Feed on

Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. – Indian Proverb

Stories are used in so many ways to teach and persuade, whether that be through fairy tales, fables, books, movies, etc. While our culture is such that we no longer sit around the campfire listening to our elders, there is still a special place in our hearts for good storytellers. Sermons, TED talks, political addresses, these are all examples of modern day stories that do more than just share information; they change us. A good story engages us, it touches us deeply and can stay with us for years and throughout all of this it shapes how we see ourselves and the world. Compare this to a typical lecture where the students are itching to leave and are often only paying attention to ensure they can remember the information for the next quiz or test and it raises the question, how can we bring the power of stories effectively into our classes?

Incorporating storytelling into a class can be done primarily in two ways. The easier method is doing it from the front of the classroom and taking the responsibility upon yourself. However, with some preparation, having your students sharing their own stories is doable and can help form a strong sense of community within a classroom. This post will briefly explore some helpful suggestions for implementing storytelling in either setting.

Storytelling: Instructor

So that we are on the same page, it will be helpful to remind ourselves of the key elements of any good story. As we go through this list, examples from a variety of fields will be provided.

  • Characters: Who are your characters? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What relationships exist between the characters? In a history class on the World Wars the characters could be the various countries with the relationships being the numerous treaties and pacts that existed.
  • Challenge: What challenge are the characters facing? Why is this story or topic important? An economics class could look at the 2008 recession and examine the challenges that needed to be overcome to prevent a larger collapse.
  • Motivation: Why are the characters behaving in a specific way? Why must they be the ones to face the challenge? While care must be taken, using motivation in a chemistry class can provide a helpful picture to new students. Intermolecular interactions can be initially described in an anthropomorphized way where a sodium atom is happy to give up its one valence electron to the cool atoms like chlorine and bromine so that they can both reach a noble state.
  • Setting: What is the backdrop of the story, how does this affect the characters and the story? A sociology class might examine The Communist Manifesto after first seeing how the industrial revolution has changed so much of society.
  • Obstacles: What is preventing the characters from solving the challenge? A biology or biochemistry course could examine the difficulties surrounding protein crystallization. The inspiration for this example comes from a short video entitled The Making of a Scientist.  
  • Climax: How do the characters overcome the obstacles, what transformations and events were necessary? A political science class could examine what events were ultimately necessary for an amendment to make in into the constitution.
  • Conclusion: This is the time to tie up the loose ends and draw a strong connection between the theme of the story and the lesson or topic of the class that you were trying to get across.

Now keeping these elements and examples in mind a few ways to complement a normal lecture with stories are presented.

  1. Case studies: Case studies are usually mini-stories that are focused on a key theme. They are the modern version of a fable and can be integrated into a class as an active learning exercise or made the focus of an entire lecture. A brief google search of “case studies in <insert topic>” should get you started with this activity.
  2. Role-playing:  Have the students act out portions of the story or historic event. This will turn them from passive into active learners, especially if they are encouraged to research the motivation for their specific character. This will work better for smaller classes where everyone can play a part and will take some amount of preparation.
  3. Lecture as a story: Depending on the course this suggestion could be difficult. The intent is not to add a story here or there to illustrate a point, but rather to tell the entire lecture as a story. One would begin by connecting the above story elements with the topic of the lecture and then instead of delivering a lecture, go through these steps spinning the story. Introduce the cast of characters, establish the challenge and the character’s motivations for taking on this challenge. Describe the setting and its importance and proceed to the obstacles and finally the climax. Throughout this, make use of suspense, foreshadowing, humor, and other narrative techniques to transport the students into the world your words are creating.

The above are just a few suggestions of how you as the professor can bring stories into the classroom. What follows focuses more on how to engage your students in this creative process.

Storytelling: Students

If the focus of the class has been changed to include more stories then asking students to contribute their own will not be as difficult. Papers lend themselves well to requiring story elements but there are other ways to get students involved in this endeavor.

  1. Alternate Ending: After introducing a topic or story in class, ask students to create their own alternate ending. Tell them the goal of their story should be to answer “What if?”, that is, their stories should explore how the world would differ if one key point were changed. If Archduke Ferdinand Francis was not assassinated, would the first World War still have occurred?
  2. Storytelling project: Have a storytelling project on an important concept in the class. Encourage the students to use something other than the written word to tell their story, e.g.  digital, verbal, visual. The Kaneb Center’s Technology Remix site has many helpful suggestions for non-traditional projects. Spend a class period (or a portion), either as a whole, or in groups allowing the students to share their creations.
  3. Story Analysis: Have students perform a story analysis of a topic related to but not covered in the class. Have them identify the key characters and their motivation, describe the setting, and explore the obstacles and how they led to the climax and ultimate conclusion.

If you get stuck as you begin to incorporate these elements of storytelling into your lectures, classes, and assignments there are many sources of inspiration to draw upon. Open a well-written book and instead of reading for narrative, reflect on how the author is describing the story. If you prefer listening to stories, there are a variety of fantastic programs that are continually producing engaging stories, examples include This American Life, TED Talks, and many others. Finally, the Kaneb center is tentatively planning a workshop on storytelling in the classroom for spring 2016 so keep your eyes open for our spring workshop list and keep telling stories.


Storytelling in Teaching by  Melanie C. Green

Storytelling as Pedagogy by Janel Seeley

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