)and the picture bookOkay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).


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