Sticky Storytelling & Why It Matters for Learning

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We’ve all had teachers or professors that could enrapture their students. They could make even dull and complex topics seem interesting and approachable. But as we know as educators, that gift is not so easily done. Let’s push our fixed mindsets aside, and make a commitment to being better educational storytellers for the betterment of our students and our practice.

using storytelling in class

The Power of Personal Stories

I use a story from the very beginning of the quarter to create a trusting and authentic bond between me and my students. This isn’t meant to be egotistical, rather, it started when the department head asked each of the faculty members to create a statement of intersectionality, which illuminated how our cultural backgrounds and experiences influence who we are as educators. 

When we tell our stories, it’s natural for details about ourselves to emerge in the story. In fact, it’s essential since moments of transformation and realization are part of good storytelling. However, it can be uncomfortable for several reasons, e.g., how private of a person am I? Will my stories get me in trouble because of political winds? How will my students receive this information, and is it indulgent or truly useful to their learning and growth as humans? 

I pushed these questions aside for my college class since it was a safe space and decided to make a Prezi so I could visually better tell my story. I wanted my students to understand the connection between my story and who I am as a teacher. As a gay man who grew up in a fairly conservative small town in the Midwest, I thought it was important for my students to see where I came from and the issues I faced as a student in school and as an educator in the profession.

The first year I told my story, the students clapped at the end of the presentation. Who knew? One of my students said she never experienced such an authentic and heartfelt presentation from a teacher before. Evidently, the next day they talked about it in another class, some saying that they had never had an LGBTQAI teacher before…that they knew of anyway. Research has documented that telling one’s personal experiences in classrooms has enormous benefits for students who may feel alienated or marginalized or long to have a greater personal connection (Gay, 2018). These areas touch on the foundation of learning – trust, authenticity, connection, etc. And without that connection, many of your students will struggle.

storytelling in class

Telling Your Stories

Stories are personal and powerful for you and your students. And as we come out of the pandemic, they are an essential part of making connections within your classroom. As an article by Vaness Boris from Harvard Business Publishing pointed out and a similar article in Educational Leadership highlighted, storytelling gives students a sense of belonging and provides cognitive anchors. It does the same for students who tell their stories while also providing an opportunity to showcase their cultural uniqueness and linguistic gifts (December, 2017). Consider your storytelling as an opportunity to show your thought processes, perhaps even modeling the type of thinking you want them to engage in. 

Ideas For Storytelling in Your Curriculum

There is a place in just about any curriculum or classroom for storytelling, whether through your lessons or in the work of your students. In this video, I introduce this concept and outline potential starting points:

In addition, here are some ideas for how to use storytelling as part of your instructional repertoire. While I directed these prompts to you and your experience, they can easily be transformed into questions about someone else. Use the prompts below to build your storytelling muscle.

SubjectEducator Story StartersPoint of Realization or Transformation
Language
What has been your relationship with reading or writing? How has it changed from when you first started to read or write to now? How did you grow? Describe these “phases” in rich detail. What does that say about you and our culture? 

Think about a theme in a piece of literature, e.g., life & death, growth, rebirth, economic disparity, socio-political issues, race, and equity, etc. How has the theme shown up in your life?

What does the story say about the role of reading and writing in our lives? In your life?



How have you grown in how you perceive and respond to a particular theme?
Social Studies
Reflect about the first time you did something related to a social studies topic, e.g., voting or running for an office, visiting a historical site, engaging in a cultural celebration, etc. Describe the what, when, where, why, and how. Who was there? What were you thinking at the time? Was it special in some way? How?

Think about a conversation you had about a controversial topic. How did you feel? Did you lose it or did you hold it together? What spurred the conversation? Who was it with? What transpired and how did it end?

How did the “first-time” event affect you? What did it teach you or others?





What did you realize about yourself in that conversation? What do you now understand about others?
Math
What has been your relationship with math? Did you ever struggle? What did that struggle look like? How did you overcome it?

What did your failure teach you about math and yourself? What might it tell others?
Science
Think about a scientific phenomenon related to your curriculum, e.g., What happens to animals when they die? How do planes fly? Where do puddles go?  What were your thoughts when you first experienced that phenomenon? Describe what you saw, smelled, heard, and felt. How did the story of that experience evolve?

What did you learn about yourself or others as a part of this experience? How did your learning grow? What do you think about it today? 
Art / Industrial Arts/ Family & Consumer Sciences
Reflect on an experience you’ve had in art, industrial arts, or family and consumer sciences, e.g., visiting a famous gallery, taking apart an engine or a machine, or eating a fabulous meal with your grandparents. What was exceptional about the experience? Describe richly the what, when, where, why, and how?

What did you learn about yourself or others? How does it inform who you are today?
Making Connections
What was your first day of kindergarten or freshman year of high school or university like? What were you thinking about? How did you feel? What was your nemesis or challenge? Describe the details and special things that happened that day. How was it different or unique?

What academic or social struggles you’ve had? What was challenging about it? What do you think was the source of that struggle? 

How did the first day turn out? How did it affect the rest of the year? What did you learn about yourself or others?



How did you grapple with it? How did it resolve? What did it teach you?

Elements of great storytelling

Grab their attention by making your presentation more interactive

The video and content bundle that accompanies this blog outline the various components of good stories whether written or spoken. And they also spotlight steps in which you as a teacher can begin telling stories to develop voice and agency in students and for nurturing a storytelling culture with your students regardless of subject area (Allyn, P, & Morrell, E. 2022; Young 2022).

Further, when considering tools to support storytelling, consider dynamic, visually inspiring means, as the ability to complement a story with compelling and engaging visuals will further its impact.

When teachers tell stories, students tell stories. It increases the connection to the teacher, and consequently, your students will thrive better academically and socially. What’s your next story about? 

Supplementary Resources:

References:

Boris, V. (2017). What makes storytelling so effective for learning. Harvard Business Publishing Blog.

Allyn, P. & Morrell, E. (2022). The art of storytelling. Educational Leadership, 80(3), 39-45.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Young, J. (2022) How to help teachers tell their stories – And why it matters. Edsurge Podcast.

Paul’s bio:

Paul Teske, a Prezi Teacher in Residence, has worked in education for over 25 years as a teacher and in education technology companies. He is the founder of Education Impact Exchange and an adjunct professor at the University of Washington. He taught English Language Arts and ran after-school technology programs for K-8 students. Paul holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Washington.

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